Bertka Files: Lakers Big Men Part 2

The Bertka Files, Volume 3: Lakers Big Men - Part 2

—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—  

In Part 1, Bertka wrote about what big men had done—and how; but in Part 2, he told me about who they were. The heart of his stories centered around their strength of character, and that had only a little to do with their actual size. Bertka talked about their human side and in doing so he made Lakers big men even bigger.   

“I’ve got to get this off my mind. I’m losing sleep. I wake up and keep thinking about what I’m going to tell you,” Coach announced at the start of our meeting.   

“I’m going to talk in this order: I’ll talk about Mikan, I’ll talk about Wilt, then I’ll talk about Kareem, then I’ll talk about Divac who replaced Kareem, then I’ll talk about Shaq, and then I’ll talk about Andrew Bynum, Mychal Thompson, and Bob McAdoo,” he stated with six pages of handwritten notes on the table in front of him.   

George Mikan  

Before Mikan, basketball was a sport for men of small to average size. “The big man was a dinosaur that people avoided,” Bertka explained.   

The game was meant to be swift and nimble. Imagine that? Imagine basketball without slam dunks? Well, Mikan brought dunks into our lives and his dominance also brought a few other rule changes to the game: the width of the lane was increased from 6 feet to 12 feet, goaltending became prohibited, and one of his games prompted conversations that eventually led to the shot clock.   

In their 1950-51 season, the Minneapolis Lakers were the reigning NBA champs and had won their last 29 games. Ahead of their matchup, the Fort Wayne Piston’s head coach, Murray Mendenhall, came up with a game plan. He knew his team could not withstand George and the Lakers. His plan was to have them “stall.” He ordered his team to not shoot the ball.   

It was an atrocious game of basketball, but Mendenhall’s scheme worked. The Pistons won 19-18—Mikan made 15 of the team’s total points.

And so today, players have only 24 seconds to shoot the ball.   

But before George brought five championships to the Lakers and laid down the cement of their dynasty, he was discouraged from playing basketball. Bertka pointed out how at the time, George was built more like a lineman than a basketball player, and how he had to wear these thick, round, black glasses due to his nearsightedness.   

The glasses actually made his high school coach turn Mikan away because surely he was too awkward to play basketball. Mikan finally got the opportunity to suit up for his high school team and college basketball was on the horizon. No strong college programs were seriously interested, and the University of Notre Dame turned him away.   

It was DePaul University’s Head Coach, Ray Meyer, that had a vision for the game ahead of its time.   

“He took a guy who wasn’t agile and wasn’t athletic and with special training like dancing and boxing, punching the bag, hand-eye coordination exercises, and so forth, he improved Mikan’s coordination and improved his hand-eye skills,” Bertka said.   

As Meyer harnessed Mikan’s magnitude, George transformed the power of his stature into continued success and pure domination. He was so dominant; they gave him the name Mr. Basketball in college.   

And without Mr. Basketball, the men that are to follow in this article would have never come to be.   

“Over the years as I got to know him, after Minnesota came into the league, he called me whenever we came to Minneapolis, and we’d have a bowl of soup together and talk basketball. That was my personal relationship with George. He loved the game, he loved talking about it, and he had a wonderful career,” Bertka expressed.   

“That was George Mikan,” he tossed page one of his notes and announced.   

“Why soup?” I asked him.   

“I love soup,” he said.   

Wilt Chamberlain  

Wilt was a giant. Everyone had wondered where basketball would take him and where he’d take basketball.   

“The finger-roll was Wilt’s favorite shot. And he loved Dunking the ball, that’s why they called him the Big Dipper,” Bertka explained.   

In one game against the Knicks in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Wilt scored 100 points.   

And during his 1961-62 season with Philadelphia, he averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds in a 48-minute game. That season, he averaged 48.5 minutes a game to account for every game and overtime games.   

At that point in the league, there weren’t very many big men, primarily Wilt and Bill Russell. But Bertka pointed out, that at 6’10”, 220 pounds, Russell wasn’t a Bonafide big man, though he was a “clever defender and gifted shot-blocker.”  

