Bertka Files: Part 1 Lakers Big Men

The Bertka Files, Volume 3 Part 1: Lakers Big Men

—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— 

This past Sunday, October 30, 2022, the Lakers' first-ever superstar, George Mikan, was immortalized forever up in the team’s rafters in Los Angeles.  

Mr. Basketball brought five world championships to the Lakers during their start in Minneapolis. George elevated the sport of basketball and not just because he was 6’10". He demanded that big men not only be seen on the court but revered.  

To honor George, Volume 3 of the Bertka Files is about Lakers big men.  

After I looped Coach Bertka in on the topic for Volume 3, he arrived at our meeting in his usual fashion, prepared with notes and photos from the past.  

Then Coach tossed something across the table to me— a typed story he had written in the late 2000s “for no particular.” In this piece, he analyzed the impact of big men on the game of basketball—most of them—whom he had coached.  

This is what he wrote more than 10 years ago, published for the first time in the Bertka Files Volume 3:  

The NBA’s Big Men  

By: Bill Bertka   

I have been around the basketball court longer than some people have been alive, and I've been lucky enough to play against, coach against, and work with the best in the game. I’ve watched the sport evolve from decade to decade, and one of the most interesting trends I've noticed is post-play. In the late 1950s, you had two big men: Bob Kurland and George Mikan. That was it. This year, 39 seven-footers are in the NBA, and 92 are 6-10 or higher.   

And yet, even though players are bigger, they don’t play as “big” as they did in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Basketball fans today lament the dearth of true back-to-the-basket post players, and it’s true—the game’s big men are now almost as athletic, agile, and quick as their smaller counterparts. But here in L.A., we might just see a resurgence of the true back ‘em down and bang ‘em post player in Andrew Bynum. But more on him later.  

First, the beginning.   

I remember Mikan very well. When he was dominating the league with the Minneapolis Lakers in the ‘50s, I was playing college basketball at Kent State University. I got to know George more later on in life when he was the ABA commissioner, and I was doing a lot of scouting. George always came to the games, always came in the locker room, and said hello.   

He came out of DePaul University under the tutelage of Ray Meyer, who developed him into a premiere postman. His game was a classic right-hand hook shot, which was unstoppable at the time. The only guy who could compete with him was Kurland, from Oklahoma State, who went on to play with the Philip ‘66 Oilers of the National Industrial Basketball League.   

Of course, Bill Russell was the next real center, a dominant player out of the University of San Francisco. I didn’t coach against him, but ironically the same night that his San Francisco team’s 60-game winning streak was broken, I was a junior college coach at Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA and we had a 41-game win streak broken.   

I’ll always remember the clashes Russell had with Wilt Chamberlain. Russell used to play peek-a-boo with him. He’d never let Chamberlain know quite where he was. He wouldn’t let him feel him, and when Chamberlain would go up for a shot, he’d just block it out of nowhere.   

When the Lakers acquired Wilt in 1968 (the year after he averaged an astounding 24 points, 24 rebounds, and nine assists for Philly), we were all very excited. He was the only one to answer Russell. I found Wilt to be a very sensitive, caring guy. He always said, “Nobody loves me. Nobody loves Goliath.” He felt that he did so much but was still underappreciated by fans and by his team. So, he went about it by saying, “I’ll become the best rebounder,” or “I’ll become the highest scorer.” But the story was always the same: Wilt torched all the records and Russell won all the championships.   

Wilt and I had a lot of discussions, and he always said to me, “the greatest team I ever played on was the ‘66-’67 Philadelphia 76ers,” (the year they won the championship), “but the most enjoyable year I ever had was in ‘71-’72 with the Lakers.” He had returned from an injury and really enjoyed how the fans had encouraged him to come back. And for the first time, he said he really felt part of a team, where he didn’t have to score all the points, he just had to pull his oar. For the first time in his life, he felt loved.   

