Banjo-String Bill Heads to NBA Finals

Santa Barbara's Bill Bertka Still Scouting and Coaching L.A. Lakers at Age 80

Bill Bertka flashes his rings from the '85 and '87 Lakers championships at a favorite S.B. hangout, Harry's Plaza Cafe. He's flanked by photos of himself (right) and the late Marv Goux of USC football fame (left).
Paul Wellman

The return of Indiana Jones is just the second most refreshing revival of the season. For a multitude of sports fans, the matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics-meeting in the NBA Finals for the first time in 21 years (the series begins tonight, June 5)-is a dream come true.

It has made Bill Bertka feel 20 years younger. Considering that Bertka, 80, has the energy of a 60-year-old-he is still working full-time as a scouting director and consultant for the Lakers-that would make him about 40.

“I’m wound up tight as a banjo string,” Bertka said the day after Boston clinched its place in the finals. “Basketball has been my life, and the Lakers versus the Celtics has been a big part of it. I couldn’t sleep last night.”

Sleeplessness is not a new sensation to him when the longtime NBA rivals meet. During the championship series in the ’80s, insurgent Boston fans would set off fire alarms in the hotels where the Lakers stayed. “We’d end up in the parking lot at three o’clock in the morning,” Bertka said.

Bertka was Pat Riley‘s assistant coach throughout the “Showtime” era of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. Those were the Lakers who ended years of frustration-Boston had beaten L.A. eight times in the NBA Finals from 1959 to 1984-by defeating the Celtics in 1985 and again in 1987.

A resident of Santa Barbara throughout his NBA career, Bertka is enthralled by the effect of the team’s success on the diverse L.A. population. “You can complain about pro athletes, a bunch of high-priced, spoiled guys, blah, blah, blah, but when they win, it stimulates the community and bonds people of every race and religion together,” he said.

Here are some of his memories of the times the Lakers finally conquered their nemesis:

1985: The Finals began with “The Memorial Day Massacre,” a 148-114 Boston victory. “That was a nightmare,” Bertka said. “We had a breakfast meeting the next day, and Pat asked each guy to get up and say something. My statement was that we might be feeling bad, but not as bad as every ex-Laker player, our families, and our fans. I’ve always felt that you play better when you’re playing for others, for more than yourself. The next game, we played like the Lakers.” They shut down the Celtics 109-102 and went on to take the championship in six games, winning the clincher at Boston Garden, which had long been a den of Laker misery. “[Celtics president and former coach] Red Auerbach did everything to make you uncomfortable,” Bertka said. “The locker rooms were the worst in the NBA. There was no room to turn around. There were two showers and little hooks on the wall to hang your clothes. It was hotter than hell on the floor.”

1987: The Lakers had lost in the conference finals the previous year, and Boston had regained the championship. But once again the Lakers dethroned the Celtics in six games. The turning point was Game Three in Boston Garden, where the Lakers came back from a 16-point deficit and took a 107-106 lead on Magic’s “junior sky-hook” with two seconds remaining. Boston’s Larry Bird missed a shot from the corner as time ran out. “He took it right in front of me,” Bertka said. “I told him later, ‘Larry, I almost grabbed you on that play.'” Lucky he didn’t, because the Celtics wanted to get a break from the officials. “Red Auerbach was upset over a call and chased [referee] Earl Strom all the way to the locker room hollering and screaming,” Bertka recalled. “Strom said, ‘Red, I thought you had more class and dignity than that.'” Auerbach had won nine titles as a coach, a record that Phil Jackson of the Lakers could soon break. “There are those who say Red is stirring in his grave right now,” Bertka said.

The Lakers also won the championship in 1988. Bertka considers it propitious that the current year is 2008. “Eight is my lucky number,” he said. “I was born on 8/8 [August 8, 1927].” He also has eight championship rings as a member of the Lakers organization. But number nine would be fine.

GAME OF THE WEEK: The U.S.A. men’s water polo team, in the homestretch of its preparations for the Beijing Olympics, will play Australia at 4 p.m., Sunday, June 8, at the Elings Aquatic Center at Dos Pueblos High School. Santa Barbara native Terry Schroeder is coach of the American team, which defeated world champion Croatia 8-5 last weekend in Westlake Village.


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