“Wilt held every record— scoring, assists, rebounds, blocked shots—you name it, he had it,” Bertka explained. “He was totally dominant. But he didn’t win championships with the teams that he was with. Bill Russell was winning the champions and that’s what Russell used to say to him, ‘I know you’ve got all the records, but I’ve got all the championships.’”  

For a long time, the game left Wilt empty. Despite his size, he felt small; he felt underappreciated.   

Nine games into Wilt’s 11th season, his weak, arthritic knees encountered further injury. In a game against Phoenix, Wilt tore his patella tendon; it tore right off the kneecap.   

It was a season-ending injury. But Lakers owner at the time, Jack Kent Cook, demanded Wilt return for the playoffs.   

The then trainer, Frank O’Neill, worked with Wilt and rehabbed him seven days a week for months.   

“It was a remarkable recovery,” Bertka described.   

So, he came back and played in the playoffs. The Lakers were down 1-3 to Phoenix and they came back and won the series. It was the second time in NBA history a team came back from being down 1-3.  

But the beauty of this recovery is what Wilt disclosed to Bertka a couple of years after he retired when they ran into each other in Hawaii.  

“Wilt loved Hawaii, he’d go regularly and always play handball on the beach,” Coach said.  

Bertka recited what Wilt had shared with him:  

‘The injury had done what nothing else in life has done. It made me seem human.’  

He felt that for the first time, fans supported him when he could do nothing for them.   

“That’s what he said to me,” Coach explained and then continued reading from the page:  

‘I could do nothing for them, but I never heard one boo. I was urged by fans to return. And I was moved by it. It changed my attitude and feelings toward the world. I was moved by the way the fans responded to my injury and my coming back, it changed my attitude and feeling toward the world. It made me feel warmer and more appreciative of my fellow man.’  

“Now this is some deep thinking on his part,” Bertka said to me as he pointed repeatedly at his notes.   

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar  (Honorable Mention Mitch Kupchak)  

“I didn’t mention it with Mikan, but there was a drill they call the Mikan Drill and today the Mikan Drill is still used by all big men,” Bertka announced. “Kareem was very familiar with the Mikan Drill; in fact, he added a couple of his own ideas to it.”  

Bertka explained that to keep his hands high, Kareem incorporated a medicine ball:   

Kareem would shoot the hook with his right hand and hold the medicine ball in his left hand. After he’d shoot the hook, he’d grab the medicine ball with his right hand and extend the left hand for the rebound.  

“That was one of his innovations with the Mikan Drill,” Coach said.   

At age 37, Kareem broke Wilt’s NBA All-time scoring record before 18,000 fans at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas; with 31,420 points, he broke the record.   

He still holds the record today.  

“Another thing about Kareem that I always admired was his physical condition,” Coach commented. “He’s kept himself in such good physical condition and it really helped his longevity. He played for 20 years.”   

“He was the ultimate professional when it came to basketball,” Bertka explained.    

“He got bored with practice as any other player would, but he still practiced, and he practiced hard. Was he happy? Nah he wasn’t happy, but he knew this was his job, so he practiced, and he practiced hard,” Coach raised his voice a little.   

“He respected the game is what he did. He. Respected. The. Game,” he raised his voice again.   

Coach recalled how the team flew commercially back then and when they’d get to the airport, fellow flyers would swarm, hoping to get an autograph from Kareem.   

But Kareem had a routine, when they arrived at the airport, he would make his way to the payphones. He’d pick one up and stand there with the phone pressed against his ear until the team could board the plane. He knew no one would approach him if they thought he was on the phone.   

“That’s a little side story,” Coach smiled.   

“Another story about Kareem,” Bertka began, “In 1985, we’re in Boston for Game 6 and we get murdered on Memorial Day, (The Memorial Day Massacre) we get beat real bad... it was an embarrassing loss. Everybody's down. I salute Kareem because at that time he was 35 maybe 36. We had three days off to feel sorry for ourselves."  

“Come the night of Game 2, we’re getting on the bus. Head Coach Pat Riley had a rule, nobody on the bus but players. Kareem comes out and tells Riley, ‘I’m bringing my dad with me.’ And Riley said, ‘that’s okay.’ That was the first.   

