(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on July, 7, 2011)
Imagine it’s the early 1980s as hip hop, crack cocaine, the Big East and Reganomics have hit the hood, and you’re on a New York playground basketball court. It’s your turn to ball and the guy who picked you up says, “I got him with the wave cap on. You got The Truth.”
It might be time to tighten up the laces.
Last week at a ABS Sports & Entertainment Grouplaunch party for Better Baller Athletics at Riverbank State Park in Upper Manhattan, I ran into The Truth aka Walter Berry.
Before I get too deep into the truth let me sidetrack you all. Berry and I go a long way back. When I was at NBA.com, one year our office fantasy basketball league decided that your team name had to incorporate a current or former NBA player’s name with a same or similarly named beautiful female celebrity.
Someone went esoteric; Suzette Charles Barkley (Suzette Charles was Miss New Jersey and runner-up to Vanessa Williams as Miss America until the photos). Some went the combo route like Joakim Kardashian or Chris Paulina Porizkova. Another went alliterative funky with Kerry Kittles Washington. Others went classic like Earl Marilyn Monroe. I intertwined by acclamation a true beauty with the truth and came up with Walter Halle Berry.
Try this at home; you can come up with your own all day long. But let’s get back to the truth.
Although philosophers ponder about what is truth, in the New York City basketball circles it was former St. John’s University star Walter Berry.
The 6-8, left-handed, power forward had a game that featured an array of almost unstoppable inside moves and shots from acute unique angles. He finished fastbreaks with enormous efficiency or settled down on the block to splash the twine with short floating jumpers. All the time, he did it with a southpaw ease that seemed like he wasn’t trying.
Many also recognize Paul Pierce as The Truth after he dropped 42 points in a 2001 losing effort against the Los Angles Lakers. Shaq pulled a Boston reporter over and gestured toward the scribe’s notepad. “Take this down,” said O’Neal. “My name is Shaquille O’Neal and Paul Pierce is the motherfuckin’ truth. Quote me on that and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth.
A great story and even more special when you realize that Pierce was about a year removed from a knife stabbing attack that required lung surgery. However, New York’s reverence for basketball is awash with colorful basketball aliases such as Lloyd “Sweet Pea” Daniels or Dwayne “Pearl” Washington. But the Mecca anointed Berry with the most supreme compliment in The Truth. Not “Truth” as the basketball bible, basketball reference.com mistakenly lists. Then again, even the bible has human editors.
It may be futile to find a particular person to give credit or a precise moment he became The Truth. At some point in time a mass of people believed he was it. Alas, I wonder how it is to live with such mythological expectations. As you may have surmised, New York playground phenoms being accorded such proverbial nicknames seem less a blessing and more of curse to a successful NBA career.
And three decades removed from being declared as The Truth, Walter Berry is considered by basketballdom as a bust. But ironically, that conclusion fails to actually consider many truths that emerge upon a further evaluation.
On the eve of the 2011 NBA Draft, held a few miles away across the Hudson River in Newark, NJ, Berry was present at the event as a mentor to the CEO and founder of the ABS group, Alexis Stanley.
“He is right behind me in the background telling me this is what I should do, this is who you should talk too,” says Stanley, a former NBA and New Jersey Nets intern and current law school and MPA student. “He’s like a godfather to me.”
This godfather is now living in Georgia, but he took the time to come up to New York to see this fledgling venture get off the ground. “I’m working with providing low and moderate income housing in Atlanta,” says Berry. “But I’m here for support.”
Berry reveals that he’s back in New York so often though that he never misses it but that coming home is always good. He played all over the city’s playgrounds and went to two high schools in the Bronx (DeWitt Clinton and Morris) before finishing his school-boy career at Ben Franklin High School in Brooklyn.
All the transfers cost him credits and ultimately his degree was not recognized by the NCAA denying him the chance to play Div. I basketball. A federal court upheld the NCAA’s position and that led Berry to attend San Jacinto Junior College in Texas. But after one year, he was eligible to play for the big schools and they came hard.
“There were a bunch of other schools recruiting me like Duke, North Carolina and Georgia,” says Berry. “But there was no question, I was coming home.”
At St. John’s, along with teammates Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson, he led the Redmen (since changed to Red Storm) to the 1985 Final Four. The logos and signs around Adolph Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky may as well have read Big East Tournament rather than NCAA Final Four as joining the crew from Queens was Villanova and Georgetown. The next year, he averaged 23 ppg and 11 rpg, and was the best college player in the land winning the John Wooden Award and voted the AP Player of the Year.
In the infamous 1986 NB Draft, he was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 14th overall selection. However, he was shipped off to the San Antonio Spurs after just seven games. Yet, in his rookie campaign he averaged 17.6 points on a .531 shooting percentage (fifth in the league) while grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game. He had just about the exact same production in his second season.
Almost mysteriously, his production declined in short stints with the Nets and Houston Rockets, and he was out of the league. What happened?
Rumors abounded that he couldn’t get along with this or that coach. However, in his words, “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” says the chuckling Berry referring to his 1989 signing with Basket Napoli (Italy). He would play international basketball until 2002. His travels also took him to Spain and Slovenia but mostly in Greece where he learned to speak the language fluently.
Berry was earning about $300,000 in the NBA while he likely received millions per annum in Europe with the teams’ also paying taxes and living expenses. But there may be more to the truth of the matter than just money.
“Walt needed to be the man. It’s not like he was selfish, but Walt is not a role player,” says former NBA player Jaren Jackson (Georgetown, 1985-89). Jackson, who was at the launch party, played against Berry in college and the NBA before earning a ring with the1999 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.
“The NBA was stifling to him. They wanted him to be content with a limited role but that’s not Walt’s game.”
In other words, the truth doesn’t compromise.
Ron Naclerio, the legendary high school basketball coach at Queen’s Cardozo High, who was there supporting the Better Baller Athletics’ president, Melvin Robinson, a former player of his, more or less agreed with Jackson.
“Walt was a little stubborn and he didn’t want to change his game,” says Naclerio. “But they didn’t seem to understand that the unorthodox way he played is what made him effective. And it’s hard to come back with all the success he had overseas.”
It may have been the good living in the Mediterranean as Berry looks happy and content.
He relishes in the recent success of former teammate Mark Jackson wishing him well in his new coaching endeavor with Golden State. And he’s even contemplating being back in the game with Chris Mullin, his other college running mate, if Mullin lands another executive position with an NBA team.
Berry seems to have no regrets about how his playing career evolved and could care less about the bust label. The Truth knows the truth.