BUSY AS A BEE IN THE BUSINESS OF BASKETBALL

Bill Bertka, resting for just one moment while his wife Solveig plots new moves on a United States map, is a man in almost perpetual motion. He scouts the colleges and the pros when not relaxing in four other jobs
November 27, 1972

Insecure, ulcerated fellows that they are—a few victories are all that separate some of them from unemployment—most college basketball coaches would rather start a jockey at center than get ready for an opponent without a scouting report. And like ulcer patients they crave fat, soothing elixirs to settle their nervous stomachs. Enter the dossier, a thick, rich concoction full of information about the dreaded enemy. Does the little playmaking guard dribble to his left 51.8% of the time? Is the rangy forward so nearsighted he can't see the basket, much less hit it? Who throws the ball in on out-of-bounds plays? How many times does the student manager visit the water cooler? All that's in the package! Oh, peace! Oh, salvation!

Now, the rule has not been written that says the coach cannot do his own scouting or have an assistant do it for him, but consider the travel costs, the time, the fact that he is getting only his own opinion. So, enter right behind the dossier its author, or, more accurately, the man who is liable to be its author. He is Bill Bertka, proprietor of Bertka Views, the nation's biggest collegiate scouting agency, and, lest anybody think he is lying down on his jobs, president of a recreation-resort development company in Santa Barbara, Calif., head talent scout and opponent scout for the Los Angeles Lakers, host on a twice-weekly radio show and a weekly TV show (both called Sports With Bertka) and moderator of a weekly luncheon called the Santa Barbara Athletic Roundtable. Should he ever scout himself, Bill Bertka would no doubt conclude that he was a man who believed firmly that sleep was something that other people did. As usual, he would be right.

Bertka is his own most enthusiastic operative. Three weeks before the season-opening tip-off he immerses himself in basketball magazines and old reports—"to get my mind in tune with the game; you gotta be ready to go!" For a $55 to $65 fee, depending on expenses, Bertka or one of his hundreds of "associates" around the country (almost all of whom are ex-coaches) will scout a team and send the client a bulky package that includes clippings, brochures and 18 to 20 pages of diagrams, statistics, individual characteristics and tendencies. The slogan of Bertka Views: "We'll scout 'em—you play 'em—anywhere in the U.S.A."

"What that means, deep inside, is 'We'll scout 'em, but I'm not going to worry about who wins and who loses,' " says Bertka, an ex-coach himself.

At the 80 or 90 games Bertka attends each year he likes to sit up in the balcony, an attaché case on his lap serving as a desk as he riffles through papers, keeps shot charts on both teams, broadcasts the goings-on to himself and anybody unlucky enough to be sitting nearby, and scribbles the inevitable X's and O's. Most of his Christmas vacation each year is spent on the tournament trail away from his family; in just a four-day stretch last December, for instance, Bertka managed to squeeze in 32 teams. He feels guilty if he watches a game on television and doesn't take reams of notes.

"What sets Bill apart from other scouts is that he's so thorough," says Houston Coach Guy V. Lewis. "In fact, I'd rather have one of his scouting reports than see a team play myself. I've had other former coaches scout for me, but none give me the detailed, accurate report that Bill does."

An example was Bertka's advice given Lewis before Houston's 1967 NCAA semifinal game against UCLA in Louisville. "He felt we could press them," Lewis says, "and we did, successfully. In fact, they had more turnovers than we did. But the difference turned out to be UCLA's own press and Lew Alcindor."

"I'll tell you of a case where his report helped us win," says Stanford's Howie Dallmar. "There was a player who had a pretty good free-throw-shooting average, something like 75%, but the scouting report showed that he was closer to 100% in the first 10 minutes of each half. Under extreme pressure he would miss. That gave us a clue. If it was necessary to foul in the late minutes, we'd go for him. We did and sure enough he missed."

Naturally, Bertka is not goof-proof. Before the 1968 UCLA-Houston game in the Astrodome, Lewis assigned Bertka to scout the Bruins.