“That night in the series he was dominant, and we won. Now the series is tied one apiece and we’re headed back to Los Angeles with really a good feeling.”   

In Los Angeles, the Lakers won Game 3, the Celtics won Game 4, and the Lakers won Game 5. It was back to Boston Garden for Game 6.  

“It was critical we win Game 6 in Boston, it was vital,” Bertka recalled.  

Mitch Kupchak came to the Lakers in 1981 from Washington and he was considered one of the best power forwards in basketball. Shortly into the season, Mitch is on a fast break and lands wrong coming down from the shot. He tore up his knee so badly that it was considered a career-ending injury.  

“But Mitch was Mitch Kupchak,” Coach declared.   

It took him two years and two operations to recover. He was really depressed. He isolated himself from the team.   

So Bertka pulled him aside, “I’ll tell you something, I’ll make a prediction. Before your career ends, you’re going to make a difference.”   

“That’s just the way I said it,” he told me.   

In a dramatic voice, Bertka recalls, “Game 6. Boston Garden. 1985. Second quarter, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has two or three personal fouls, and they have to take him out of the game. Boston Garden was ecstatic that Kareem was in foul trouble.”   

Riley called, ‘Kupchak.’ 

“Kupchak goes into the game,” Bertka said.    

Kupchak played 20 minutes and had six points, five rebounds, two assists, and one steal. He dove on the floor many times in those 20 minutes. Boston Garden went crazy that Kareem’s backup center was keeping the team right there in it and making a difference. 

“It was a very special moment in Mitch’s life and the Lakers,” Coach said with a smile.    

“Well long story short now, we win the world championship and break this jinx with the Boston Celtics.”  

And then in 1986, Kareem asked Pat Riley what could be better than their 1985 season and Riley responded, “It’s just the beginning.” 

Vlade Divac  

“We had never seen him in person,” Coach said of Vlade Divac. “Jerry West only had his film from the McDonald’s Championship game.”   

Each year in Europe, the European champion would play an American team. In 1988, it was Partizan, who Vlade played for against the Boston Celtics. They watched the film from the game and Jerry asked Coach what he thought afterward.   

“Well, he’s athletic and he’s big—7’1” 260. I don’t know if he’s a center or a forward, but he has a natural feel for the game” Bertka said to West.    

When they had the draft meeting, Jerry announced they had to get a center because Kareem’s retiring. Nobody could settle on one guy, everyone had different opinions. And the only people that had seen Divac were Bertka and West.   

The Lakers were up in the 1989 NBA Draft at number 26. Nobody knew who they were going to pick. So, Jerry West grabbed the microphone and announced, ‘The Los Angeles Lakers with the 26th Pick from Yugoslavia, Vlade Divac,’ “And everyone goes ‘whoooooo?’” Bertka recalled with a chuckle.   

“And so, Vlade Divac became a Laker,” Coach announced. “Along with that comes problems— he doesn’t speak any English!”  

The coaching staff wondered how they were going to communicate with Vlade. But Bertka knew a good coach from Fullerton Junior College who spoke Serbo-Croatian. His name was Alex Omahlev and Bertka described him as “a legendary junior college coach.” Bertka could vouge for him because they coached against one another (but Bertka’s team at Hancock College had beat Omahlev’s for the state championship).  

Alex enthusiastically accepted the opportunity and became the Lakers’ interpreter.  

Bertka recalled how Pat Riley, told him, ‘Look Bill, this guy Divac (he was only 18 or 19) he has a reputation, he smokes and he’s lazy, and doesn’t have a good work ethic. He’s going to be your project. Before practice, after practice, he practices with you. He never misses a bus or meeting because you’re calling him and telling him. He doesn’t oversleep because you’re going to wake him up! That's your job with Vlade Divac.’   

“So, I’m spending a lot of time with Vlade,” Bertka said.   

“I don’t speak Yugoslavian, but I am a Slav,” He continued.   

So instead, he used hand signals to communicate with Vlade on the floor:  

“Vlade when I want you to shoot a hook shot, I’m going to do this,” as he holds up one finger.  

