Original Old School: Lost
To the eternal sadness of all, Ricky Berry took his life just when it was really getting started.
20 years and a handful of days ago, Ricky Berry sadly took his own life. Though I only discovered it on the web this past Monday, a few weeks ago The Sacramento Bee had a fine Ricky Berry commemorative article. I enjoyed the piece, but more than that, it spurred to me reread Michael Bradley’s Berry feature in SLAM 131. To that end, Ben and I decided that the mag feature needed to be available online for people to read. If you saw it in the mag, here’s your chance to read it again; if you haven’t seen it yet, grab a seat.—Tzvi Twersky
by Michael Bradley
It’s none of your business why Ricky Berry took his own life 20 years ago this summer. It’s a mystery that we’re not going to solve. All you need to know is that a husband, son, brother, friend and one hell of a basketball player is gone, and way too early. Don’t go looking for answers, because there aren’t any. It does nobody any good, anyway. By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll understand the “why” of this tragedy is unimportant. What matters is that a good man left the court too early, and people who loved him are still trying to get over it. If they’re grappling with that, who are you to ask why? So, we’re not going to talk about the note he left. Or delve deeply into his psychological state. Put away the magnifying glass and stop dusting for fingerprints.
It’s time to learn about the real Ricky Berry. Take a trip back in time, and you’ll learn that he had just completed his rookie season with Sacramento, a 6-8 wing who “could really shoot the ball,” according to his Kings teammate Harold Pressley. Those who saw him hit the rival Warriors for 34 points in just his 38th pro game and watched him grow steadily from there into a confident scoring force predicted big things. “The kid was going to be a star,” former Kings’ coach Jerry Reynolds says.
He was already all-world in the eyes of Valerie, his wife of 15 months. She delighted in his quick smile, his sense of humor and his love of children. “When we got together with my family, he was always with the kids,” Valerie says. “He was just a big kid.” Berry never got to grow up, and that’s a tragedy. Here’s what we missed.
The Ballplayer When the Kings took Berry 18th in the ’88 Draft, the team’s fans didn’t exactly celebrate. More than likely, they were upset at the franchise for giving away the sixth overall pick in a deal for Junior Bridgeman, Franklin Edwards and Derek Smith. The Clippers used that sixth pick on Hersey Hawkins, with the Kings drafting Berry later in the first. Not many people even knew about the spindly San Jose State product, even though he averaged 24.2 ppg and 7.2 rpg as a senior for the Spartans, who were coached by his father, Bill. And for a team that had staggered to a 24-58 record, Berry wasn’t considered an exciting choice, though the Kings were high on him. “I thought Ricky had star quality,” says Reynolds, who has been with the Kings as GM, player personnel director and broadcaster since ending his coaching stint in ’90.
It was hard to see that twinkle early in the season, because Reynolds eased the rookie into the lineup, playing him sparingly. By February, it was clear Berry was ready for more. On February 9 against Golden State, Berry went off, scoring 34 points and converting seven three-pointers. Over the final six weeks of the season, he became a starter and created excitement for the coming season—and beyond—with his averages of 18.3 ppg and 5.8 rpg. Reynolds marveled at Berry’s ability to convert from long range and said he could shoot “as well as Dale Ellis,” who made 40.3 percent of his three-pointers during a 17-year NBA career.
Pressley, who played four years with the Kings, goes even further: “He actually would have shot the ball better than Dale. I was there every day at practice, and I would see him catch the ball not looking at the basket, turn and drill it from 30 feet. It was effortless.”
Berry had been a ballplayer forever. Bill was an assistant at Michigan State when Ricky was born, and Ricky was a ballboy for Magic Johnson and the Spartans when they won the national title. A year later, the
Berrys moved west when Bill took over the San Jose State program. When it came time to play college ball, Ricky chose Oregon State, largely on the advice of his pops, a hard-driving coach who feared he and his son would spar if Ricky played for him. But after one year in Corvallis, Ricky transferred to SJSU and began a steady climb to stardom. By the time he was a senior, Berry was one of the country’s top shooters, converting 48.1 percent of his field goal attempts and 44.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Berry may have been working away from the bright lights, but he had built himself into a dangerous offensive threat.
Reynolds was optimistic that Berry, the mid-season trade for Wayman Tisdale, and the Lottery luck—first overall—that led Sacramento to select Pervis Ellison (ahead of, ahem, Tim Hardaway and Glen Rice, for starters) would lift the Kings into the hunt for the Playoffs. He wanted to spread the floor, shoot threes and play an up-tempo style like Mike D’Antoni’s current system. Reynolds felt even better when he saw Berry early in the off-season. “His body had improved, and he had worked hard,” Reynolds says. “He was on target to be an All-Star in the League. He had significantly more talent than Peja Stojakovic,” who would excel for the Kings from ’98-05.
By August, it was all over.
“You think back and wonder, ‘Were there signs?’” Reynolds says. “People who knew him better than I did didn’t see them. It came out of nowhere. Here was a young guy who had it all ahead of him. Whatever drove him to it, I’ll never know.”
