Halfway through the mass interview it suddenly dawned on Bill Bertka that he was a man in demand. "Hey, look," he shouted over at Laker players Byron Scott and A.C. Green and Coach Pat Riley, who were giving less heavily attended interviews nearby, "I'm conducting a press conference!"
Normally a man who enjoys the absolute anonymity of an assistant coach, Bertka has become a sought-after interviewee now that his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, is playing the Utah Jazz in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Bertka is regarded as the L.A. area's foremost authority on Jazzology.He goes back aways with the Jazz. Further back, even, than announcer Hot Rod Hundley, trainer Don Sparks and film scout Dave Fredman, the current ranking Jazz patriarchs.
"I hired those guys," said Bertka. "I interviewed all three and hired them."
Those were the good old days, or at least the old days. The city of New Orleans had a new mega-stadium called the Superdome and Bertka was owner Sam Battistone's frontman in negotiating to set up an expansion NBA franchise in the new arena - which they would call the Jazz.
When it came to sports ventures, Bertka and Battistone, both of whom lived in Santa Barbara, Calif., were not shy about trying new gambles. In 1974, when they gave birth to the Jazz, they had already seen their franchise (the Hawaiians) rise and fall along with the World Football League and had a brief go at running the short-lived International Track Association (ITA).
Bertka breathed the first real breath of life into the fledgling Jazz franchise when, as vice president in charge of basketball operations, he signed Pete Maravich in a parking lot in Pittsburgh in 1974.
"He didn't want to come with an expansion team," said Bertka. "He wanted to go to a Boston or a Philadelphia. A contender. He was smarter than the rest of us. He knew how hard it would be for a guard to make a new franchise go. Then he almost pulled it off, until he got hurt."
Bertka talked Maravich into the Jazz deal by selling him on the thrill of returning to the area where he played college basketball. Maravich's business people and the Jazz's lawyers were battling it out in a Pittsburgh hotel room, and getting nowhere, and Bertka, who had coached against Pete's dad, Press, when they were at Kent State and Clemson, respectively, got Pete away from it all to give him his personalized pitch, which worked - and the rest was history.
Anyway, that was then and this is now. Before he worked with Battistone, Bertka had worked for the Lakers, as their director of player personnel. And after his seven years with the Jazz, from 1974 through 1981, he came back to L.A., joining Pat Riley as an assistant coach just in time to win three NBA championships in six years and two more runner-up trophies.
Bertka spent two full seasons - in 1979-80 and 1980-81 - with the Jazz when they moved to Utah, as an assistant coach to Tom Nissalke. He might have stayed longer except that when Riley took the Laker coaching job, he went after Bertka hard.
And, in truth - as he readily admits - it had been tough for Bertka to move to Utah. Nothing personal, but, as he says, "It still bothers me, that we failed in New Orleans. The bottom line was the Superdome just didn't want us."
He thinks the best move the Jazz ever made was hiring Frank Layden as first general manager and then coach.
Purple, green and gold still flow deep.
"I'm proud that the franchise is still standing, and doing so well," he said. "It's winning games and selling out at home. That's what it's about in this business."
He will, however, be relieved when he's done all he can to wipe the franchise he created from the face of the 1988 playoffs.
"All our antennae are up for the Jazz," he said. "We know we caught them right in game one. We were rested and ready and they weren't. We know that."
He said the hard part starts tonight for game two, when the teams enter on more equal terms.
"You won't be seeing any indifference from the Lakers," said Bertka. "This is one of the great groups that's been assembled in basketball. Winning two championships in a row could be a stamp for the ages, that maybe this is the greatest collection ever.
"I hated to leave the Jazz, but it's been a great thrill being a part of all this," said Bertka, who still has his primary residence just up the coast in Santa Barbara.
"I have to work a little longer every season," he said, "but the commute's been a heckuva lot better."