“When I want you to spin and move, I’m going to do this,” he holds up two fingers.   

“When I want you to drop step, I’m going to do this,” he holds up three fingers.  

“When I want you to run the floor,” holds up four fingers.  

“When I want you to rebound,” five.  

And I gave him all these hand signals. “And it worked!” He announced excitedly.   

His game improved tremendously, and Vlade progressed. He was a finesse player and one of the sharpest passers among big men in the history of the game.   

Bertka pointed out how Vlade had great hands. Wherever he caught the ball, he passed it from there. “He filled up a stat sheet. I like to use that term,” Coach said.  

“His career stats were 11 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and 1.4 blocks—1.4 blocks per game is damn good. He filled up a stat sheet, he got something everywhere.”  

He played for 16 years and in 10 of those years, he played 80 games or more.   

“Think about that stat,” he told me.   

Shaquille O’Neal   

“I like Shaq,” Bertka announced. “Shaq’s personality, he’s very humorous. He's a kind and extremely generous guy with his money. He was always doing things for different people.”  

“He paid for Mikan’s funeral; did you know that?” He asked me.    

He continued citing examples of Shaq’s generosity...   

“Our trainer, Rudy, had an old truck that he used to haul stuff we were using to the airport— Shaq bought him a new truck,” Coach pointed out. “One time, he offered to buy me a new car!”   

Coach then explained how Shaq’s stepfather, Philip Harrison, was a really important figure in Shaq’s life whom he talked about often. Shaq had an enormous amount of respect for him. Harris was a Sergeant in the army and a strict disciplinarian, and that rubbed off on Shaq, Bertka noted.   

But in his first three years with the Lakers, No. 34 had one injury after another.   

In his first year with Los Angeles, he played 51 games.   

In his second year, he played 60 games.   

And in his third year, he played 49 games.   

He played 160/246 games for three seasons.   

“His first three years were difficult for him,” Bertka said.   

Eleven games into the 1997-98 season, Shaq strained his abdominal muscle. Being sidelined by chronic injuries really started to weigh on Big Diesel.   

Coach recalled how on a plane ride back to Los Angeles from Minnesota he met Shaq in the back of the plane, where Shaq would always sit.   

“And I said Shaq,” Bertka said, “You had a bad run... but it’s gonna change. I’m telling you something. There's nobody like you on the horizon. Your size, your quickness, your attitude. You're gonna become one of the best players to ever play this game. You’re too quick, you’re too strong, you’ve just gotta believe in it.”   

“That was a lecture I gave him on the plane,” Bertka told me.    

They hired Phil Jackson for the 1999-2000 season.  

“We won the world championship, and he played 79 games,” Bertka revealed. “That was the most games he had played in a long time.”   

“The next year we won the world championship, and he played 74 games. And the next year for the third championship he played 67,” he said with a smirk.   

Andrew Bynum   

When Andrew Bynum entered the league, he became the youngest player to play in the NBA. He played for nine years from 2005-2014.   

“He was the tenth pick in the first round. 17 years old, 2005 draft, we took him,” Bertka said.  

Bynum decided to forego college. At seven feet, 300 pounds, he stood out in the McDonald’s All-American game. At that time, Jim Buss, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations and Lakers General Manager, Mitch Kupchak set up a workout for Bynum in Chicago and asked Bill to go work him out.   

“I said okay, let’s work him out,” Coach recalled. “So, we got an ex-NBA player to play against him. He beat the shit out of this guy. He had a right-hand hook, left-hand hook, and this guy couldn’t do anything with him because he had so much weight in his hips, and he could sustain position; he was strong.”   

Buss and Kupchak asked Bertka for his evaluation. And Bertka told them that “the guys got some stuff,” but he wanted to see if Bynum could run.  

They had him run up and down the floor and it was tough. Bynum’s size did a number on his legs. But if he improved his running, there was no doubt he’d be a very valuable piece to the team.   

So, he came into camp.   

The beginning of Bynum’s career was during the Phil Jackson and triangle offense era.   

“The triangle offense was the perfect offense for him,” Bertka pointed out.   