The Friend Pressley knew he was at a huge disadvantage from the moment he and Berry would start revving their engines, a straightaway lying ahead and a pair of lead feet at the ready. Pressley was driving a “little, souped-up LeBaron,” and Berry had a Porsche. That LeBaron could get up to 120 mph, and Berry gave his friend head starts, but it wasn’t enough. “He was a speed demon,” Pressley says. “He wanted to go fast.”
Berry loved fast cars. Loved any cars, really. Why else would he have taken a sales spot at Campus Mazda Volkswagen in Davis, CA, the summer after his senior year? It wasn’t just about cars. Though he had signed a three-year contract that paid him $300,000 his rookie season (big money back then), Berry understood the need to prepare for his life after basketball. So, while he was drag racing Pressley and anybody else who wanted a shot at him, playing video games (RBI Baseball on Nintendo) “for hours,” Pressley says, and cracking jokes, he was thinking ahead.
Pressley says Berry also liked to shoot his pistols. “He would take them to the range and start shooting,” he says. Shot some skeet, too. Did it just like on the court—often and well. It was always fun with Ricky.
“We lived in the here and now,” Pressley says. “We would go work out, play video games, go to the shooting range and race. He just wanted to go have fun, see some friends and walk around the mall.”
Pressley wasn’t in Sacramento when Berry died. A Villanova product, Pressley had gone back to Philadelphia for a business opportunity. “He asked me not to go,” Pressley says. “He said, ‘Let’s keep playing and have fun.’” Pressley suggested his friend come along, but Berry stayed with Valerie. They would hook up when Pressley returned.
Pressley still lives in Sacramento, and whenever anybody finds out he played for the Kings, they ask about Berry. “He was a rookie who could really shoot the ball,” he says. “Sacramento is so small that when he hit those three-pointers [against Golden State] and had a night like that, he became a fan favorite in a heartbeat.”
The Husband Love at first sight, it was not.
“Actually, I wasn’t interested in him,” Valerie says, with a small laugh. “It was a set-up by his sister. But he grew on me.”
Valerie was 19 when she met Ricky. His sister, Pam, introduced them, and they first went out with a group of friends. Valerie knew he was a ballplayer, but it hardly inspired awe. “I think that was why I wasn’t interested in dating him,” she says. Valerie was a student at Cal-Berkeley at the time, and Ricky was playing for SJSU. He was two years her senior, and though Valerie followed basketball, she “didn’t know who he was.” She wasn’t too keen on his fast driving, either. The two ended up in the same car, with Ricky driving, and Valerie didn’t enjoy the experience. “This was before seat belt laws, but I put on my seat belt,” she says.
Although it took a few meetings before Valerie “gave him the time of day,” the two dated for two years before marrying in ’88. By that time, Valerie had transferred to UC-Davis, and Ricky was preparing for the NBA Draft. Only his new bride wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In fact, when Ricky discussed being drafted while they dated, she thought he was talking about the Army. “That’s how far I was removed from that world,” she says.
Valerie didn’t need much time to understand the drive that Ricky had to be great. He worked hard, maximizing his talents and building his game. When he joined the Kings, his goal was to make the starting lineup, and once he reached that point, Ricky was thrilled—but not satisfied. “In college, he was used to being a star, but when you get to the NBA, everyone was a star, so there’s lots of competition,” Valerie says. “It was a huge accomplishment for him.”
That summer, Ricky was planning to continue the good times. He worked hard. He was primed for greatness. On August 14, it all ended with a bullet to the head at Ricky and Valerie’s house. The house they moved into just three months before. Immediately, the speculation began. We know Ricky and Valerie had quarreled the night before, and that she spent the night elsewhere. Still, there were no signs of a huge rift, no indications the young couple had contemplated dissolving their union. “I had no idea,” Valerie says. Perhaps the pressure of the expectations of basketball greatness, coupled with the stress of marriage itself conspired to push Ricky to pull the trigger. We don’t know. We won’t know.
“It’s very frustrating,” Valerie says. “You’ll never have any answers. Only that person can tell you why. It’s not something you can answer.”
Twenty years later, Valerie is back in the Sacramento area, after spending time in Boston, Philadelphia and DC. “People there didn’t know I was Mrs. Ricky Berry,” she says. She works for the California Medical Association Foundation, an organization dedicated to “optimal wellness and equality of healthcare for all.” She hasn’t re-married. And she hasn’t forgotten her husband. She doesn’t talk to him as much as she used to, but every once in a while, she reaches out. “There are times when something happens, and I talk to him,” Valerie says.
There remains a melancholy in her voice. Those of us who lose a loved one to suicide must confront a sense of guilt, as well as loss. We wonder what more we could have done to prevent the tragedy, how we could have seen the signs and prevented the act. It’s as if we believe we have some special powers to prevent others from doing the unthinkable. And maybe we do. So, we suffer the double pain of living without a person we love and wondering what more we could have done. Pressley thinks about what might have happened if he hadn’t gone to Pennsylvania before Ricky killed himself. And Valerie spent years going over the last days, weeks and months of her life with Ricky. Time helps soften the memories and eases the pain. But it can’t erase the slate completely.
“The biggest thing is that I’m a very spiritual person,” Valerie says. “Without the Lord and the love of my family and knowing I can make it through the day, I wouldn’t have made it. You have to believe someone is looking after you.”