"I called Bill and talked to him after reading his report," said Lewis. "He had written that regardless of what we did there was no way we could beat UCLA. 'Bill,' I said, 'do you really believe that?' He answered, 'Yes, they're superhumans.' " With Alcindor injured, they were human. Houston won 71-69, snapping a 47-game winning streak.

The grandson of Slovak immigrants and the son of a rubber-factory worker, Bertka grew up in the gyms of Akron, Ohio, and it was there that he started accumulating the background necessary to become, well, all the things that he is. He competed against a lot of kids who ended up in the factories, and a few—like Eddie Elias, founder of the pro bowling tour, and Navy Football Coach Rick Forzano—who escaped. Eventually he made his way to nearby Kent State, where he played basketball, and on to a local high school where he was an assistant coach for one year before he decided it was time to step up.

"I went to a New York City employment agency for educational personnel," he says, "and I said, 'I will take a head-coaching job anywhere in the world, as long as I am the head coach.' They told me, 'O.K., there's a job in Los Olivos, Calif. at a ranch-type boarding school. They've never had a basketball program but they want one. You can be the head basketball and track coach, teach English, biology and Anglo-American history, and the job pays room and board and $1,800 a year.'

"I said, 'I'll take it.' "

Los Olivos turned out to be a bucolic spot over the San Marcos Pass from Santa Barbara, and Midland School was a spartan place that required the students to build their own outdoor basketball court and roll their own track. His ex-students remember he was called Boom Boom Bertka and that he was constantly telling them, "You gotta got guts!" (Not in English class, however.)

Bertka stayed at Midland two years before moving to nearby Santa Maria, where he became athletic director, dean of students and basketball coach at the new Allan Hancock College. The school had neither a gymnasium nor a campus, but no matter. Sunshine and clean air were about all the inducements Bertka needed to lure top athletes from back home in smoky Akron. In three years at Hancock, using Ohio talent almost exclusively, his teams were beaten only 14 times, won a state junior-college championship and 41 straight games over two seasons.

Bertka's ambition was to be the youngest major-college basketball coach in the country and he was close to it—only 30—when alma mater Kent State hired him in 1957. It was a serious misstep for Bertka. Hardly a place with what coaches like to call a "promising program," it played in the tough Mid-American Conference, saddled with a low budget and rigid entrance requirements. Bertka's record was 36-57, but there were a few triumphs, stemming generally from his rugged defenses and the weird but effective offense he dreamed up.

"He was a supercoach who was ahead of his time," said ex-Kent State star Gene Michael, now an infielder for the New York Yankees. "He always had new ideas and very sound reasons for everything he did."

One night Bertka almost passed out on the bench during a game. He had high blood pressure and was so excitable that his players called him Wild Willie. A doctor warned him that if he did not slow down he would never live to see 45. So in his 34th year Bertka quit coaching and moved west to become superintendent of the recreation department of Santa Barbara, a town that drowses contentedly between the Pacific Ocean and the San Rafael Mountains, a 1½-hour drive up the coast from Los Angeles, an ideal spot to settle down in semiretirement, right?

Wrong. He has been there 11 years now, and in the semi-mañana atmosphere of Santa Barbara, where mystery writer Ross Macdonald takes lonely walks along the beach and senior citizens bowl on the park lawns and deep thinkers meditate at the Center for the Stud) of Democratic Institutions, Bertka is about as settled down as a jackrabbit fleeing from a coyote.

He landed his local radio show because his public-service announcements for the recreation department were so good. That program led in 1968 to a temporary TV show that was supposed to follow Wide World of Sports for 18 weeks. It is still going and Bertka has missed hosting it just once. He started with the Lakers by evaluating a few players for a fee. His duties multiplied each year until now he has the title of chief scout, although the general manager—formerly Fred Schaus, now Pete Newell—makes the final drafting decisions. His college-scouting bureau began by turning out a few reports a year and blossomed into a nationwide business.

Only recently he gave up his recreation job with Santa Barbara. Despite the fact that there was little money for new facilities, in his 11 years as director he made good use of what park land and beaches the city had and his programs helped increase annual participation by more than a million people.

