Bill Bertka needs all his fingers and toes to count the number of times he’s been involved in the NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers, but he’s never grown weary of the experience. This year, when it ended in a Game 7 showdown between the Lakers and their historical nemesis, the Boston Celtics, you could have charged up a laptop by plugging it into Bertka.
“Every game is important, but Game 7s are agonizing,” said Bertka, the Lakers’ director of scouting. “That is it—no tomorrow. I was sweating it out from my perch in the Staples Center.”
The last time the Lakers had gone to the limit, Bertka was seated on the bench at the Forum. It was 1988, when the Lakers fulfilled head coach Pat Riley’s guarantee that they would become the first back-to-back champions since 1969. Not only did they need seven games to squeeze past the Detroit Pistons in the Finals, the Lakers also went seven games against Utah and Dallas to get there.
“When I look back at our playoff years, that was the most remarkable, when we went seven, seven, and seven,” said Bertka, who was Riley’s top assistant. “[Current Lakers coach] Phil Jackson never had a Game 7 until now. I’ve always said the ’88 championship was Pat’s peak in coaching. He wasn’t going to let that team lose.”
Although he has not been a game-time coach since 2001, the 82-year-old Bertka bleeds purple more deeply than almost any other Laker employee or fan. He began his career with the club as a part-time scout in 1967. Except for a seven-year stint as general manager of the New Orleans/Utah Jazz, he has been on their payroll ever since. Throughout that time, he has commuted to L.A. from his home in Santa Barbara.
The 2010 Finals were his 20th with the Lakers. “It’s my 10th championship,” he said. “I’m at .500 now.” In the wake of their 83-79 clincher over the Celtics last Thursday, Bertka said, “It was no Picasso.” But maybe it was. It resembled one of Picasso’s works of fragmented shapes and geometric chaos, as the defensive work of both teams clogged up the flow of the game. “It was the ultimate, grind-it-out, gritty Boston game,” Bertka said. “I so respect how hard they play, and how hard we were going to have to play to beat them.”
The anxiety level rose throughout the night until Sasha Vujačić’s two free throws with 11 seconds remaining put the Lakers ahead by four points. “That was the most dramatic thing for me, when Jackson put Vujačić in the game,” Bertka said. “Here’s a guy who’s been sitting on the bench, who’s had and up-and-down season because of injuries, a guy who had a disappointing season last year. Who do they foul? They foul him. A lot of times in practice, we [coaches] say, ‘This is the seventh game of the NBA championship, you’ve got two free throws, you’ll win or lose on these free throws …’ This time it wasn’t win or lose, but we were only two up. He steps up to the line: bang, all net. The next one, all net. The whole world, the whole world, is watching those two free throws. That was a hell of a coaching move by Jackson.”
Another move that worked out well for the Lakers was the signing of controversial Ron Artest and the departure of Trevor Ariza after they won the 2009 championship. There were fears that Artest would upset the balance of a winning team. “I had no problem with that,” Bertka said. “My only question—would Ron grasp that opportunity? It was his dream to get a chance to play with the Lakers. It was wonderful to see him in Game 7 against the Celtics. Without Ron Artest [20 points, five rebounds, five steals, while defending against Paul Pierce], I don’t know if we win the game.”
Bertka expects Phil Jackson to return “if he’s in good health” and pursue another championship with the Lakers. He has a chance to put together the fourth “three-peat” of his coaching career—a pair of back-to-back-to-back titles with the Chicago Bulls and one away from his second with the Lakers. “Who will ever top that?” Bertka said.
Bertka was on top of a bus rolling down Figueroa Street during the Lakers’ victory parade Monday, another experience that he savors. It’s the city’s answer to all the “Beat L.A.” chants. “You see people from all walks of life, all races, all nationalities, all sharing a common experience that they’re all proud of,” Bertka said. “You see all the joy, excitement, and happiness the Lakers’ victory brought to the region.”
The rest of this week, Bertka was back to work, scouring the reports on scores of players the Lakers might consider taking with the 43rd and 58th picks in the NBA Draft.