Bertka Files Vol. 2 Training Camp

The Bertka Files, Volume 2: Lakers Training Camp

—At 95 years old, the longest-tenured employee of the team, and still equipped with one of the sharpest basketball minds, Bill Bertka has agreed to honor the franchise's 75th anniversary season by sharing stories on what he’s seen throughout Lakers History—

As Volume 1 of the Bertka Files wrapped up, Coach Bertka confirmed what the second story would be covering, “training camp?” he asked.

“When should we talk?” he continued.

“How about September 29th?” I suggested.

“That’s only two days into camp,” he shot back, “what the hell am I going to tell you after two days?!”

But this story isn’t solely about the 2022-23 training camp, it’s about every Lakers training camp that Bertka has been a part of — all 54 and counting.

A few weeks later he called out of the blue, it was September 2nd. He called again on September 26th, then again on October 5th. Each call he had new tidbits of information to offer about the history of Lakers training camp. And he’d end the call the same way every time, “Is this helpful? Do you think this information will be useful for your story?” It always was.

At the end of September, we sat across from one another in the Lakers basketball operations conference room, in the same seats we sat in August when Bertka told me stories about Kobe Bryant.

At the end of the conversation, he started ripping pages from the notebook, “Do you want these?” he asked as he slid a stack of white-lined paper across the table, then slid it back. “Can you get a stapler?” he asked.

When I returned with one, he stapled the paper together and handed me six pages of his comprehensive hand-written notes on the purpose of training camp and the Lakers training camps that have stood out most to him. “I think some of this may be helpful,” he said handing me the stack of paper.

“The purpose of training camps,” he started his notes off, and had underlined each word. "Set the tone for the season, get everyone on the same page, evaluate the talent—veterans, free agents, and rookies—how do the different pieces fit together,” he wrote.

“What are the strengths and shortcomings of the combined group—this inventory will influence what you can do offensively and defensively—and what goals we as a ‘TEAM’ can achieve.”

“Then” he underlined the word again, as he outlined, “most important, the attitude of the team —their work ethic, their motivation— are they willing to accept their roles and subordinate personal interests and goals for the common goal of the team.”

Training camp is where the team starts again and again and again; where a player can start again too.

It’s where a team can begin establishing its identity as a unit and where each player evaluates how they can contribute to that unit. And even with the ruthless competition that clouds the floor, there’s always a sliver of possibility that shines through.

“One case in particular that I can remember was a player we had in camp,” Bertka recalled, “It was approximately 1985 or ’86. His name was Mario Elie. After just a couple of days in camp, they wanted to cut the roster a little bit. So, they told me that I had to tell him that we were waiving him.

“I said, ‘oh that’s great,’” Coach recited.

So, Bertka went to Elie’s room and when he arrived at the door, Mario told Bertka that he knew why he was there, and he told Bertka that he didn’t want him to feel bad because Mario explained he had been to five camps and was waived from each one.

“But I wanna tell you one thing about Mario Elie,” Elie declared to Bertka, “I’m gonna play in the NBA someday. You mark it down and you follow me over the years.”

“To put the final touches on the story,” Bertka said, “he finally broke in with Philadelphia in 1990. From that point on, with his fierce competitive spirit and defensive ability, he played with Houston and won two world championships in ’94 and ’95 and he won one with San Antonio in 1999.”

That’s the essence of training camp, to capitalize on your chance— both as a team and as a player. You go until you become better— you go until you're good enough. And then even when you’re the best, you start over.

In the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, the Lakers didn’t have a permanent practice facility. Throughout the sixties and most of the seventies, Los Angeles would hold training camp at various schools around the city— Loyola Marymount University and Inglewood High School to mention a few.

When Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the team in 1979, the Lakers took training camp to the desert.

From that season through 1987, the team held training camp in Palm Springs and practiced in Wright Gymnasium at The College of the Desert.

“We had some damn good training camps there,” Bertka said.

“The interesting aspect was,” he widened his eyes a little, “when we won the championship in 1980, training camp was in,” he paused, “Palm Springs.”

“When we won the championship in ‘82,” he paused again, “Palm Springs.”

“When we won the championship in ‘85,” another pause, “Palm Springs.”

He had the same delivery for the championships in ‘87 and ‘88, a pause followed by “Palm Springs.”

He waited for my reaction and smiled, “All five championships started in Palm Springs,” he said.

Bertka remembered that after the 1984-85 season, and the “incredible win over Boston” in the Finals, the team suffered from “the disease of more,” as Head Coach Pat Riley had coined it, “more minutes, more money, more credit, more leverage, more, more, more.”

He explained that before camp that 1986-87 season, Coach Riley had written a letter to his team:

“I want everyone to work for a career-best season— which will make a career-best year for the team. Bring a winning attitude to camp. Forget about ‘you.’ Focus on your teammates — success and happiness will follow.”

As outlined above, it did.

And then, as the team celebrated the 1986-87 championship, Riley guaranteed Los Angeles that the Lakers would go back-to-back. And he called upon his team, “we must truly plant our feet, stand firm, and make a point, the future is now.”

During that playoff run, the team made history, winning three straight seven-game series and achieving what Pat Riley had asked of them. They were crowned back-to-back champions.

Before the start of the 1988-89 season, Riley called upon his team again to win the championship a third time. He didn’t want complacency; they were just getting started.

They had their training camp in Hawaii that year at Klum Gym on Oahu... not Palm Springs.

They didn’t reach the three-peat.

It was October 9th, one week before the 2022-23 season's opening night. We met for a final time about the piece.

“How’d training camp go this year?”

“I said to Rob Pelinka this morning,” Coach answered, “I like what I see. I see progress. I see progress each and every practice, each and every game. They’re just improving, improving, improving, improving.”

“It's been very interesting to see some of these free agents step up. Seeing the improvement— Max Christie has gained weight and muscle and is playing with much more confidence. I feel that Pippen (Scotty Pippen Jr.) has disciplined his game. If you go right down the line, you could make a positive comment about everybody,” Bertka confirmed.

You got enough for a story?” he made sure.


But because Coach is a big proponent of “the intangibles,” he gave me a call after I had left the room and shared one more important detail:

“Training camp is a second chance,” Coach pointed out. “In life a lot of times, you blow your chance and that’s it. It’s not common to straighten things out, improve your skills, and live up to your reputation.”