Bill Bertka: The Long View of the Lakers Legend
"I can't think of anybody that's contributed more to the game."
- Pat Riley
Wilt Chamberlain was born in 1936.
D'Angelo Russell was born in 1996.
Bill Bertka has taught them both.
"He's got some style, man!" said Russell, the Lakers' No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. "You can tell he's been doing that workout for like 50 years. It was real old school."
Just a 19-year-old last June, Russell could not have known how far back Berkta's teachings went as the two went through a predraft workout at L.A.'s practice facility.
"There it is!" Bertka yelled. "When possession is gained, you explode out, but you run the lanes with intelligence, spacing and purpose! Let's go!"
The Lakers director of scouting/basketball consultant stood at midcourt that day in June, focused intently on Russell. Having watched film of the Louisville, Ky. native from his freshman year at Ohio State, Bertka was excited about his ability to both score and handle the ball, skills he thinks compliment Russell's true calling as a passer.
"His court vision and ability to push the ball and find the open man really jumped out," Bertka said later. "Shades of Magic."
Bertka put some extra emphasis on the word "shades," in deference to Johnson, the greatest point guard of all time, whom Bertka coached up as Pat Riley's trusted assistant during the majority of Magic's tenure.
And he'd know, because … well … Bertka has seen practically every player in NBA history.
Did I mention that Bertka is 88 years old?
"It's incredible what he's able to do at his age," said Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, who has soaked up Bertka's knowledge for 34 years like a sponge under the faucet of the basketball gods. "Here I am, a lot younger than him, leaning against a refrigerator, and he's standing out there conducting workouts, sometimes for six straight hours. Amazing."
"He was always the guy that players truly respected," said Riley, who entrusted Bertka as his top assistant during the Lakers' Showtime Era. "He was so passionate about basketball that you knew you were going to get his very best. He's gone down the grid: Wilt, (Jerry) West, Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), Shaquille (O'Neal), Kobe (Bryant), on and on – for the last 50 years. These are the all-time greats. He helped them get there."
Bertka lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Solveig, as he has since the 1960s, but he spends a lot of time in El Segundo at the Lakers' practice facility.
The Lakers allow Bertka the latitude to come in on Monday nights and leave on Thursdays, but during draft prep, they can't keep him out of the office.
"(Then), he's a full-time employee," said Kupchak. "Bill is incredibly valuable to what we want to get done in running workouts and evaluating these players. It's always great to sit down with somebody with that kind of knowledge that goes back 50 years on anything that relates to basketball."
How does an 88-year-old handle the NBA grind reserved mostly for people half or a third of his age?
"I feel great," he grins. "I feel gifted and appreciative for being in good health, because without that you don't have the energy to keep going. But I do have the fire to do it."
Fire for hoops has never been an issue for Bertka, who played Division I basketball at Kent State University. He used the GI Bill to fund his education upon his return from Europe after World War II before embarking on his hoops career. A true ‘Greatest Generation' man, Bertka volunteered to fight, but the end of the war in Europe coincided with his arrival in 1945, so he served in the communications rebuilding effort for two years in Salzburg, Austria.
A native of Akron, Ohio, Bertka coached at the high school level for one year in his home state before spending nine years coaching at three different colleges, including a stint at his alma mater from 1957-61. He was the youngest college head coach in America at age 30.
He left coaching in 1961 to take a job he coveted as the director of community recreation for the city of Santa Barbara, where he served for 11 years.
But being Bill Bertka, basketball was never out of his heart. ("His love of the game always took precedence," Kupchak explained.) And to coincide with his western move, he and his wife began a scouting service called "Bertka's Views." It started small, just scouting opponents for Ohio State University, but it grew exponentially over the years until most major colleges were using it.
Solveig got a lot of (rightful) credit for the scouting service over the years, as the only woman in the industry.
"She did everything," he said. "She excelled as an organizer and had a working relationship with nearly every coach and scout in the country."
With her planning and his hoops brain, Bertka got his big break. The year was 1967. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came out just as Bertka was officially in the NBA business he'd never leave.
