Ricky Berry's Suicide Still a Mystery


Exactly one year after the suicide of former Sacramento Kings player Ricky Berry, joy, pain and frustration remain vivid among those the athlete touched most poignantly.

Berry's zest for life, combined with an apparently unlimited future, seemed to make him the least likely person to end his own life as he did -- with a single shot to the right temple from a 9mm semiautomatic gun he had purchased in 1988.

"If you look at his life," said Phoenix Suns guard and former Sacramento High School star Kevin Johnson, who had known Berry for nearly 10 years, "he had everything that you'd think would make somebody happy. He made a lot of money, had a beautiful wife, had a nice car, a nice home, a very promising career ahead of him, he was drug- and alcohol-free and in the prime of his life at 24 years old. What could he want?"

Bob Zuffelato, an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, was working for agent Bob Woolf when Berry was finishing his career at San Jose State and recommended Berry and his family to the agent, who eventually represented him. Berry had completed his rookie season with the Kings and had spent last summer working out to add weight to his slender body. He had confided to friends that he was going to excel in his second professional season.

"Ricky had a very bright future in the NBA," Zuffelato said. "His shooting had to become more consistent, and he would have gotten stronger as he developed. He'd had a good first year, and he had a chance to be a good, solid player. Hey, he was 6-8, could handle the ball, pass and shoot. He had a lot of great qualities and, I guess, maybe could have become a star. I know he surprised some people in the league."

The positive aura Berry exuded only intensified the stunning nature of the incident and provides the reason for the frustration felt since last Aug. 14.

Why did it happen? How could someone who appeared to have so much really believe or even consider, if even for that frightening instant, that life was no longer worth living?

Friends and family realize the numerous theories that have been formulated since then offer little reality and are of little value. For only Berry felt the internal pressures that eventually materialized in the sudden loss of a bright, talented and compassionate 24-year-old life. And such a desperate reaction to those pressures indicates an insolvable confusion.

Many of his friends and family have been so deeply hurt by the incident that they declined to be interviewed. Others spoke openly and willingly with the hopes that Berry not be forgotten.

Harold Pressley is in Barcelona, Spain, but says the memory of Ricky Berry is with him.

"I was probably his best friend on the team," Pressley said. "I was heartbroken when I heard about it. I was at my camp in Philadelphia with (former Kings forward) Ed Pinckney and (Villanova coach) Rollie Massimino. It was real tough for me to take and still is. I stayed in my room for the next two days. It really affected me."

Ricky's father, Bill Berry, now a Kings assistant coach and scout, declined and asked that his wife Clarice and daughter Pam also not be interviewed. Jerry Reynolds, the Kings' player personnel director and former coach, also declined to speak in deference to Bill Berry's wishes.

Jeff Logan, one of Ricky Berry's closest friends, declined an interview, as did Berry's widow, Valerie.

Valerie probably has the deepest burden to bear because she found her husband's body early that Monday morning after she returned home. Valerie and Ricky had quarreled the previous night, and she had spent the night elsewhere. Ricky Berry also made marital dissatisfaction the focus of a suicide letter.

Like the rest of Berry's friends, Johnson did not believe any one problem led to Berry's decision.

"I know his wife," Johnson said. "She's a very nice lady, and if they had some marital problems or a spat, it wouldn't be anything than any other husband and wife had. From what I saw, there was nothing extreme. It was just a good, normal marriage."

Berry's friends have wondered if they had seen a sign of distress and missed it.

Berry had a love for cars and an eye for the future. For a time he worked at Rapton Acura with the hope of learning the business and eventually owning his own dealership, said Al Joyner, a salesman with whom he became friends. Because of a Kings contractual agreement, Berry eventually had to give up his job at Rapton and worked during the off-season in a job at Campus Mazda Volkswagen in Davis. Valerie Berry also worked there as a receptionist.

Joyner; Bobby Gerould; Gerould's girlfriend, Kim Miura; Valerie Berry; and a cousin were with Ricky Berry on Sunday night at the couple's new home in Carmichael doing something he loved--playing games.

"We were playing video games -- Nintendo," Joyner said. "I used to call Ricky 'Inspector Gadget' because he was always playing with something. If it wasn't some video game, it was a new tape player or something. He was just a big kid."

Bobby Gerould, son of Kings play-by-play announcer Gary Gerould, said he and Miura had driven Berry to Calistoga on Saturday night to see sprint-car races.

"Me, him and my girlfriend talked all the way home," Bobby Gerould said. "We talked about all kinds of stuff ... some pretty deep stuff, but nothing ever came up.

"He seemed like the least-troubled guy in the world."

However, Joyner said he saw a more subdued side of Berry early Sunday evening as they swam in the Berrys' pool.

"I get kind of emotional when I talk about him, because he's probably one of the most energetic people I've ever seen," Joyner said. "We were slap-boxing in the house and then went at it on the patio. We had 10 rounds, the bell and everything. Then we jumped in the pool and swam a while.

"After that, he gave me a towel, and he went over and sat down on the bench. He paused, and he didn't say anything for a few moments. We had been laughing and joking. He paused, and I looked at him ... and it was like, something was real heavy, man, really heavy."

Joyner spoke slowly and then paused.

"This is something I haven't been able to forget, because he was always real happy and energetic, and this was the first time I'd ever seen him look different," Joyner said. "I can't even explain the look he gave me. It was really heavy. He knew I knew something bothered him, because I looked at him and I didn't say anything, and then I looked at him again. He was wiping off his face, and I could see it. If you know your partner, you know when something is up.

"I said, 'Hey, man, what's up, man?' And he didn't say nothing. So I didn't dwell on it. I looked at him again. I said, 'Is it that heavy?' He looked at me and sort of shook his head like, 'aah.'

"But that wasn't anything overly moving," Joyner said. "Everybody has a bad day or a day that they are a little bit down or a day something is troubling them and you just sort of pick it up. So I talked to him a little while after that. I didn't pick him for what was wrong. But as I stayed there, he started telling me little things, and to me, it was perfectly normal and nothing really heavy to warrant any type of concern. After a while, he cooled back out and we were joking around again."

Joyner previously said he and Berry had discussed all types of issues.

"Me and him had many, many deep talks," Joyner said, "the kind of talks that if something was really, really bothering you, you'll tell your partner. We had talked about everything ... childhoods, beliefs, about women and personal relationships, families and the whole nine yards."

Johnson often credits his relationship with God for providing direction and said Berry had inquired about that relationship on the Kings' final 1989 trip to Phoenix.

"Curious enough, when we played each other (April 17) the last time before that summer," Johnson said, "he asked me about it. He asked me some questions about my faith in Christianity. And he went to a chapel service we have before every game.

"We played horse before the game, and we were betting. I said, 'If I win, you have to come to chapel, and if you win, you don't.'

"He won, so he didn't have to come to chapel," Johnson said, "but he still wound up going. That night we went to get something to eat, and I gave him a ride back to the hotel, and he was asking questions. He was curious. It just showed that even at that time, he was looking for something else because his life was maybe a little incomplete."

Johnson said he will have some sort of memorial, maybe a room, at St. Hope Academy.

"Ricky Berry lived for so much that you don't want him to die for nothing," Johnson said. "He was a great role model. When I talk to kids now about Ricky, I tell them that he didn't do drugs, he didn't drink, he loved kids, he loved his family, and he had so many things about him that were positive. But he made one mistake. Usually, one mistake doesn't cost us that much. We usually can learn from the mistake.

"But if Ricky were here, he'd probably say, 'Learn from the one mistake I made. I can't change it now. Learn from it. Find another way to cope with problems if things aren't going well.' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World