The triangle offense is not a “freelance offense,” it’s inherently structured; it provides a blueprint for what you should do and where you should go.   

“It was the perfect offense and his size made him such a threat in there with these nice hook shots and drop steps. He was a very promising young player,” Coach said.   

Bynum and the Lakers made three consecutive Finals appearances together. Their first, in the 2007-08 season, the center partially dislocated his left kneecap in the regular season against the Memphis Grizzlies. From January on, he missed 46 games including the six-game series against Boston for the NBA Championship.   

In January of their 2008-09 season, Bynum, again against the Memphis Grizzlies, injured his knee. This time it was a torn MCL in the right knee. Bynum missed 32 games but returned just in time for the playoffs. As he eased back into the game, he averaged 19 minutes a game against the Magic on his way to an NBA Championship.   

The big man made it through the 2009-10 regular season. It was in Game 6 of the first round against the Oklahoma City Thunder that Bynum hyperextended his right knee. He decided to delay surgery and play through the injury.   

With that decision, his knee injuries had come full circle when the Lakers defeated Boston and were crowned back-to-back NBA champions.   

Mychal Thompson  

“The guy that really made an impact was Mychal Thompson,” Bertka began.    

Mychal Thompson was the No. 1 pick in the draft when he came out of Minnesota. Bertka explained that the Lakers made a trade for Thompson. They traded Frank Brickowski and Pétur Guòdmundsson (plus a first-round draft pick and a large sum of cash) for Mychal Thompson in February of 1987.    

It was the 15th, the same day they were playing Boston.   

That morning before the game, at around eight or nine o’clock, Pat Riley told Bertka to meet Thompson at the Forum. Bertka went over three traditional NBA plays with him.   

He understood them no problem, “he was a very smart player to begin with,” Bertka pointed out, “and the best part about it is, he had the reputation that he could really play McHale well.”  

He played 29 minutes against Kevin McHale and grabbed 10 points. And after that game, Los Angeles went on a winning streak because of Thompson. They won 17 of their next 19 games.   

"Well, he did, he did play McHale well," Bertka closed out his story. "We won that game. We beat Boston. And to top it off, in Game 6 of the ’87 finals, Thompson, as Kareem’s backup coming off the bench, had 15 points, nine rebounds, and played 37 minutes, playing against McHale, and we win the world championship.”   

Bob McAdoo 

“In 1981, Dr. Buss says ‘We gotta get a backup for Kareem. What do you guys recommend? He called us to his house — The Pickfair Estate,” Bertka recalled.  

“Sharman was there, Chick Hearn was too. Myself. Jerry West.”   

They discussed how Bob McAdoo was available but wondered if he hung them up or still had it in him.   

Jerry West suggested they check him out.   

And Bill remembered how Dr. Buss responded, ‘Look, it better work out. If it doesn’t work out. I’ll let you guys know about it.’  

“So, we picked up McAdoo,” Coach said.   

“The first couple games, Dr. Buss would come to the locker room and say, ‘god damn you gotta get that stomach off of him. Don’t have too tight a jersey on him.’”   

But his competitive spirit helped the team as they went along.   

In fact, the finals that year against the Philadelphia 76ers...  

“Dr. J was making a breakaway fast break and McAdoo came full court out of nowhere and blocked the shot on Dr. J. which was a big factor in winning that championship against Philadelphia,” Bertka declared.   

“But McAdoo, I always got a big kick out of him. Because it didn’t matter what you did. If you went bowling, he’d say, ‘I’ll beat anybody here at bowling’ and then if we were playing ping pong, he’d say, ‘I’ll take on everybody in ping pong.’ I don’t care if we were flying kites, his kite would be the highest. Whatever. Whatever you were going to play, McAdoo was going to beat you. I just loved that about him.”  

------  

Bertka told me stories about Lakers big men for an hour and a half.   

“Okay that’s it,” he said as he leaned back in his chair, took off his glasses, and took a deep sigh of relief.  

“Are you liking these so far?” I asked him.   

“Is this the last one?” He replied.   

I explained how I was thinking we could keep this going until the end of the season.   

“You just keep telling me the topic and I’ll keep telling you the stories,” he said.