As Wilt’s career was winding down, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's was getting going. There was a lot of hullabaloo the first time they met at the Forum. Wilt was a proud guy, and Kareem was an incredible talent at that time, so everybody was talking about them. When the game ended, Wilt had 25 points, 25 rebounds, and three blocked shots. Kareem had 23 points, 20 rebounds, and two blocked shots. And Wilt’s team won, so of course, the next day he said, “We win. I outplayed him, but who do they talk about? Him.”  

The thing I’ll always remember about Kareem was his focus and game preparation. Players had to be in the locker room at six o’clock on game night, and every game Kareem would invariably be sitting at his locker reading something. He never talked. No shenanigans, no jokes. Just placid. He was focusing mentally. And if a writer or someone approached him, He’d just look up and give them a stare that would just wilt them. Each night for about 20 years in the league, he was one of the most focused athletes I've been around.   

Those big men were some of history’s greatest players, but there were many others who didn’t have much limelight. Wes Unseld was only 6’8”, but he was a brute. He could snap the ball to mid-court for fast breaks and anchored a champion Washington Bullets team. Moses Malone was another powerful rebounder, and if he missed his shot, watch out. Nobody pursued his shot better than Moses. Arvydas Sabonis was another unstoppable big man. It’s a shame he didn’t get to the NBA before his leg injuries because I saw him play in Russia, and he was so towering, yet so dexterous and cerebral.   

Speaking of European centers, another guy who has a place in my heart is Vlade Divac. When we drafted Vlade, Jack Ramsay echoed a lot of critics when he said, “Look the Lakers drafted a guy who will never be a center in the NBA.” A couple of years later, I ran into Jack, and he said, “I can’t believe the job you guys did with Divac. He’s a damn good player.”  

Vlade had a language problem in his first year, and though he had an interpreter, he and I had a system. When I wanted him to do something offensively, we numbered it. If I wanted Vlade to take a hook shot, that was “one.” If I wanted him to take a countermove, that was “two.” If I wanted a shake and bake, that was “three.” So, during the game, I’d stand up on the sidelines and scream out, “One! Two! Three!” depending on how they were playing. He was just in my office a few weeks ago and we were laughing about it.   

Even though many of today’s seven-footers play like guards, Like Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki, there are still a few true post players left, like Yao Ming, Shaquille O’Neal, and our youngster, Bynum.   

Assistant GM Ronnie Lester and I first saw Andrew at the 2005 McDonald’s All-American game. Ronnie said, “Take a look at the size of that guy!” He was 300 pounds and over seven feet tall, but he was a bit on the heavy side. When we heard he declared for the draft, we checked in on him and discovered Andrew had lost some weight. So, we had a workout, and I noticed a solid base and good instincts with his back to the basket. I also noticed that when you banged him, he had a certain aggressiveness that you like to see.  

But when we did some full-court drills, he ran very poorly. After the workout was over, we told him he really had to work on his running, and his second and third effort. And those are the things that you see now that he’s really improved on.  

Kareem has been working with Andrew, and I have a feeling he’s been having discussions about Andrew’s focus—and it’s rubbing off. Andrew is a diamond in the rough, but you can only polish a diamond with a diamond, and that’s what we’re doing now. He’s learning the game from an all-time great. He’s a quick learner, so he has the chance to be the complete package. 

It seems like everyone always asks me this question: If you put all these centers in a gym—Mikan, Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaq, Yao—who is the first guy you pick to start your team? What a choice.  

All of them had unique qualities, but for my money, only two centers had the complete package, and that was Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaq had power, quickness, shot-blocking ability… everything. As did Kareem. But you have to judge a player on the bottom line, which championships. Shaq has enjoyed four championships, while Kareem won five. So, I’d take Kareem.  

But that’s a first choice among many equals.  

They say basketball is a tall man’s game, and the gentlemen I’ve discussed played as tall as can be. It’s been a pleasure to have been on the court with them.