Bertka himself is a walking-jogging example of physical fitness. After the first round of the Cable Car Classic tournament last December, he was up half the night finishing scouting reports for various clients. When a friend went to his hotel the next morning to meet him for breakfast, Bertka, dressed in sweat clothes and puffing, was just getting in from a little jog up and down the mountain slopes that San Francisco calls streets.

One Santa Barbara city councilman came to the conclusion not long ago that the recreation director could not possibly be doing justice to his job while carrying on so much outside activity. So he introduced anti-moonlighting legislation. It did not pass, perhaps because there was a public outcry in Bertka's favor. One irate citizen wrote to the local newspaper: "I think it would be an immense improvement to dissolve the council and have Bill Bertka run the town as city manager."

The small tempest resolved itself when Bertka left the department to become president of Insignis Sports and Recreation, Inc., which is building a golf-tennis-swimming complex in California's Santa Ynez Valley and is negotiating to buy a country club near Santa Cruz.

Bertka really doesn't moonlight as much as some people think. The scouting hobby/business couldn't run without his wife Solveig, a dark-haired Swede who knows precisely how long it takes a package to get from Santa Barbara to any coach's office in the country. She types letters and reports from Bill's taped dictation, docs the bulk of the filing, handles the payroll and billing and somehow manages to keep Bertka from smothering under a pile of paper work.

The Views reports are set down on forms that Bertka has developed and refined over the last five or six years, forms that have been widely copied. To some of his associates they are pains in the typing fingers. One tired scout said, "Your scouting forms are worse than an Ivy League entrance exam."

Last-minute requests cause the most aggravation. It seems that coaches are reasonably sane and well-organized before the season starts, so their neatly typed letters arrive early. At tournament time in December, when unexpected opponents pop up in the finals or in the losers' brackets, the frantic phone calls and the incoherent notes scrawled on napkins begin to pour in. During the annual holiday rush it is not unusual for Solveig to get up at 4:30 a.m. (sometimes meeting Bill coming in from some out-of-town assignment), trudge out to the backyard office, switch on the heater and try to catch up with her work. A real hurry-up job occasionally forces Bertka to use an untried scout, which can be disastrous.

"We've come up with bad reports—not often, but it has happened—and it's just brutal," he says. "It always happens when you're in a bind and somebody recommends a man. You try him and the guy really bombs you out. What can you do? The coach just loses complete faith in you. I don't care how many good reports you sent, he only remembers the bad one."

Some coaches, including UCLA's John Wooden, like to have their own teams scouted, just as if the report was for an opponent. Bertka hates to do it. He once was hired to give an extensive critique of a team, and the coach was furious with the results, taking every criticism as a personal insult.

Bertka has not overlooked very many other moneymaking angles in the scouting business. He boosts his profits by selling the same report to several different coaches (but never, he swears, to the coach whose team has been dissected). He is willing to sell year-old reports at reduced rates. In the past he has offered a $35 California Junior College Talent Report. He even advertises a package deal: Bertka Views will prepare reports on a team's entire schedule. ("Why burden your assistants with scouting assignments when they can be doing invaluable recruiting? Why should you have to take time away from the team or fight that road at night? Leave the scouting to us.") Bertka brags that Kansas State bought this service in 1969-70 and won the Big Eight championship.

It used to be that the pros seldom scouted each other—why tell Earl Monroe how to handle Jo Jo White when they have battled each other dozens of times? Today the NBA, which hit a low point of eight teams, has grown to 17 teams in four divisions, and pro coaches no longer scoff at college methods. Laker Coach Bill Sharman has stepped up his emphasis on films, video tapes and in-depth scouting, and, of course, that last category means more sessions for Bertka high in some noisy arena, dashing off notes like a nervous college freshman trying to keep up with a fast-talking professor, hoping Solveig is keeping up with the paper work at home.

Through it all, Bertka enjoys himself immensely, even though it often takes a couple of martinis before dinner to slow down his motor.

"I have a family and I have basketball, that's it," Bertka says. "No other hobbies. Scouting and the game have been fascinating things to me. I enjoy them, I get a vicarious pleasure out of analyzing a team. It used to hurt so much to lose as a coach. In scouting you don't lose."

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