Seattle Basketball Legend Jack Bergersen (1949-2020) Was Cougar With Husky Son

Dan Raley

Jack Bergersen died a week and a half ago. In advance of Friday night's Washington-Washington State basketball game at Alaska Airlines Arena, a remembrance if not a eulogy seems only right.

Bergersen was a legendary Seattle big man who grew up in the shadows of the UW, played for the Cougars and sent a son to the Huskies.

He was a talented yet tragic figure, always in control when on the basketball floor but a little lost away from it. 

Bergersen, who lived to be 71, usually was on the cusp of doing great things with a ball in his hands, but never quite experienced the game's ultimate glory.

The 6-foot-8 center led Roosevelt High School to the 1965 state championship game as a junior, only to lose to Eisenhower of Yakima in then-Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

As a senior, his Roughriders team was ranked No. 1 most of the season and a heavy favorite to win the state tournament, only to get upset in the opening round by Burlington-Edison. 

After two years of junior college to get his grades up, Bergersen became a starter  for Marv Harshman's last WSU team and led the Cougars to a promising start, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury.

His next game would have been against Washington in Seattle, in front of all of his friends and family members, yet he was a reluctant spectator.

And rather than finish up at WSU, Bergersen was among a large contingent of students who withdrew from their classes in 1970 over what he and the others said were racist practices at the school, and they left. 

"He was our heart and soul," said Eric Ranta, one of Bergersen's Roosevelt basketball teammates and a Seattle dentist. "Jack could have really been something."

As an adult, Bergersen struggled with depression, substance abuse and homelessness, residue from growing up in a difficult household. He eerily resembled the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, a tall, shy and somewhat sensitive artist with enormous talent who often drifted. He died on Feb. 16 in an assisted living facility. 

He became a highly visible figure on the Seattle sporting scene in 1965 when he and Dave West, who became a UW guard, led Roosevelt to a 21-3 season and into the state title game. His senior team the next year finished  21-2 while he showed himself to be a big point-producer, dropping 42 points on Garfield in what was a low-scoring era.

Harshman found Bergersen at Shoreline Community College, where he was a 21-point scorer, and brought him to Pullman. The forward was far better than anyone thought, earning a starting job right away and helping WSU to an 11-4 record. He was a presence inside.

He had games of 25 points against California and 18 against Oregon, and was just getting started. Everything changed when he cut at Oregon State and his knee caved on him.

"It was one of those what-ifs?" said Dave Harshman, who was a Cougar teammate and the son of the head coach. "If Jack hadn't done that with his knee, it was what-if?"

The Cougars played the following weekend against the Huskies and lost 37-36 in a slowdown game. A WSU tip-in at the buzzer by Dennis Hogg was waved off. An angry Marv Harshman went after the officials and Bergersen, bad knee and all, had to pull the coach away.

Bergersen laster tried to make a college basketball comeback at Central Washington University, but his knee wouldn't respond, and he eventually became a lost soul. 

If there was a redeeming side to Bergersen, he would become responsible for a long line of accomplished basketball players in his family. He never married, but he had a son whom he named Roberto, after his favorite baseball player, Roberto Clemente.

Roberto Bergersen, a 6-6 guard, was a star player at Decatur High in Federal Way who accepted a scholarship from Washington and its new coach Bob Bender. He started for half a season, admittedly let his grades slip and had to move on. During that time, his father stayed well in the background.

"He came to a couple of my games," he said. "He didn't like crowds. He'd sort of stand off in the corner and try to be invisible."

After attending a series of junior colleges and coming down to his last chance, Roberto Bergersen ended up at Boise State, which was a perfect fit for him. As a senior, he averaged 20 points a game and was named Big West Player of the Year, and he later was inducted to the school’s athletic hall of fame.

Roberto was taken in the NBA draft’s second round by the Atlanta Hawks, but ended up playing in France, Belgium, Italy, Turkey and Spain, plus the CBA and NBA D League. Today, he runs a year-round youth sports academy in Boise and watches over three basketball-minded sons.

Roberto Bergersen's oldest son Rylan is a 6-6 guard who played for BYU before transferring to Central Arkansas, where he leads that team in scoring at 15 points per game. 

His middle son Ryzin "Biggie" Bergersen plays at a Missouri prep school and expects to move up to college ball. Another son, Raychon "Ray Ray" Bergersen, is a sophomore at a Boise's Borah High School and a talented player.

None of them really got a chance to know Jack Bergersen all that well, but they're well aware he gave them their love for basketball. They know he could play, too.

"I can't go anywhere without people telling me what a legend he was," Roberto Bergersen said.