Basketball was Ricky Berry's life.
The 24-year-old scion of a basketball family was a Sacramento Kings forward, the first-round draft pick in 1988 and a rising star on the NBA horizon. Though caring, sensitive, soft-spoken, and almost cherubic in appearance, he was spirited, intense, tough-minded and competitive on the court.But he was also apparently tormented by personal demons, the nature of which the public may never know.
"(Ricky) was the kind of guy who didn't say a whole lot," says Eric Saulny, a San Jose State assistant coach during Berry's senior season there. "Maybe there was something inside of him that nobody knew. Obviously, there was."
On Aug. 14, Berry pressed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger less than an hour after arguing with his wife, Valerie, who left their suburban Sacramento home and spent the night at a friend's house.
His suicide note reportedly said Valerie didn't love him and that she was trying to take advantage of him.
The day the nature of the note's contents was disclosed by The Sacramento Bee, the family canceled a memorial service in Sacramento without explanation. His wife has been in seclusion and unavailable for comment.
Jeff Logan, Berry's closest friend, said he does not believe marital problems were the only cause of the suicide.
Berry loved his wife and never spoke of ending their 15-month marriage, Logan said.
Psychiatrists speculated that Berry may have killed himself because of intense pressures from several sources. He had just purchased a new home, was reportedly quarreling with his wife and faced increased expectations in the Kings' upcoming season.
Most of Berry's teammates and friends say they had no clue the suicide was imminent.
Openly shocked and grieving, they pointed to his youth, popularity, potential stardom, and new house, a $360,000 dwelling in a tree-shaded neighborhood.
As those who knew him well tell it, basketball was central to his life from the beginning.
His father, Bill, was an assistant coach at Michigan State when Ricky was born.
At age 14, Ricky was a ball boy for Michigan State when it won college basketball's national championship in 1979.
Better than anything else, Berry learned how to shoot a basketball. And when he grew to 6-foot-8, few could stop him.
Berry first began to demonstrate real basketball skills at Live Oak High in Morgan Hill, where the Berry family settled in 1980 after Bill Berry took the head coaching job at San Jose State.
He signed with Oregon State partly on the advice of his father. Bill Berry, a driving taskmaster as a coach, feared that a player-coach relationship might damage their father-son relationship.
But a year later, Ricky decided he wanted to play for his father after all, and with his mother's help, he convinced the elder Berry to let him enroll at San Jose State in 1984.
Despite injuries, Ricky Berry justified the Kings' faith in him as a player, blossoming into one of the NBA's most dangerous long-range shooters. He averaged 11 points on 45 percent shooting for the 1988 season, with a career-best 34 points on Feb. 9 against the Golden State Warriors.
Over the final six weeks of the season, he averaged 18.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in 35 minutes a game, but he resisted the notion that he had it made despite those numbers and the security of a guaranteed three-year contract.
"He wanted to be a great basketball player, and he was doing the things he needed to do to get better - he played every day, he put on 20 pounds, he got involved in the community," Kings assistant coach Jim Hadnot said. "When I heard he'd gone to work for the auto dealer (Campus Mazda Volkswagen in Davis), I thought, `This is one sharp young man. He's thinking about life after basketball.' "
Now there was no life after basketball for Berry.