Ricky Berry

After his success as a San Jose State Spartan, Ricky Berry, was the 18th player selected in the first round of the 1988 NBA Draft.

In 1989, he would be dead.

Back to that in a moment.

On March 26, 1979 all eyes were on the college basketball championship between Indiana State and Michigan State. Future NBA legends, Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, played in what is arguably the greatest college match-up of all time. Ultimately, sophomore, Johnson, defeated senior, Bird, 75-64 in the highest rated game in college basketball history. Bird would go on to win three NBA Championships; Johnson would win five. Both became Hall of Famers.

Many believe that the titanic NBA rivalry between Bird’s Boston Celtics and Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers saved the NBA.

Magic remains my favorite athlete of all time. And while I wish I could say that I watched the ’79 game, the truth is, I didn’t start watching college basketball until one year later — in 1980. I’ve been a huge fan ever since.

The person pictured here is neither Bird nor Johnson. It’s actually the aforementioned, Berry. After a stint at Oregon State, Berry came to play for his father, Bill Berry, at San Jose State in 1984. (Due to NCAA rules, he sat out his first year.)

During one of his seasons at SJSU, a friend of mine invited me to a home game. She had a fan-crush on Berry, and asked if I would accompany her to the game. She also wanted me to wait with her after the game so that she could ask Berry to take a photo with her. I agreed. (Somewhere there is a photo of the two of us with Berry.)

Incidentally, before Stephen Curry became synonymous with the current generation of Warriors’ fans, for decades the player associated with the team’s success (and ‘75 Championship) was another player named “Rick” Barry. He is the only player in history to lead the NCAA, ABA, and NBA in scoring. Moreover, he earned Rookie of the Year, and still holds a number of records in the league; he is also one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

Because of him, I’ve always assumed that even though SJSU’s Berry was black, and spelled his name differently, perhaps he chose to refer to himself as “Ricky” to separate himself from the legacy and legend of the Hall of Famer, Rick Barry.

While Ricky‘s father was an assistant at Michigan State, 14-year-old Ricky served as a ball boy for the team when it won college basketball’s national championship featuring Bird and Johnson.

Later, when his dad took the head coaching job at SJSU, Berry attended Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, where he became an unstoppable 6’8” phenom. Subsequently, he played for Oregon State before transferring to play for his dad and the Spartans from 1985 to 1988.

The night I saw him play, I waited with my friend, and a handful of others, for about 30 minutes for Ricky to emerge from the locker room. He graciously took a photo with everyone who waited. He was polite, handsome, tall, and soft-spoken. We thanked him and left.

During the incipient stages of his professional career, and despite some injuries, Berry was growing as a player. He added pounds to his thin frame, and worked tirelessly on and off the court. He also married, bought a home, and got involved with the local community.

He had a promising future.

On August 14, 1989, after an argument with his wife of 15 months, Berry pressed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

When I heard the news, I thought back to the night I saw him at SJSU, and the contrast between how spirited, competitive, and intense he was on the court, compared to how kind he was after the game.

Tonight — for whatever reason — I thought about Ricky Berry, so I decided to share my brief experience with him with you.

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