Bill Bertka, left, and Jerry West | Photo: Courtesy

In a span of seven days this June, two electrifying moments in the history of sport were brought to mind by the deaths of two legendary players.

There was “The Catch” by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series.

And there was “The Shot” by Jerry West in the 1970 NBA Finals.

I experienced West’s lightning strike in real time, with a transistor radio pressed to my ear at a noisy Isla Vista party. The Los Angeles Lakers had fallen behind the New York Knicks by two points with a mere two seconds to play. The peerless announcer Chick Hearn made the call: “Inbound pass to West in the backcourt … an 80-foot jumper … good!”

Upon review, the distance of the fling was reduced to 63 feet, but that did not minimize its impact. It enhanced the image of “Mr. Clutch,” as Hearn dubbed West.

In his autobiography, however, West himself describes his shot in Pyrrhic terms: “What they don’t talk about is that the shot only tied the score and we lost in overtime, lost the series. There was no three-point line back then.”

That was the seventh time that West and the Lakers came up second best. The Boston Celtics doomed them to failure six times. It was frustrating to me — an avid Jerry West fan ever since he spoke at my high school in 1963 — but it took a much deeper toll on West’s psyche.

“Jerry was a very talented athlete, a good-looking guy; he made a lot of money,” said Santa Barbara basketball aficionado Bill Bertka. “One thing he didn’t have was winning over the Boston Celtics as a player.”

Hence the title of West’s 2011 book: West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. 

The book begins with a prologue in which West, then the general manager of the Lakers, recalls a 1992 encounter with Bertka, “someone whom I had known and admired for more years than I could remember.”

Bertka had toiled as a scout and assistant coach of the Lakers. He had been Pat Riley’s right-hand man during the Showtime years. When Mike Dunleavy, Riley’s successor, moved from L.A. to Milwaukee, Bertka thought his time had come to be the head coach.

He was waiting outside West’s office in the Forum one morning, and when the GM arrived, Bertka said, “Every day, Jerry, every single f%#$ing day when I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, I know what I see. What the hell do you see?”

“Good question,” West wrote, then turning it into the premise for his book. “Even though he [Bertka] was asking about himself, about why we weren’t likely to make him the next head coach of the Lakers, what follows will be an unflinchingly honest, painful, soul-searching attempt to answer that question about a very flawed individual — me. To reveal who I am.”

But why not let Bertka realize his vision? “Jerry took me to lunch and told me why he wasn’t going to hire me as head coach,” the now 96-year-old Bertka recalled in a conversation last week. “He said, ‘It’s simple. If I give you this job, I’d have to fire you, and I don’t want to fire you.’ He was a realist. He felt the team was on a downhill slide.”

Randy Pfund got the job. He was a former Westmont College assistant whom the Lakers added to Riley’s coaching staff at Bertka’s recommendation. Sure enough, Pfund was fired during his second season.

“I told Bill that the best job in the NBA is to be the number-one assistant on the best team and stay there,” said Pfund, who landed a management job with the Miami Heat. Pfund had heard from Riley that Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted Bertka to be “a Laker for life.”

So Bertka continued to plug along in his assistant’s role, commuting from Santa Barbara for every homestand, every road trip, and every meeting. He was called on to coach three games during the gaps between head coaching changes. His record: 2-1.

Unlike Bertka, a secure man in an insecure business, Jerry West was wracked with anxiety. He famously could not bear to watch some games. He superstitiously stayed home when the Lakers went to Boston and clinched the 1985 championship on the parquet floor, lifting the curse of the Celtics a bit.

“Of all the things that plague me and keep me up at night,” West wrote, “be it the losses to the Celtics or my own lingering insecurities and internal struggles, my own conflicted attitude toward quietly liking recognition for my accomplishments and yet being very uncomfortable about being singled out, I continue to be harder on myself than anyone around me.”

West orchestrated a trade for Shaquille O’Neal and drafted Kobe Bryant in 1996, paving the way for the Lakers’ three championship seasons in 2000, 2001, and 2002. But he and the Lakers parted ways after the first of those seasons. There were clashes with Phil Jackson, the coach he hired. Bertka witnessed a telling incident when Jackson threw West out of the Lakers’ locker room after a game. 

This is a photo from John Zant’s high school yearbook in 1963, when Jerry West went around trying to drum up interest in the NBA. | Photo: John Zant

West took his expertise to Memphis, Golden State, and the L.A. Clippers.

Bertka’s place on the Lakers bench also ended in that era, but he continued to work in the front office as a scouting director and consultant, ultimately collecting 11 NBA Championship rings. In October, 2018, the Independent ran my cover story on Santa Barbara’s hoop guru, titled “Bill Bertka’s Beautiful Life.” 

During the Summer League at Las Vegas in July 2019, Bertka received the Tex Winter Assistant Coach Lifetime Impact Award from the National Basketball Coaches Association. “Jerry West came out of the stands to stand with me at the awards ceremony,” Bertka said. They were joined by Pat Riley and Mitch Kupchak, another former Lakers GM — a reunion of the old guard.

Even though his role was greatly reduced in the new Lakers regime, post–Jerry Buss, there was seemingly no end in sight to Bertka’s career path, until August 3, 2023, five days before his 96th birthday.

On that day in El Segundo near the Lakers’ offices, Bertka stumbled off a sidewalk along the Pacific Coast Highway. Remember the Chick Hearn saying — “No harm, no foul, no blood, no ambulance”? Well, this was no bump on the basketball court. Bertka’s left side was banged and bloody from the shoulder to the knee. And, yes, there was an ambulance.

“It changed my life,” Bertka said woefully.

Before he could fully recover, a subsequent fall knocked him out, and currently he has been convalescing at a nursing home.

“I’m shocked,” Bertka said when he heard of West’s death on June 12. It brought back a flood of memories. “I knew Jerry West longer than anybody,” he said. He recalled that when he was the ambitious young head coach at Santa Maria’s Hancock College in the mid-1950s, searching far and wide for prospects, he heard through the grapevine about a skinny high school kid in West Virginia named Jerry West.

The kid was in his prime as a professional player in 1968 when the Lakers hired Bertka as the first full-time NBA scout. He was on Bill Sharman’s coaching staff in 1972 when West was rewarded with his only championship as a player, the Lakers defeating the Knicks in the NBA Finals.

In a bit of irony, their old nemesis, the Boston Celtics, won the 2024 NBA Finals on June 17, moving the franchise a notch above the Lakers with 18 titles.

A few days after that, the Lakers ended their search for a new coach — the 15th since West refused to put Bertka in the hot seat — by hiring JJ Redick.

Inside Bertka’s copy of West by West is a handwritten note signed by the author: “Bill, your dedication and loyalty to the Lakers has been amazing. I have always loved being around you. You made my life fun and most of all successful. I will forever thank you for being so kind to me.”

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