I fell in love with basketball in the sixth grade. In the early 1980s, my bedroom had posters of NBA stars such as Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins. Those were my hoop heroes.
But there was only one player that I idolized: Ricky Alan Berry.
Not to be confused with Hall of Famer Rick Barry, Ricky Berry is the greatest basketball player in the history of San Jose State University in California and went on to be drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 1988.
I first met Ricky at SJSU’s youth basketball camp in the summer of 1985 when I was a seventh grader. I remember him telling all the kids at camp that no one could steal the ball from him. So from that point on, I made it my mission to do just that. One day I noticed that Ricky was holding the ball under his arm with his back turned. I ran by, snatched it and took off. Ricky chased after me to the roar of my fellow campers.
I had won his respect.
In the following years, Ricky would give me time when I waited to say hello after SJSU games or bumped into him at San Jose’s Eastridge Mall. Ricky’s father, SJSU basketball coach Bill Berry, once took me off a high school field trip at SJSU so I could hang with him at practice. I wore No. 34 in high school and college because of Ricky.
In 1989, before my senior year at San Jose Andrew Hill High School, I was invited to play at the “Double Pump” high school basketball camp in Los Angeles that featured the West’s best prep players. But on Aug. 14, I was pulled from the camp and taken to a private room along with Sacramento prep star Monty Buckley, who would later share the backcourt with Jason Kidd at Cal. Inside the room was former SJSU assistant coach Eric Saulny. It was Saulny who informed us that our idol, Ricky Berry, had taken his life that morning.
Berry, who had completed a successful rookie season in the NBA, had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at his home in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. Monty and I were devastated and confused.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” Buckley recalled recently. “I was in disbelief that he was gone. He was a two-way player, as we say today, who could play all five positions. He had a chance to be one of the best in the game.”
The Kings appeared to have found their crown prince during the 1988-89 season. The 6-foot-8, 205-pound swingman averaged 24.2 points and 7.2 rebounds and shot 44.5 percent from 3-point range as a senior at SJSU and was flashing serious potential as an NBA rookie. Longtime Chicago Bulls college scout Dave Bollwinkel, a former SJSU assistant coach, said Berry had the potential to become an NBA All-Star.
“He was 6-8, and if you guarded him with a shooting guard, we’d post you. If you guarded him with a small forward, we’d go outside with you. You were either damned if you did and damned if you didn’t defensively,” Bollwinkel said.
Berry, who signed a three-year rookie contract with the Kings and earned $300,000 his first season, had a strong competitive spirit. One time, he got into a fight with teammate Derek Smith in practice. Berry averaged 11 points per game as a rookie and scored a season-high 34 points against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 9, 1989. He worked hard at getting better and averaged 18.2 points in his last 11 contests.
“He turned himself into this tremendous 3-point shooter,” former Kings center Ed Pinckney recalled. “He was draining shots from all over the place. Late in his first year he was finally figuring it out and feeling good about himself. He would always say, ‘I am better than this.’ ”
“Ricky Berry was Peja Stojakovic before Peja Stojakovic,” said former Kings forward Henry Turner, comparing Berry to the franchise’s legendary sharpshooter. “He had a very, very high basketball IQ.”
Former Kings teammate Kenny Smith also once told me: “He was Reggie Miller with a handle.”
But while his NBA future looked bright, Berry was struggling with life outside of basketball. Jeff Logan, one of Berry’s closest friends at the time, believes Berry was dealing with stress from his young marriage and the pressures of being only a two-hour drive from his parents. The Berrys had eloped without his parents’ blessing, and Ricky’s friends said it was no secret that his mother, Clarice, was not fond of his wife. Those close to the basketball star also said Berry engaged in infidelity with another woman.
Meanwhile, others close to Ricky said he was worried about keeping up the payments on his new $350,000 home and that his relationship with his father was strained.
“I think if he had been drafted by any other team other than the Kings and the Warriors, it would have been a better issue to deal with,” Logan said. “There was a lot of pressure on him by living in Sacramento.”
That said, what happened on Aug. 14, 1989, would still come as a shock to those close to him.
The previous day, Pinckney said Berry picked up his then 3-year-old son, Shae, and took him to play video games at an arcade. Later that day, Berry had invited his close friend Bobby Gerould, son of Kings play-by-play announcer Gary Gerould, and a few others to his new home. They spent the evening swimming, playing video games and eating pizza. All seemed fine.
But when Ricky’s wife came home that night, Gerould said the couple got into a heated argument. Valerie would spend the night elsewhere.