Fred Schaus, the first Lakers coach in Los Angeles, asked Bertka to scout college players for the NBA draft.
Bertka's work with the franchise increased in 1971, when Bill Sharman – one of four men to be elected to the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach – began his five-year stint as Lakers head coach and wanted Bertka working with players and coaches while also doing advanced scouting of opponents.
Furthermore, Bertka and Sharman pioneered film study in the game: Bertka would chop up his scouting tapes of the three or four best plays of the opposing teams and put them on a film loop, to be shown to the players like an extended Vine from modern times. Every team now has two coaches devoted solely to gathering and breaking down scouting video on laptop computers.
"Sharman brought a lot of innovation to the pro game, including the advanced scouting, films and more," Bertka said, deferring credit. "He also introduced daily shootarounds for muscle memory, stretching in the locker room that nobody else was doing, and more."
Player development, advanced scouting and film study, all in many ways pioneered by Bertka, are now rampant in the NBA.
"There's no doubt about his passion, his love for the game of basketball and his love for the Lakers," said Riley. "He's a forever coach. He was never afraid to coach anybody from the star to the last guy on the team. And he'd be honest with you about what you needed to do."
Riley knows first-hand.
At Lakers training camp in 1971-72, Sharman told Riley that for him to have a chance at making the roster of what would become one of the greatest teams in NBA history, he had to be the best-conditioned athlete in camp.
It was time to call Coach Bertka.
"He not only helped me, but he put his finger in my chest and said: ‘Now you know what you have to do." recalled Riley. "He motivated me."Bertka and Riley hit the beach for sprints through the sand. Riley ran up and down stadium stairs, with Bertka pushing and cajoling until he was in better shape than the best athletes in the world.
Riley ran circles around his teammates in camp and made the team led by Wilt, West and Gail Goodrich that would win 33 straight games, and ultimately, the title.
In 1981, Jerry West persuaded the new owner of the team, the late and great Jerry Buss, to move Riley from the broadcast booth to the head coaching vacancy after Paul Westhead was fired 11 games into the season. As Riley tells it, Buss agreed on an interim basis, provided West guide Riley from the bench; Buss wanted an experienced coach to come in. But the Lakers went 12-2 and removed the interim label for Riley's first year.
Who was essential in that process for Riley?
"The first guy I called was Bill," said Riley. "He and I were very, very close."
Bertka had left his job in Santa Barbara and stopped working for the Lakers in 1972 to become president of Invest West Sports, where he held a minority ownership stake in the expansion New Orleans Jazz. He was also the Jazz GM, and eventually served as an assistant coach for Elgin Baylor, who'd requested Bertka's presence to help him learn the trade. But with Riley's call, Bertka would return to the Purple and Gold, never to leave again.
"He's the one that really taught me in the beginning of my career," said Riley, who amassed 1,210 regular season wins (63.6%), 171 playoff wins (60.6%) and five NBA titles. "I had some other mentors, but Bill was my only real coaching resource about how to game plan, put together practice plans and all those things."
Gary Vitti is in his final year as the head athletic trainer for the Lakers, a job he's held since 1984, giving him as good a view as anybody to the inner workings of the team.
"Bill was most important on many levels," said Vitti, pointing out that there was only one assistant coach on the bench at the time. "He had more experience than anyone on the team. It was by no mistake that of all the people in the NBA at the time, when Pat got the head job and could have hired anyone for such a coveted job, he called Bill."
Everything Bertka did was intended to make players, and thus the team, better. From Wilt to Kobe and Shaq, Bertka was always there to help athletes grow.
"I could tell you stories for hours about Bert," Bryant said. "He used to be up in the Forum before anybody else was there. When he'd hear a ball bouncing, he'd come down and rebound for me. I'd ask him stories about the good old days, and through those stories he'd teach me life lessons. So Bert's been an integral part of my development, especially in my first three years."
During an Inside the NBA broadcast on TNT in January, Shaq brought Bertka up unsolicited when discussing his own nomination to the Hall of Fame.
