The head table in the banquet room at Fess Parker’s appeared to be 94 feet long, the distance from baseline to baseline. Seated along it were the 20 living members of the Santa Barbara Court of Champions, a convocation of past and present members of the community “who have achieved and/or made significant contributions to the game of basketball.”
It was amazing to see them all in one place:
• Brian Shaw and Carrick DeHart, seated with their UCSB coaches, Jerry Pimm and his then-assistant Ben Howland, recalling the days the Gauchos first made the NCAA tournament and rocked the Thunderdome when they upset No. 1–ranked UNLV.
• Jamaal Wilkes and Don Ford together again, as they were when they played for the Santa Barbara Dons and the Los Angeles Lakers.
• The coach-and-player pairings of Maury Halleck and Sal Rodriguez, Jack Trigueiro and Vic Bartolome, Andrew Butcher and Holly Ford Emerson, Mark French and Erin Alexander Brown.
• Westmont College’s John Moore, two wins away from 500 in his coaching career, and Kirsten Moore, who turned tragedy into triumph when she coached the Warrior women to the NAIA championship.
• Gary Cunningham and Gary Colson, coaches of distinction who have shared their knowledge of the game in the community.
• Larry Crandell, the comic of champions. When he wasn’t winning World War II, he played some basketball at Syracuse and confessed that his GPA and scoring average “combined were a 3.”
• Bill Bertka, who has been a scout, assistant coach, and front-office consultant with the Lakers for 38 years, the last 33 continuously, all while commuting from Santa Barbara.
In the center of the table, flanked by those 20, was guest-of-honor Jerry West, the Lakers legend whose silhouette has been the NBA’s logo for four decades. West attended out of his friendship for Bertka, but he also was enamored of the entire event, pulled together in a couple of months by Curt Pickering and Eric Burkhardt. “Let’s make this bigger and better next year,” West said.
All who were there Monday night realized the inaugural class was something special. It also included posthumous honorees Don Volpi, the first Dos Pueblos High coach, and journalist Phil Patton.
The basketball year reaches a climax this week with the start of the NBA Finals. Both the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs received support from the Court of Champions.
For the Heat: “They have the one element nobody else has: LeBron James,” Cunningham said. “LeBron is just physically not normal,” Kirsten Moore said. “I saw him in person one time, and it’s unbelievable how you can be that quick and that big. His passing is what impressed me the most.” Howland said the Heat has incentive to join the Celtics, Bulls, and Lakers as the only clubs to win three consecutive titles. Bertka is pulling for Pat Riley, the president of the Miami franchise, who sat Bertka next to him on the bench when they coached the Lakers in the Showtime era. Another Santa Barbara connection is Chet Kammerer, the former Westmont coach who has worked for the Heat for 17 years as a scout and player personnel specialist.
For the Spurs: Coach Gregg Popovich is admired for the way he has kept his aging team at the top of its game. “I like those old guys, and Pop reminds me a lot of Trigueiro,” Bartolome said, referring to his crusty high school coach. “We’ve never seen a coach that’s better than Popovich,” West said. “His teams play beautifully together. They’re so cohesive that when they’re playing their best, they’re really tough to beat. I have mixed emotions, because of Pat Riley, but I have to stick with the West.”
Shaw came to appreciate all too well the way the Spurs play as he went through his first season as head coach of the Denver Nuggets. “They would have won it all last year if it hadn’t been for the ending of Game Six,” he pointed out. Emerson Ford said the Spurs are hungry because of that one that got away. “The best player on the planet [James] can’t beat five who understand their roles,” Pimm declared. Pickering noted the Spurs have some younger players, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw, who can take on James. French prefers the Spurs because of forward Tim Duncan, “an old-school, classy guy.” John Moore likes the Spurs because “I’m on a mission to bring the pass back to the game of basketball. I’m so happy to see the Spurs do well because they really honor the pass. No matter how good the players are, the ball has to move around.”
Butcher had a suggestion: “Over the season, the injuries pile up, tendinitis and all that. If you could talk to the trainers for each team, then you would know who’s going to win — whichever team is healthier.”