Before coaching and scouting NBA legends, including the “Showtime” Lakers, en route to capturing handfuls of NBA Championships, Bill Bertka got his start right here at Hancock College.
After logging more than 43 years on NBA benches, Bertka returned home Saturday.
As the guest speaker for The Valley Speaks monthly series at the Santa Maria Public Library’s Shepard Hall, Bertka was reunited with old friends and spoke about the tremendous impact starting the Hancock basketball program has had on not only his life, but also the Santa Maria community.
“Santa Maria has always been my home, it is a very special place for me and my wife,” Bertka said before speaking Saturday. “Santa Maria is where my professional life started.”
Bertka, 83, came to the Central Coast after graduating from Kent State in Ohio and “taking any job where I could be the head coach.”
That first job turned out to be starting a basketball program at a tiny school near Los Olivos — he became head coach of Midland School basketball in 1952.
During his very first weekend on the Central Coast, Bertka “came up to Santa Maria and drove right down Broadway and stopped at a service station by the Santa Maria Inn.”
Bertka ran into Duke Webster and found out Santa Maria had a semi-pro basketball team.
“I tried out for the team and played with the Dukes which was a wonderful experience,” Bertka said.
Bertka played for the storied Santa Maria Golden Dukes of the National Industrial Basketball League, an early predecessor to the NBA.
The Golden Dukes drew huge crowds when it played at the armory that is now part of the Santa Maria Fairpark. The community support was so powerful, that the Dukes are in the Basketball Hall of Fame as the only fully community-supported team.
After the Dukes, Bertka’s knowledge and passion for basketball made him an easy choice to start up the Hancock basketball program in 1954.
Bertka proved the Hancock administration was on to something. In 1957 Hancock College won the junior college state championship, winning 41 consecutive games at one point.
Bertka then left Hancock to coach at Kent State. He says leaving Santa Maria was, “one of my worst mistakes.”
After his tenure at Kent State, Bertka started a scouting agency in Santa Barbara. He did some work for the Lakers that eventually led to a full-time position.
Ten NBA Championships and 43 years of coaching and scouting within arguably the most successful organization in basketball later, and Bertka is still most proud of the Hancock glory days.
“You think about it and 60 years later a guy from the past is coming to town and it turns out to be the biggest crowd that they’ve had here,” Bertka said. “That in itself is very gratifying.
“When I see these guys 60 years later and see the wonderful families they’ve raised and how they have developed and to think their first experience was with me at Hancock, it’s special to me.”
These are words from a man who has twice been interim coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
While at Hancock, Bertka was busy recruiting a lot of players from his native Ohio, bringing so many people to California, where opportunity was more abundant.
One of those men was Dale Hyatt, who was the starting center on the ‘57 title team.
“I was working at a Greyhound Bus station after I blew out my knee and dropped out of college,” Hyatt said of his days in Ohio. “Bill brought me out here to California, so I’ve always told him, ‘you know I’ve never forgiven you for taking me away from that job, because I was on my way to becoming head baggage handler.”
Several decades later and Hyatt’s life has been forever touched by Bertka. After Hancock, Hyatt went on to get his bachelor’s, master’s and administrative degrees from Cal Poly. He spent 20 years as a teacher and 10 years impacting even more young lives as principal at Lakeview Junior High in Orcutt.
“Things worked out beautifully,” Hyatt added.
That’s just one of the many reasons why Mayor Larry Lavagnino and the city of Santa Maria declared July 30 as Bill Bertka Day in Santa Maria.
“There aren’t very many men like Bill Bertka,” the mayor said. “Santa Maria was very lucky to have a man of the stature of Bill come here and be the coach and be the big supporter of Santa Maria that he was.”
Bertka’s impact still pulses throughout the city, Lavagnino said.
“Oh my God, all you have to do is look around the room and see the people here who would not have been here if not for Bill,” he said. “They wouldn’t have been teachers, wouldn’t have been community leaders if it wasn’t for Bill Bertka bringing them to Santa Maria to play basketball.”
Bertka plans to return to Santa Maria next month for the 10th annual Joe White Memorial Dinner and Auction at the Santa Maria Fairpark on Aug. 20.