On the morning of Aug. 14, Turner said he got a call from Berry to see if he was going to work out that morning in Sacramento. Turner, however, was in Los Angeles and said he would be back later in the week. Hours later, Turner got a call from a Kings secretary: “Ricky is gone.”
“When I talked to him that day, nothing seemed wrong. Nothing seemed out the ordinary,” Turner said. “It was like, ‘I’m going to work out.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ We ballplayers. That is what we do. … And that was the last time I talked to him.”
Logan eventually got word from one of the Kings’ trainers that he should go to his friend’s house immediately because something horrible had happened. Upon arriving at the home, which still had a “SOLD” sign out front, he learned that Ricky, who was godfather to his son, took his own life. Pinckney and then-Phoenix Suns star guard Kevin Johnson, a Sacramento native, were already there grieving.
“It was like someone hit me in the head with a crowbar when I heard about what happened,” said Pinckney, who spent a lot of time with the Berrys during the 1988-89 season.
After returning home that day, Valerie found her husband’s body in the family room, where Ricky had also left a letter.
Ricky had partially typed and primarily handwritten the letter, The Undefeated learned. He began it by telling his parents, younger sister, Pam, and Valerie that he loved them. He added that the suicide “could have been avoided” but the frustrations with “the little things” in his struggling marriage were why he took his life. (Berry also wrote about different topics, including a plea to “please stop the black-on-black violence.”)
Even with the contents of the note, Ricky’s close friends believe a combination of reasons led to his decision to end his life.
“While it offered a little bit of insight, it doesn’t cover up the hurt that you feel,” Gerould said. “It didn’t offer any clarity.”
A spokesman for the Kings at that time said Berry was not being treated for mental problems, stress or any other issues.
“I don’t even want to chalk it up to mental health. He was stressed out,” Logan said about Berry.
Berry’s former Kings teammates were never able to get closure. Berry’s parents and sister buried Ricky privately in Lansing, Michigan, where he was born. Then-Kings head coach Jerry Reynolds was too emotional to read a prepared statement during a brief news conference about Berry’s passing. The Kings made no mention of Berry’s suicide when the 1989-90 season began.
“Everyone was waiting because we wanted to go to the funeral. We wanted to say goodbye,” Turner said. “We want to express condolences. This is our teammate. This is our buddy. But it was as if they packed everything and [left]. No phone calls. Nothing. No one had a chance to say goodbye.”
Three decades later, the former Kings swingman is still missed. Former teammates wonder about what could’ve been for Berry in the NBA, which has recently mandated that every team have at least one licensed mental health professional available to players.
“I honestly thought that Ricky Berry was going to be a big-time scorer and big-time star in this league,” Turner said.
Said Pinckney: “He was such a humble dude. It’s so crazy to think about what he did because he was really in the middle of playing a really good stretch of basketball. …
“Anytime I hear his name I think about how good a person he was and how much he loved kids.”
Gerould, 51, said he struggles with Berry’s death to this day. He and Berry connected through auto racing. Next to basketball, Berry’s biggest love was cars and driving them fast. Berry once raced Kenny Smith after practice in ARCO Arena’s huge parking lot. Berry even briefly worked for a Sacramento Acura dealership and a Mazda dealership in nearby Davis to learn more about the business.
Gerould was an announcer at Sprint Car races in Northern California and invited Berry to races. Through Gerould, he got to know the drivers and drove their cars on the dirt track to warm them up before competition.
“He was my friend,” said Gerould, whose next gig as an announcer is in Calistoga, California, at a track he took Ricky to. “He had a light about him even in his short stay. He lit up a room. There was just something about him. …
“Thirty years later, I still think about this dude all the time.”
Bill Berry eventually departed the Kings to work for the Houston Rockets as an assistant coach and scout. Smith, who won two championships with the Rockets, said he never talked to Bill Berry about the passing of his son despite being around him regularly.
Pinckney also said he wanted to have a conversation with Bill Berry about his son but there was never a comfortable space for it to take place.
“The one topic that is always off limits with Bill and his family,” one of his closest friends said, “was his son.”
After my basketball camp in 1989, my mom wanted me to change my jersey number because of the way Berry passed. I assured her that I would think only of the positive memories and what he meant to me, but I didn’t want to make a change. I wrote No. 34 on my Nikes in his honor during my senior year in high school.
Ricky loved basketball. He loved the people in his life. And 30 years later, he is still loved too.