"Last shout out goes to a guy named Bill Bertka," said O'Neal. "What got me to the next level was not working out and drills and all that, but conversations I had with the great Bill Bertka. Cause I never really got a chance to converse with Kareem or Wilt Chamberlain, but Bill Bertka was the middle guy who used to tell me stories.
"Like, it's no secret that I liked to go middle first for the jump hook. One time I was getting doubled and I had the drop step but I wasn't really going to it. Bill called me into the office and showed me some tape on Wilt. He was like, "One time they were doing the same thing to Wilt and he went baseline and scored extra points, and the next game it opened back up." So Bill Bertka if you're watching this, I just want to say thank you very much."
Regarding O'Neal's appreciation, Bertka said: "For an old assistant coach to have a former great player thank him ... the ultimate reward."
Bertka didn't mind keeping players or coaches in check, either, as Riley relayed through a moment from the 1982 Finals against Philadelphia.
"In Game 1, we were down 30," Riley said. "We came out in the second half in a 1-3-1 zone defense that sparked a 42-6 blitz* with this defense we'd been working on, but hadn't deployed very much that season."
*Riley was close: it was actually a 40-9 run.
Riley said the media made a bit deal out of this brilliant coaching move, which got the Lakers home-court advantage in a series they would win 4-2.
"I'm up there patting myself on the back and what I did to create it and all that," he said. "Bertka calls me into his office, and he says, ‘I want to show you something.' There was a 40-year-old folder showing the 1-3-1 zone defense that someone invented in 1940."
They shared a laugh as Riley realized there was no type of defense Bertka hadn't seen before.
"Bill was always good for Pat because of the intensity that Pat had was balanced by the cool demeanor of Bill," said Vitti. "He was not emotional during emotional times. He stayed level headed and was always the voice of reason.
Bertka loves basketball so much that he even plays the game … still! He beat a Lakers basketball operations staffer half his age in a H.O.R.S.E. tourney with a variety of no-jump hook shots two years ago, and even helped a team representing West Virginia ("Almost Heaven") to a silver medal in the 80-and-over division at the 2013 National Senior Games.
In one memorable sequence, Bertka bellowed at an opponent to "Get your arm off of me!". Bertka apologized moments later with a smile, a back slap and a "Sorry about that!"
"That was one of the best things I've ever seen," said Lakers VP of Public Relations John Black.
Once a competitor, always a competitor!
Next year, when Bertka is 89, he plans still to be back out at midcourt, whistle in hand.
"He knows who he is and what his job is, and it's hard not to respect and like somebody like that," Kupchak noted. "I'm not sure there's anybody that has remained as active as Bill, who is out there on the court with the clipboard, drawing up the practice plan, directing, yelling, stopping and starting practice and correcting. It's extremely impressive."
Riley just wants to make sure people recognize what Bertka has meant to the game.
"He's such a positive force who has crossed over from college to the NBA," Riley said, "and his major contribution would be not just the longevity but his relationship with a lot of the Hall of Famers that he has taught."
Bertka has yet to be nominated to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, though he was up for consideration this year.
"His dedication to the game is unmatched," Riley continued. "His resume is too good. The fact that he's always been an assistant tells you about the discipline of just wanting to teach the game, because he's had head coaching offers before … I'll fight like hell for him to be honored in the Hall of Fame as one of the great contributors to the game of basketball."
Kobe echoed Riley's sentiment.
"Bert's significance to the game cannot be overstated," said the NBA's third all-time leading scorer. "It's coaches like him and Tex Winter that have really driven the well-known coaches that we know in history. The Bertkas and Winters are the ones that are really stirring the pot. He deserves way more credit than he's currently getting, and way more praise than he's currently getting."
Unless, of course, you happen to be one of the thousands of people that Bertka has personally touched along his long road through life and basketball.
Like D'Angelo Russell.
There is no limit on Russell's potential to grow into a truly great player one day. If that day comes, maybe he'll think back to his workout with the spunky 88-year-old.
Maybe he'll feel a bond, a connection that he'd share with Wilt, West, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe.
Maybe he'll realize that there's only one man linked directly to all of the great Lakers.
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