The accident happened when Bertans was just 13 years old. And he said it’s a miracle that he was able to make it all the way to the NBA, where he is in his first season with the Dallas Mavericks.
“When I was 13, my grandfather had, in his apartment, just manually heating – a wood (fire place),” Bertans said. “We were cutting wood basically every year right before the summer starts, and when school was over. Me, my brother and my dad would help him with the big logs.
“It started raining at one point and I started rushing and not paying attention, and my hand got caught underneath. Technically, I was lucky in this situation. It should have been all four (of the fingers) gone. I also lost the nail on the middle finger, but just the nail.”
When Bertans’ father saw what happened, he told his son news he probably didn’t want to hear.
“My dad used to play basketball,” said Bertans, who was born in Latvia. “He was a coach, so I grew up on a basketball court. The accident happened at an age where my dad was like, ‘Yeah, it’s probably over for basketball.’
“But for me, I was still kind of ignorant and not paying really attention to stuff like that, so I guess that was a good age for that to happen. We just stitched it up. I think I was out for like a month.”
Asked if losing half his ring finger on his shooting hand has had an adverse effect on his shooting abilities, Bertans said: “I don’t think so, since I made it here (to the NBA).
Indeed, in 382 career games, Bertans averages 8.2 points in 19.1 minutes and is shooing a healthy 39.7 percent from downtown. Not bad for a player who showed a ton of resiliency while working for eight different teams overseas in a nine-year span before finally making it to the NBA, where he signed a contract with the San Antonio Spurs in 2016.
“When I started playing on professional teams, I was still in Latvia living at home from ages 15-18,” Bertans said. “So it didn’t matter that I was playing for a different team every year and it wasn’t hard, patient-wise.
“And then when I turned 18, I moved to Slovenia, and I was there about a year and 10 months. I had some legal issues before getting a letter of clearance from the club that I played with before, so I couldn’t play for a while. Then at the end of that season I started the next year over in the EuroLeague. It was a good opportunity to play a lot of minutes because they were having financial troubles and a lot of players left, which was a great experience at that age.”
The Mavs acquired Spencer Dinwiddie and Bertans from the Washington Wizards in the blockbuster Feb. 10 trade for Kristaps Porzingis and a protected 2022 second-round draft pick. Ironically, when snippets of the trade were first revealed, Bertans thought he and Porzingis would both be playing for the Wizards.
And that would have been a bonus for those two players since they’re both from Latvia.
“In the beginning the whole thing was (Porzingis) getting traded for Spencer. There wasn’t really any mentioned of me in the beginning, so I thought it was all cool. It was like we were going to play – two Latvians together. But a couple of minutes later it came out that I was part of that deal coming here.”
From there, Bertans and Porzingis began exchanging notes.
“He just talked about how everything was here (in Dallas), and I told him how everything is in DC,” Bertans said. “We kind of exchanged information and prepared each other for what’s coming, and tried to help each other out as much as possible so we can kind of adapt.”
While Bertans and Porzingis haven’t ever played on the same NBA team, they were teammates on the Latvia National Team. And guess who they played against in the 2017 EuroBasket quarterfinals?
Slovenia, whose star player was none other than Luka Doncic.
“Unfortunately, we lost to Luka and Slovenia in the quarterfinals, but the level of competition in that game was a finals-worthy game,” Bertans said. “It might have been the best game of that tournament.”
Even then, Bertans pointed out that Doncic was impressive — and was shattering dreams.
“He made some crazy halfcourt shots like he usually does,’ Bertans said, while laughing. “We still had a chance to win, but the shot clock was winding down and the ball goes away and he just launched it and banked it in.
“It was almost a halfcourt shot and kind of put the game away at that point. If he didn’t make that one, I think we had a great opportunity to get a win that game and possibly go all the way to the finals.”
Behind 27 points and nine rebounds from Doncic, Slovenia defeated Latvia, 103-97. When asked, since joining the Mavs, has he and Doncic ever discussed that pivotal game, Bertans said: “I don’t want to talk about that. Luckily, he hasn’t mentioned it.
“That was a big game, but he’s had bigger games after that.”
On Friday’s game, Bertans is glad that he’s with a Mavs’ team that has already clinched a playoff berth rather than with a Wizards’ team that is close to being eliminated from the play-in tournament.
“You know in Washington it was always just fighting for that last (playoff) position, which was also fun in some ways,” said Bertans, who is a six-year veteran. “But it’s definitely better than when you’re fighting for homecourt advantage or maybe even going higher than that.”
A 6-10, 220-pound small forward, Bertans grew up about a 90-minute drive from Russia. And he doesn’t mind voicing his displeasure about Russia invading Ukraine.
“It just hurts a lot seeing the situation right now,” Bertans said. “There’s a lot of hate towards Russian people and I know first-hand there’s a lot of Russian people that don’t want this (war) to happen.
“Honestly, I just hope that we can somehow put an end to this.”
In the meantime, in 17 games this season with the Mavs, Bertans is averaging 5.2 points and 2.4 rebounds while shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range in just 13.6 minutes per contest. He’s also settling into his new environment in Dallas.
“I love it here,” Bertans, now 29 years old, said. “Of course, winning games helps a lot. I definitely enjoy that.
“The dream was to play in the NBA. The next goal is to play in the NBA for eight, 10 years, or whatever it is before I’m done.”