Lakers Legends: Bill Bertka on Elgin Baylor

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

The first time Bill Bertka watched Elgin Baylor play in person was in the 1958 NCAA Final Four, 63 years ago.

A junior college coach at the time, Bertka would go to become the NBA’s first scout in 1968, where he’d work alongside Baylor with the Lakers until he retired in 1971. Then in 1974, Bertka hired Baylor to be an assistant coach for the expansion New Orleans Jazz.

We spoke to Bertka, now 93 years young, about his favorite memories of the Hall of Fame legend; below is a transcription of our phone call:

MT: How and when did you first become aware of Elgin Baylor, the basketball prospect?
Bertka: In 1951-52, I had just started my career as a junior college basketball coach, and I studied all the magazines and papers and looked to recruit players. I recruited my first team out of Akron, Ohio, to Santa Maria, Calif., to play for Hancock College in 1954-55. I knew most of the high school players in America, and there was a player in Washington, D.C. that everyone was just marveling about. His name was Elgin Baylor. I didn’t have any contact with Elgin, I just knew about him. Elgin was at a Black high school and couldn’t play against the white schools. Most basketball coaches weren’t recruiting Black players at the time in the 1950’s, due to segregation. But then I got to know the coach at College of Idaho, Sam Vokes, who at the time who was recruiting Elgin and some of his friends, and got him to come to Idaho. Vokes eventually got fired for some issues of eligibility with players. When he got fired, Elgin ended up transferring to Seattle University.

MT: So in his one season at Idaho (1954-55), Baylor averaged 32.8 points and 18.9 rebounds per game as a freshman, and the Coyotes went 15-0 in the Northwest Conference, the only team to do so until 1988. They’d finish 23-4, losing to Montana State in the district final. According to Idaho’s school website, “Baylor scored 40 or more points in a game six times over the final month of the season, including a school-record 53-point effort vs. Whitman (including 34 rebounds) – a mark that still stands today. Then it was on to Seattle…
Bertka: The coach there, John Castellani, had Elgin for two years. Elgin was redshirted one year (for transferring). And since I was a junior college coach, naturally I’m going to go to the NCAA playoffs with all the other coaches. And in those days, the NCAA Tournament was in Louisville, Kentucky. It was the 1957-1958 season, and I wanted to see Elgin in person, and the first game I saw him play, believe it or not, was against Tex Winter’s team, Kansas State, in the National Semifinal. A guy named Bob Boozer broke Elgin’s ribs in the semifinal game, and Elgin still played in the Final, which Kentucky won, 84-72, and Elgin scored 25 points with 17 rebounds with broken ribs. That was Tex Winter’s best team that Elgin beat, and based on that performance, the Minneapolis Lakers drafted Elgin No. 1.

MT: Man … 25 and 17 with broken ribs in the Final. Incredible. And Bert, Elgin was doing this amidst almost all white players and coaches, and dealing with everything that came along with that, correct?
Bertka: Yes, there were very few Black players, maybe one other. In those days, teams were very white. Up until Texas Western beat Kentucky and Pat Riley in the Final in 1966. And without any doubt, he had to deal with racism while he was playing on and off the court.

MT: So can you describe what you as a coach and as, basically, the NBA’s first great scout, you saw in Elgin during that Final Four?
Bertka: Without any doubt, he was the best player I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe what a force he was. I used to see how the newspapers described him, and he was every bit as powerful and good as described. And there wasn’t any doubt that he was the No. 1 pick. And then as soon as he came in and played for the Lakers, he was Rookie of the Year, a terrific force. And the owner, Bob Short, said Elgin saved the franchise, and because of who he was and how good he was, enabled him to make contacts to move the team to Los Angeles.

MT: What stood out the most about Elgin’s game?
Bertka: His physical strength. His speed. They listed him at 6’5’’, 225 or 230, but he had thickness to his body. He wasn’t lean and wiry, he was big and powerful, more like a football player. But his agility and ability to jump and hang in the air … that’s where the term ‘hang time’ came from. He could drive and hang and then shoot the ball with a feathery touch around the paint. His game was taking the ball to the basket and just overpowering people. He could absorb contact and lay the ball off the backboard like nobody else. He was a pretty big man in those days. If you were 6’8’’ in those days, you were a giant. You can’t compare the size of players today to the size of players in those days.

MT: You mentioned the hang time – was it a bit different than some of the high flyers that followed like Jordan or Kobe, who seemed to always be above the rim? Was Baylor’s style more in and around the paint, hanging and floating and using the glass?
Bertka: Elgin was every bit as good but also much more powerful. He could absorb contact and lay the ball off the backboard like nobody else. Let me give you a couple of facts about him. He only played 14 seasons, he quit at 37. When he was 34 in 1968-69, he played 76 games. When he was 35, he only played 54 games. He only played two games in 1970-71 because of a torn Achilles, and this is (long after a previous knee injury altered his career). He tried to play a little bit in 1971-72 when Bill Sharman took over the team, but he asked to retire after nine games because he couldn’t play anymore, and that team went on to win 33 straight games, and the title. They compare him with Michael Jordan, and Jordan played 16 seasons and retired at 39. Career averages, Jordan averaged 30.1 points, (22.9) shots a game, (49.7) percent shooting, averaged 38 minutes a game. Elgin averaged 27.4 points, 23.8 shots a game, 43.1 percent shooting. Jordan was a better shot maker. He had the three-point shot, and Elgin did not.

