The Bertka Files: Chick Hearn

The Bertka Files: Volume 4 - Chick Hearn

—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—  

He had a voice that could enrapture an entire living room—and an arena of thousands. He had a basketball vocabulary that transcended sport. Chickisms are what his words and phrases are still called; “You can find them on the internet,” Bertka told me.   

Because his voice was in your car, in your house, and a part of some of the most significant moments in your life (eight Lakers championships) many thought they knew Francis Dayle “Chick” Hearn personally.   

You’ve heard the stories about Chick the announcer, from his time with USC football and basketball to his 41-year career covering the Lakers.   

You’ve heard about Chick the legend, the man with the streak—3,338 consecutive games offering up his words-eye-view of Lakers basketball.   

And Chick the master, how he was the first to do simulcast radio and TV... you’ve heard that one too.   

But have you ever heard the stories about just Chick? Chick, lover of soup, hater of secrets, frequenter of Santa Barbara, Chick the friend.   

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“My background with Chick involves my personal basketball career,” Coach began. “Chick became a part, for me, one of the greatest moments of my life.”  

Coach detailed his basketball career from the beginning, his high school days. “I was not a starter, I was a bench player,” he explained. His gift was outside shooting, “I would’ve done well in the game today.”   

He was drafted into the Army in the 1940s during World War 2. While on base in Camp Crowder, Missouri, he made the basketball team there. The team was made up of men older than him, so again Bertka spent much of his time on the bench he told me with a little laugh.   

Two years after his service, Coach was going to attend college. He began his search with several basketball tryouts at prominent schools in New York City. After the tryouts, his coach told him he should try playing for a smaller school.   

“In other words, you ain’t good enough,” Coach said.   

So, he went home and enrolled at Kent State University. But the war had just ended so all the freshmen and sophomores were in their late twenties and Bertka was the youngest player. They were a good team, but Bertka didn’t have the opportunity to be an impactful player until his senior year. After four games, he suffered a season-ending ankle injury.   

After college, Bertka took his first coaching job at Midland High School in Los Olivos, CA. And at that same time, he tried out for the Santa Maria Golden Dukes basketball team of the National Industrial Basketball League.    

“And that’s where my greatest moment in life came,” Coach declared.   

In the final game of the year, the Golden Dukes played the Peoria Caterpillar, the team that had represented the U.S. in the Olympics two years earlier.   

The Peoria Caterpillars' announcer was none other than—Chick Hearn.   

From the tip, Bertka’s team was behind. And the headmaster from Midland had brought his entire high school team to watch him play.   

“It was a big moment for me,” he said.   

When Bertka was put into the game he remembers his coach saying, ‘Okay Bill, do your thing, Do your thing, Bill.’  

As soon as he went in, he made a long shot, followed by another, then another. “I’m like, I’m like crazyyyy or something,” Bertka explained.   

The game got closer, but the Golden Dukes were still down. The fans were going ballistic. Then, Bertka gets the ball and makes another long shot. Wouldn’t you know, the Golden Dukes defeated the dominant Peoria Caterpillars.   

“No!” I say to him.   

“Ya,” he replies, “You can’t believe this.”   

“Four?” I ask.   

“Four. In. A. Row.” He answered.    

“The next day in the papers: ‘Bombshell Bill Bertka,’ they called me Bombshell. Bill. Bertka,” he said it again.  

“And that was my moment. The next day, I was floating… I wrote my mom and I said ‘you know mom, last night I had my moment. For all the ups and downs of my basketball career, God paid me back last night, big time.”   

“She saved that letter forever,” he said.   

“But that’s my tie-in with Chick Hearn!”   

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They met again in 1968 when Coach joined the Lakers.  

“You know all the facts about Chick,” Bertka began listing off Chick’s accolades: “41 years, made all these halls of fame, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 3,338 consecutive games, words-eye-view, Chickisms,” and then he couldn’t help himself, “fall back babayyyy,” he emulated his longtime friend.  

“Chick had a lot of habits. You could set your watch by things that he did,” Coach said. “One of the things you always caught him doing was preparation. After a night game, on the plane home, he’d be working for the next game.”   

He respected his gift.  

Chick explained to Bertka that “he was an artist—he paints pictures with his description of the game.”  

A lot of players said Chick made them, Coach told me. “He made players stars with his descriptions of them, that was one of his qualities,” he said.   

“He was always the first one on the team bus, he was always the first one on the plane, and he always wanted the seat behind the bulkhead.”   

“You heard this before?” Bertka asked me.   

“No,” I answered.   

“Oh okay,” he said.   

“He was always the first one at the arena, getting ready for the games. He was always the first one into the hotel lobby and the first one up to his room. THEN,” Bertka raised his voice, “he was always the first one to come back downstairs.”   

“What’s wrong, Chick?” Bertka would ask.   

“’WHAT’S WRONG?!’” Chick yelled, “’the room’s too small.’”   

“What do you mean the room’s too small?” Bertka replied.    

“’I opened the door and almost fell out the window,’” Chick snapped back.   

Coach recalled the story cracking up.   

And Chick took pride in knowing everything, “you never kept secrets from Chick,” Coach pointed out.   

“Riley made the mistake. We were in Boston in ‘85. He said at our coaches meeting, ‘Don’t tell Chick about this. Whatever you do, don’t be telling Chick about this.’”   

“I don’t know how it happened, but this got back to Chick,” Bertka explained. “I’m sitting with Riley and the other coaches in a restaurant at the hotel. Here comes Chick. I mean he had fire coming out of his ears, and he walked over to us. I’ve never seen anybody as mad as Chick was that day. Well, he made his point. Ya, he made his point boy.”   

Chick was more dedicated to the game than anyone, but if there was a weekend he could get away he loved to go to Santa Barbara, where Coach still lives.  

Chick and his wife Marge would travel there regularly and stay at the West Beach Inn. There was a little bar right down the street. He would sit there all day long talking to the bartenders. Coach told me that they loved Chick in Santa Barbara — they love Chick everywhere.   

“And we used to talk all the time about cities with the best soups,” Bertka remembered:   

Chick would ask, “’What’d you have for lunch yesterday, Bill?’”  

“Well, we were at the Hyatt Hotel in Oakland, and I had the navy bean,” Coach answered.   

“’Ohhhh, the navy bean soup is goooood in Oakland,’” Chick replied.    

“We were on the same trip going to Denver, and I said, ‘Chick are you going to go to the Westin Hotel and get the beef steak soup that they have?’”   

“’Ohhhh, the beef steak soup?! Ohhhh I love beef steak soup,’” Coach recited Chick’s reply. “’What about the French onion soup.’”  

“So, we had a lot of discussions,” Bertka said to me regarding the soup.   

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“Chick never referred to me as Bill,” Coach told me one last story. “Whenever Chick referred to me it was ‘Billy Bertka.’”  

“I used to drink Glenlivet scotch and water,” he continued. “Whenever we had a drink after the game, I would have Glenlivet scotch and water. At different times, Chick would say, when we were in the locker room, ‘Hey Billy, you gonna see Glen tonight,’” Coach shouted as we both laughed, remembering Chick— his friend.