The eights were all lined up for Bill Bertka last Saturday. He turned 88 on 8/8. To mark the occasion, here are eight things to know about this 55-year resident of Santa Barbara.
1) Basketball is in his blood: He shot baskets for hours and played against older men at the YMCA in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He made the high school varsity in his senior year, and after building his strength in the army, he returned to play at Kent State. Willing to take any head-coaching job in the country, he was hired at Midland School in the Santa Ynez Valley in 1952. The small boarding school had no gym and no uniforms when he arrived. After two years, he coached at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, winning a state JC championship in 1957, and had a four-year stint at Kent State.
2) He was a fitness pioneer: Bertka came to Santa Barbara in 1961 as superintendent of recreation for the city. “All I wanted to do was create activity, get people moving,” he said. “We started physical fitness programs for men and women at Dwight Murphy Field and the Carrillo Gym. We brought [famed heart specialist] Paul Dudley White here to talk about cardiovascular conditioning.” Bertka still practices what he preached, speed-walking laps around the La Playa Stadium track and working out in the pool. He held his recreation job for 11 years. “The worst thing that happened was losing Laguna Park,” he said. The downtown ballpark was torn down after the Dodgers removed their minor-league team from Santa Barbara in 1967.
3) He ran the nation’s top college basketball scouting service: He started Bertka Views to maintain his connection to basketball. It grew into a nationwide network of scouts who evaluated the upcoming opponents of Bertka’s clients. “The biggest challenge was getting the reports to them on time,” he said. Once he drove to San Francisco to deliver a report to the Tennessee coach whose team was on its way to a tournament in Hawai‘i. “I couldn’t mail it to him on time,” Bertka said. “I sat in the bathtub of his hotel room and typed up the report.” Bertka’s wife, Solveig Bertka, took over the business in 1974 when he became general manager of the New Orleans Jazz. “She’s the only woman in history who did what she did,” he said. “John Calipari scouted for her. Roy Williams scouted for her.” Bertka Views lasted until the early ’90s. Bill and Solveig Bertka are in their 60th year of marriage.
4) He was the first scout to work for an NBA team: The L.A. Lakers hired Bill Bertka in 1968 to scout college talent. “The GMs would send out questionnaires to college coaches,” he said. “Nobody had a scout at the games.” He started working full-time for the Lakers in the 1971-72 season as an assistant coach. He was responsible for scouting their opponents. Bill Sharman, the head coach, recalled in a 2011 interview, “I liked to use film footage, which was a new concept, and the great Bill Bertka would stay up all night and splice films together so that we could show them at practice the next day … During the 33-game winning streak, we needed a new projector, and [owner] Jack Kent Cooke didn’t want to spend the money on one … Bertka had to show the film holding a pencil and his finger in the reel to make it work.”
5) He has 10 NBA championship rings: The Lakers won their first title in L.A. in 1972. A key player, Jim McMillian, was drafted out of Columbia on Bertka’s recommendation. He left the Lakers to become the first GM of the Jazz, a franchise started by Santa Barbara’s Sam Battistone. Pat Riley lured Bertka back to L.A. when he became head coach of the Lakers in 1981. “Riley called me ‘the administrator of all things,’” Bertka said. He sat on the bench next to Riley with clipboard in hand. “I have a chart for every game we played in the ’80s,” Bertka said. Their team won four NBA titles, most memorably in 1985 when the Lakers finally took down the Celtics in Boston. “I was on a knee during Game Six praying for a win,” Bertka said. During the Phil Jackson years, when the Lakers collected five more titles, Bertka was employed as the director of scouting, a role in which the Lakers continue to maintain his services.
6) He drilled three of the most dominating big men in history: Bertka’s specialty on the Lakers’ practice floor was monitoring the post moves of the centers. He worked with Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal. “Without a doubt, Kareem was the best of all time,” Bertka said. “Shaq could have been the greatest. From 1999-2002 he was the strongest, quickest big center I’ve ever seen, but his longevity fell short of Kareem’s.”
7) He was busy on NBA draft day for the 48th consecutive year: Bertka was in the “war room” at the Laker headquarters during the 2015 draft. “There was a lot of deliberation and discussion about the No. 2 pick,” he said. The Lakers passed up a shot at Duke’s big man, Jahlil Okafor, and chose Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell. It was a nod to the increased importance of skilled guards — like MVP Steph Curry of the champion Golden State Warriors — in the evolution of the game. “You must have a solid point guard, people who can shoot three-pointers,” Bertka said. “In the ’80s, six three-pointers a game was a lot. Now, they shoot 20 or 30.” With Russell, the Lakers have three young players whom Bertka describes as “gifted” — the others being 2014 draft picks Julius Randle, the Kentucky forward who missed last season because of an injury, and guard Jordan Clarkson, who made the NBA all-rookie team.