MT: Could Elgin shoot if he had to from distance? Did he never really have to develop it that much because there wasn’t a three-point line, and because he could get what he wanted in the paint?
Bertka: Most of Elgin’s scoring came off dribble penetration and fast breaks. If he got out in the fast break there was nothing you could do. He was too strong.

MT: Kind of like LeBron.
Bertka: Yup. Yeah, yeah, yeah. By body comparison, LeBron has that thickness, but he’s bigger than Elgin.

MT: What are some of the differences you can point out between eras that might explain some of the ridiculous rebounding numbers (Elgin averaged 13.5 in his career) as well as the lower field goal percentage (possessions not being valued in the same way)?
Bertka: The Lakers were a fastbreaking team. That’s the style that Fred Schaus coached. So the Lakers were known for that. They would take 120 shots a game. Today, if you take 90 shots a game, that’s probably about average. And between 35 and 40 today are 3-point shots. The players weren’t as skilled then as they are today. If you didn’t have a big center, you couldn’t compete. The game was played with the center. Today’s game is an open key. Centers can pull out and shoot 3’s where you can drive. In today’s game, Elgin Baylor would be an absolute (terror) because of his physical strength and driving ability. His first step, his driving ability, penetrate and take physical contact with the open lane, that’d have been perfect for his style of play. When he used to drive into the lane, there was always a big center, and the game was much more physical than today’s game. The philosophy of officials they used to say, ‘No harm no foul.’

MT: Did you then start to get to know Elgin when you started scouting for the Lakers in 1968, as the first professional scout in the NBA?
Bertka: That’s right, in 1968. I knew Elgin’s background and everything about him. He was a very private guy, Elgin. But once he knew you, he would open up and was a very interesting, very humorous guy. So in 1968, I used to watch practice sessions and so forth. It was a relationship where he knew me as a scout and we always enjoyed talking. But I never hung around with him; we were professionally friendly. Unfortunately, in 1968 he was having a lot of knee problems. He wasn’t the happiest camper at that time because of that.

In fact, I brought Elgin to Santa Barbara to speak at an organization called the Athletic Roundtable in the 1960’s, and I also got to know Chick Hearn really well at the time, and he came up to speak. We had a great relationship with the Lakers from 1968-74, when I scouted for the Lakers. That’s when I was hired to run the New Orleans Jazz.

MT: We’ve discussed another time that you’d recommend that the Lakers draft Jim McMillan in 1970 with the 13th pick, and that he’d ultimately replaced Elgin in the lineup when he retired after nine games in 1971-72, and of course that team won 33 straight and the title. But then when you went to New Orleans to run the whole show, you ended up hiring Elgin as a coach…
Bertka: In Elgin’s declining years, the coach was Bill "Butch" Van Breda Kolff, and I was good friends with him. And when I was in New Orleans as Vice President/GM, I hired Elgin Baylor to be an assistant coach, along with Sam Jones, in 1974-75. The head coach was Scottie Robertson from Louisiana State; we had to let him go midway through the season, and we brought in Bill Van Breda Kolff, and he turned the team around.

MT: How did your relationship with Elgin evolve there?
Bertka: We got very close … I hired the coaching staff, I worked with the coaching staff, and I got to know Elgin really well. But because I lived in Santa Barbara and spent so much time there, they felt they needed somebody on the job in New Orleans all the time. There were a lot of politics playing, and they asked me to step down as GM, but stay on as a scout and assistant coach. So I did. The following year after that happened, they fired Van Breda Kolff and put Elgin as head coach. So now I’m Elgin’s assistant coach, and we had a couple of good years, but when Pete Maravich got hurt, that was the turning point. Jan. 31, 1978, Maravich goes down and then we had contractual problems with a player named Truck Robinson.

MT: How did the players respond to Elgin?
Bertka: The players loved him as a coach. He spoke their language. They respected the hell out of him … Elgin was a very special man. Of all the people I worked with, he was one of the best. Very unassuming. I felt privileged to work with and know him. Not only was he a great athlete, but the way he dealt with life itself.

MT: Do you have a favorite Elgin story?
Bertka: One of my favorite stories was when he was coaching with the Jazz, we were in Boston, and it was before the game. We were all sitting around waiting for Pistol Pete’s interview to finish. We had a good defender named E.C. Coleman* who was a hard-nosed defender, who had success against some of the best offensive players, like Rick Barry. One day he was feeling his oats, so he said Elgin, do you want to play a 10-point game with me? Elgin said, “On one condition, I get the ball and it’s make it, take it.” This was 1976. You wanna guess the score?
*Coleman was listed at 6’8’’, 225 pounds, and would go on to make the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team in the following season, and the All-NBA Defensive Second Team in 1978. Baylor would have been 42 or 43 years old at the time.

MT: I’m going to go with … 10-0?
Bertka: That’s right. The final score was 10-0. He took the ball to the basket every time and gave it to him.

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