Bill Bertka’s Favorite Laker-Celtic Memories

As the Two Teams Battle in the NBA Finals, the Santa Barbara Coach Remembers

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

Bill Bertka has been around the Los Angeles Lakers – where the 80-year-old is the director of scouting – during the lowest and highest moments of their storied rivalry with the Boston Celtics. Here are a few more memories and thoughts to come out of Bertka’s deep well as the two teams battle it out in the 2008 NBA Finals.

No Balloons

Bertka was Santa Barbara’s superintendent of recreation when he began moonlighting as a scout for the Lakers in 1967. He had a seat in the Forum for Game Seven of the 1969 NBA Finals. Anticipating at long last a victory over the Celtics, the Lakers’ owner Jack Kent Cooke put hundreds of balloons in the rafters. They never floated down in celebration. The Lakers lost 108-106 after Boston’s Don Nelson sank a shot that bounced crazily off the back of the rim, and L.A. coach Butch Van Breda Kolff refused to let Wilt Chamberlain, who had taken himself out of the game, return to the floor. “Jack Kent Cooke had a phone next to his seat in the stands, and I saw him pick it up and call down to the bench,” Bertka said. “You knew something was going on.” Cooke wanted to put Chamberlain back in the game, but Bertka said, “Butch was known to be stubborn. Cooke wasn’t going to sway him.”

A Ring at Last

Boston’s dynasty was in a hiatus when the Lakers brought Los Angeles its first NBA title, defeating the New York Knicks 4-1 in the 1972 Finals. A key piece of their championship run was Jim McMillian, a forward from Columbia University whom Bertka had targeted in the 1970 draft. Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor retired early in the 1971-72 season. McMillian replaced him in the starting lineup and averaged 19 points in the Finals. Jerry West, another Laker great, cherished his only title as a player.

Another Crusher

Bertka missed out on L.A.’s 1980 championship while serving as general manager of the New Orleans/Utah Jazz, but Pat Riley brought him back to the Lakers as an assistant coach early in the 1981-82 season. He has been on the club’s payroll ever since. The 1984 Finals brought what he called “one of the greatest disappointments of my coaching career.” Boston, of course, was the villain. The Lakers were on the verge of taking a 2-0 lead in the series when Gerald Henderson stole a pass and scored a game-tying layup, and the Celtics won in overtime. Bertka recalled, “I can still see that ball floating across the court and that little guard stealing it.” The Celtics won the series 4-3. “We lost so many damn heartbreakers, Jerry West wouldn’t go to the games,” Bertka said. West, who had become the Lakers’ general manager, did not travel to Boston in 1985 to see them beat the Celtics for the first time in nine NBA Finals between the two teams.

Mitch Kupchak

Bertka heaps credit on Kupchak, West’s successor as general manager, for the success of this year’s Lakers. As a player, the forward from North Carolina was one of Bertka’s favorites. “Mitch was a hell of an athlete. He had a devastating knee injury that curtailed his career, but he never complained.” Kupchak was an unsung hero in the 1985 NBA Finals. “Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) went to the bench with foul trouble in the second quarter of Game Six. Mitch came in on one leg, off two knee surgeries, and he saved us.” As GM, Kupchak resisted pressure to break up the roster he had assembled. “He provides such an example of believing in yourself and having the faith to stay the course,” Bertka said. The one trade Kupchak orchestrated, acquiring Pau Gasol in mid-season, was a stroke of brilliance.

Andrew Bynum

He is the Lakers’ center of the future and another example of Kupchak’s steadfastness. The Lakers drafted him out of high school in 2005. “I conducted a pre-draft workout of Bynum at a gym in Chicago,” Bertha said. “He was a poor runner and had limited playing experience, but the upsides were his physique – his broad shoulders and weight distribution – and his instincts. We knew he’d be an investment. The doomsayers said get rid of him [after last season], but Mitch hung in there.” Bynum helped the Lakers get off to a great start in 2007-08 – earning the praise of his worst critic, Kobe Bryant – before a knee injury put him on the shelf in January. His return, with the addition of Gasol, will give the Lakers a formidable front line in years to come.

Riding High

“There are Hall of Famers who’ve never been to the NBA Finals. I can say I’ve been to 16 Finals,” said Bertka, the Lakers’ director of scouting at age 80. “It’s been an unbelievable ride:the rise and fall-not once, not twice, not three times, but four or five times. Our falls aren’t too steep, and our recoveries are pretty damn quick.”