Sharman conducts the drills with a detachment typical of his coaching style. He rarely yells—except in the locker room after a loss—he almost never swears and his body movements have a controlled, icy air about them. Even during the emotional peaks of a tight game he never gestures wildly. Restricting his displays of frustration to a quick shake of a fist close in front of his chest or a gentle clap of his hands, he more resembles Evangelist Billy Graham giving a sermon than he does his more expressive fellow coaches.
Sharman's detachment and demands have made him unpopular with many players and he knows it. "I was not hired to win a personality contest," he said last year while coaching the Utah Stars. "I was hired to win basketball games." Although Sharman on social occasions is usually nothing short of charming with the press and the public, a few of the Stars now remember him variously as a "cold fish," "tyrant," "tactical psycho" and "slave driver."
Once, after playing a night game in New York, Sharman changed the Stars' travel plans and put everybody on a bus for a two-hour ride to New Jersey to make a 7 a.m. flight to Kentucky. It was the only way he could get his team into Louisville in time for a practice before the game. Those predawn wake-up calls irked some Stars—but that was the only time last season that they defeated the Colonels in Kentucky. The results are what count; even the most critical of the players he left behind in Utah will admit that Sharman "is a coaching genius."
Chamberlain has met up with geniuses before and he outlasted every one of them. In the past coaches have been rated on how well they "handled" Wilt, but this new relationship with Sharman seems more an accommodation by both men. Sharman listens to his center's suggestions and respects him as an old pro, and Chamberlain obeys Sharman's rules. Perhaps more than for any other player the morning meetings are taxing for Wilt, who rarely is able to fall asleep until almost dawn and for years has gotten most of his rest during daylight hours. Even though he has openly disputed the usefulness of the game-day practices, Chamberlain has been neither absent nor late for any of them, a record for good attendance he has rarely matched before.
"I was concerned about my relations with Wilt in that I hoped the things I thought were important and those he thought were important would not clash." Sharman says. "Before the season I met with Wilt, Jerry and Elgin and got their suggestions. I respect their ideas because they are experienced professionals. The only thing I discussed with Wilt that we didn't see eye to eye on was the morning practices. I told him if I had a choice we wouldn't practice at all, but I didn't know any other way to get things done right. I sincerely would like to make an exception for him, but I can't. I'm aware of his sleeping problem, but we often discuss strategy for the night's game at the meetings and he has to be in on that. I have told him and the rest of the players that any time they don't want to exercise all they have to do is tell me and they won't have to. But they must still come to the morning meeting."
Even Wilt appreciates the Lakers' quick success under Sharman. With Elgin Baylor nudged into retirement by the Los Angeles management after it was determined that his often-injured legs had lost their spring and quickness. Chamberlain was named the Laker captain. Early in the winning streak—which began the night young Jim McMillian took Elgin's place in the starting lineup Sharman was undecided whether to hold a practice the day following a 40-point victory over Philadelphia. He polled the players. And the players told him to ask Chamberlain. "Yes, I think we ought to practice" was Wilt's unexpected verdict.
"I don't like all this talk about how I'm playing only because of Bill Sharman." Chamberlain said last week. "I've always done what's been necessary on any team I've been on. People tend to forget that when I was with Philadelphia we compiled a great record and I sometimes took 30 shots a game. Sonic games now I only lake five or six. but it's a different era and a different team. I'm just doing what's needed."
Another long-held assumption has been that Chamberlain could not provide the maneuver so essential to a last break—a good outlet pass. A quick release of defensive rebounds is mandatory in that style of offense, but it has rarely been part of Wilt's game. His previous coaches resisted the fast break, preferring to move slowly enough so that Chamberlain could set up in the post where patterns would evolve around him. "The outlet pass was something I had to be very conscious of earlier this season," Wilt said. "It was a change of style for us then, but it has become second nature now."
Once Chamberlain releases the ball, he almost never touches it again. When the Laker fast break succeeds, he usually remains standing in the defensive area of the court. Even when Los Angeles settles into its patterns, Wilt handles the ball far less frequently than in past years, when the Laker offense consisted mainly of throwing the ball into the post, letting Chamberlain wave it around in one hand for five or 10 tedious seconds and then throw it back outside for West to take a jump shot.
Los Angeles' new scrambling style also has taken shots away from West, who was out with a sprained ankle during the team's three losses and thus remains personally undefeated so far this season. Jerry leads the league in assists for the first time in his career but no longer heads the Los Angeles scorers. Early in the season McMillian, then playing as Baylor's substitute, topped the Lakers. He has since dropped to third with a 19.5-point average, but his 41-point outburst last week against Philadelphia led Los Angeles from 17 points behind to its 16th straight win.