The Men who Led the Lakers
Bill van Breda Kolff: 1967-69
Since the Lakers came to Los Angeles in 1960, two people that never set foot on the actual basketball court stand out as constantly impactful contributors.
The first is that of legendary broadcaster Chick Hearn, who called his first Lakers game in 1960 and 3,338 consecutive regular season contests from 1965 to 2001 with his colorful, insightful and unique style of play-by-play that taught so many to love the game. Hearn called his last game on June 12, 2002, as L.A. defeated New Jersey for a third straight championship.
The second name, Bill Bertka, remains with the team to this day as the Director of Scouting/Basketball Consultant. He personally worked alongside all but three of the 13 coaches in L.A. history, beginning as a scout in 1968, and then as an assistant coach from 1981 to 2001. Bertka possesses an absolute encyclopedic knowledge of not just Lakers franchise history but also basketball in general; if you like basketball, it’s extremely hard to find someone more fun to speak with.
With Bertka’s insight driving us along, we continue our Lakers History series on the team’s head coaches with Bill "Butch" van Breda Kolff.
BILL VAN BREDA KOLFF: 1967-69
After Fred Schaus stepped away from the sideline to become the Lakers general manager in 1967, he hired Bill van Breda Kolff to take over head coaching duties. Known by his nickname, “Butch,” van Breda Kolff played for the New York Knicks for four seasons before moving on to coach beginning in 1952 at Lafayette College. He coached at Hofstra from 1955-1962 and Princeton from 1963-67, bringing Princeton to the Final Four in 1965.
A scout at the time, Bill Bertka recalled the philosophical hoops differences between Schaus and van Breda Kolff.
“The interesting part was that Shaus was a fast break coach, but van Breda Kolff ran the Princeton offense, which was a lot different from the run-and-gun game,” recalled Bertka.
The Princeton offense involved a great deal of player movement and ball movement in the half court, with backdoor cuts, interchangeable parts and players that could all handle the ball, pass and shoot.
The team surprised some in van Breda Kolff’s first season, utilizing the versatile trio of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich to win 52 games to 30 losses, good enough for the Western Division championship, before yet again losing to Bill Russell and the Celtics in the NBA Finals.
Schaus saw his team lose to a dominant big man as it had throughout the 1960’s, and as Bertka described, owner Jack Kent Cooke wasn’t thrilled. He wanted Wilt Chamberlain, which would seem to be the obvious, and natural, conclusion if the massive and skilled Wilt were available. But one man wasn’t convinced.
“Coach van Breda Koff wasn’t totally in favor of it because he wanted to have an open post,” said Bertka. “They liked running a lot of high post stuff and back door plays and moving without the ball, and he thought Chamberlain wouldn’t be his cup of tea.
“Chamberlain wasn’t going to be coming out to the high post and handling the ball, which the post man has to do in the Princeton offense.”
Still, the Lakers were too talented for most everybody, winning 55 games and defeating the San Francisco Warriors and Atlanta Hawks to set up another Finals meeting with Russell’s aging Celtics.
The Lakers went up 3-2 in the series after a Game 5 win, dropped Game 6 on the road and returned to Los Angeles for a Game 7 matchup that may have erased all of L.A.’s Celtic nightmares … but it wasn’t to be. Many still remember that Chamberlain suffered an ankle tweak late in the game and came out while his replacement, Mel Counts, helped spark a rally to get the Lakers back in the game. Chamberlain famously asked van Breda Kolff to put him back in, but the coach decided to hang with the guys on the floor.
Boston held on to win, 108-106, yet again denying the Lakers the title, even as West became the first and only Finals MVP on a losing team behind his nearly 38 points per game.
“The owner was very upset,” said Bertka.
Jack Kent Cooke had, in fact, ordered thousands of balloons to be awaiting release in the Forum rafters, with flyers placed in each seat promising a victory. That would be the end of van Breda Kolff’s tenure in Los Angeles, though he'd remain in the NBA coaching ranks for several years.
LAKERS COACHING RECORD:
Regular Season: 107-57 (.652)
Playoffs: 21-12 (.636)
Total: 128-69 (.650)