Bill Bertka noticed a ring of familiarity about this year’s Los Angeles Lakers basketball team.
The longtime Santa Barbaran came into this season with enough NBA championship rings for every finger and thumb, but the 11th one that was earned last Sunday rang like an echo from 1985.
“We’ve compared this team to the one from back then,” said Bertka, who was first hired by the Lakers as a part-time scout in 1968. “We were a really good road team back then, and this one was outstanding on the road, as well.
“This team was really good at pushing and fast-breaking, too, and I don’t think there’s ever been a team that ran with the consistency of the Lakers of the 1980s. Magic Johnson was the perfect orchestra leader for that.”
He sees some similarities between Magic and LeBron James, who won his fourth NBA Finals MVP Award last week with his third different team. Bertka, who still works for the Lakers as a special assistant and consultant at age 93, served as coach Pat Riley’s assistant during the era of Showtime.
“Magic was a very unique athlete and basketball player,” Bertka said. “His intangibles were outstanding — his knowledge of the game and competitive spirit and leadership qualities, and what he was able to do as a 6-foot-9 and 215-pound point guard.
“But LeBron can also play point, or the two-guard, or the three, or four or even the five. He has great versatility as an athlete, but he also has those same intangibles as Magic. That was especially evident this season with the way his leadership and play and inspiration were key factors in our winning the championship.
“LeBron now may be considered the greatest to ever play the game. He’s getting some attention for that even over (Michael) Jordan.”
But Bertka still glows at the thought of Showtime. The 1985 Lakers remain his favorite team.
“We snapped our jinx with the Boston Celtics that year,” he said. “They’d beaten us in the NBA Finals eight times, and we clinched it in Game 6 that year by beating them on the parquet floor in Boston.
“That series started with the Memorial Day Massacre (a 148-114 loss in Boston) but ended with us winning in six games.”
This year’s team also clinched the NBA championship in six games against the Miami Heat.
Magic, the NBA Finals MVP in both 1980 and 1982, averaged 15.2 assists in the 1985 playoffs to set up 37-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his second and last NBA Finals MVP award.
“That team also had Kurt Rambis and Bob McAdoo, and Michael Cooper and Byron Scott in the backcourt,” Bertka recalled. “Mitch Kupchak got hurt but still made some big-time contributions.”
Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes, a Santa Barbara High graduate, contributed off the bench in his last full NBA season. He would be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame 27 years later.
“I used to tell him, ‘Silk, when you retire, they should put your hands into the Hall of Fame,’” Bertka recalled. “He had the best pair of hands of any basketball player I’ve ever seen. He could catch the ball at any angle or in any lane.”
The Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table inducted Wilkes into its Hall of Fame in 1988 and Bertka the following year. The Santa Barbara Court of Champions honored Bertka in 2014 and the National Basketball Coaches Association presented him the Tex Winter Assistant Coach Lifetime Impact Award last year.
He came to Santa Barbara County in 1952 to coach for two years at Midland School. He played at the same time for the Santa Maria Dukes of the National Industrial Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA.
Hancock College hired Bertka as its head coach in 1954 and, within three years, he had them winning 41 consecutive games and the 1957 Junior College State championship.
His alma mater of Kent State lured him back to Ohio to coach there for five years, but he longed for a return to the Central Coast.
“I told my wife (Solveig) that I was getting out of coaching and that I wanted to go where we’d live for the rest of our lives — and that I knew exactly where that was,” Bertka recalled. “From those early days, I realized there was no place as beautiful as Santa Barbara.”
The city hired him as its Recreation Director in 1961. During his 10 years in the job, he pioneered several exercise and sports programs including the popular “Huff ‘N’ Puff” class which provided noontime workouts for businessmen and women. He also cofounded the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table with Caesar Uyesaka and Jerry Harwin.
Bertka was a driving force in the development of both Shoreline Park and Elings Park. He also forged a joint-lease agreement with Santa Barbara City College that gave the public access to the track at La Playa Stadium and led to the reconstruction of Pershing Park.
“One of my biggest frustrations in life was what happened to Laguna Park,” Bertka said, noting the 1970 demolition of the downtown baseball stadium.
He scratched his itch for coaching, meanwhile, by scouting college basketball games throughout the 1960s.
“It started out as more like a hobby,” he said. It had become a full-fledged scouting service known as “Bertka Views” when he turned it over to Solveig at the start of his NBA career.
The Lakers hired him in 1968 to scout college players for the NBA Draft. Bill Sharman upgraded his role to assistant coach and advance scout when he took over as head coach in the 1971-72 season. One of Bertka’s first innovations was to compile film on upcoming opponents.
Kupchak once noted how Bertka “would splice 35-millimeter game film, hang it vertically in his home, then throw in a few non-related basketball pictures to see if the players were paying attention.”
Bertka helped Sharman guide the 1971-72 team of Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain to an NBA-record 33-game winning streak and to the Lakers’ first championship in Los Angeles.
He kept his home in Santa Barbara even after he became vice-president and general manager of the then-New Orleans Jazz. Riley brought him back to the Lakers, however, when he took over as head coach in the 1981-82 season.
“I’ve seen all the great Laker teams,” Bertka said, “from West and Baylor and Wilt … to Magic and Kareem and Worthy … to Kobe and Shaq, and then Kobe and Gasol … and now to LeBron and Anthony Davis.”
Great teams, he noted, shine brightest with more than one star.
“Anthony Davis is a unique big man for today’s game,” he said. “He’s not a post-up man. He operates at midrange, and with outstanding defensive ability.”
The great teams, he also noted, play great defense.
“Miami couldn’t get a good look the entire game,” he said of last Sunday’s 106-93, title-clinching victory. “It took a 48-minute commitment from our guys. It can’t be half of a game. It’s got to be all the way.”
And that may best explain his desire to remain a Laker at age 93.
The COVID-19 pandemic did prevent him from entering the NBA bubble in Orlando. He was forced to watch the last part of the season from his 50-acre avocado ranch.
“Oh, that hurt … but I understood it,” Bertka said. “You’re allowed only a certain number of people in the bubble. And at the age of 93, I’m a pretty good candidate for the virus.
“I do thank God each and every day for the health I’ve been given during the 93 years I’ve been here. I try to stay active, do a lot of workouts in the pool, and try to walk around my property as much as I can.
“I just want to keep my heart and lungs and brain going. The secret is to keep moving.”
He moved many Laker fans with his narration of a video called “Legacy” which was aired before this year’s NBA Finals.
“I got all kinds of feedback,” Bertka said, “with people saying, ‘It brought tears to my eyes.’”
In a voiceover to the video showing the past Laker greats, he said, “I’ve watched this world change, as well as the game of basketball. After 93 years, I’ve just about seen it all. But I’ve never seen anything like this — I’ve never seen a team endure as much as today’s Lakers.
“And as we continue on this journey, lined with uncertainties, I know one thing to be true: Don’t ever count out the Los Angeles Lakers.”
That holds true, as well, for their very special assistant.