Everything seemed to be coming together for Walter Berry in 1983. A prince of the New York City playgrounds and former All-America at the Big Apple's Benjamin Franklin High, the 6'8". 210-pound Berry was a leading scorer at the National Sports Festival last summer. More important. Berry, who had dropped out of Franklin in June 1982 after falling badly behind in his studies, had earned a New York State high school equivalency diploma so—he thought—he could become the power forward on the best college team in town, St. John's.
Things didn't work out that way, though. The NCAA refused to recognize the 24-unit program Berry completed at St. John's Queens campus last spring as being sufficient to establish his athletic eligibility, because he was awarded a state, not a national, equivalency diploma. St. John's sought an injunction against the NCAA that would have allowed Berry to play for the Redmen, but when a federal judge denied that request last September, Berry, 19, looked like just one more New York City talent destined for obscurity.
Berry was nearly a year behind his class when he left high school, not through lack of effort—he had a C average—but because he had lost a substantial number of credits in transferring from DeWitt Clinton to Morris High and from Morris to Franklin, in search of better basketball opportunities. Walter's mother, Mamie, who works as a maid and raised her son alone, says he fell behind when he helped her find an apartment after a fire destroyed the building in which they had been living.
When Berry's hopes for enrolling at St. John's were dashed, officials from the school arranged for him to enroll in San Jacinto College, a J.C. in Pasadena, Texas, just outside Houston. Now Berry is determined to do whatever it takes to play big-time college basketball—at St. John's or elsewhere.
He's carrying 19 hours of classes, including courses in history and government, while averaging 28.4 points and 14.5 rebounds for the Ravens, who were 15-2 as of Sunday. But surprisingly, meeting the challenges of the San Jacinto basketball program has posed more of a problem for Berry than surmounting those posed by the academic program, in which he expects to complete enough work by late spring or summer to graduate and thereby qualify for NCAA Division I competition next season.
The Ravens are the defending national junior college champions, and their alumni include the likes of NBA players Ray Williams of the Knicks and Alton Lister of the Bucks. For the playground-oriented Berry, his lofty statistics notwithstanding, it has been a struggle to meet the demands of such a successful and disciplined basketball program. "I can run all day if I can take the ball coast-to-coast now and then," he says earnestly. "But after the first time I had to run 2½ miles in the heat in practice, I packed my bags and was ready to go back home."
Berry draws great strength from a broad torso, and his powerful legs can spring him 40 inches into the air with ease. His left-handed jump hook is next to unblockable, and while his outside shot is only average, he has the speed and ball-handling ability of a much smaller man.
But the joy Berry once displayed along with his talents on the asphalt courts of New York has given way to a weariness brought on by daily practices and games before small crowds against teams like Alvin C.C. and Wharton County J.C., which double-and triple-team him with players who wouldn't even make him sweat in one-on-one duels. For the first time in his life, basketball has become work, yet the San Jacinto experience could end up being the best thing that ever happened to him. "A kid of Walter's ability might be ashamed to go this route," says Ron Rutledge, a St. John's assistant coach who visits Pasadena periodically to make sure Berry knows that the Redmen still want him. "He told me, 'Ron, I don't belong here.' But this is the best route he can go because it's teaching him some discipline. Of course, it's the only route he has left."
Berry began playing basketball in earnest at 13 and was quickly noticed by attorney and basketball enthusiast Ernie Lorch, who brought him into the highly competitive Riverside Church program in Manhattan. Soon Berry was filling his room with trophies. Mamie has seen her son play only once—last year at the King Towers tournament in Harlem. "I was shocked," she says. "The way he could dunk and get around like that. I was very proud of him."
When Berry learned he'd be going to college in Texas instead of in Queens, the disappointment hurt him deeply. He says he was assured by St. John's officials that the equivalency program would make him eligible to play for the Redmen as a freshman. "I kept asking them, 'Are you guys sure? Is everything O.K.?' " he says. "They said, 'Don't worry about a thing.' " But, during the litigation, Berry says, he learned that St. John's had been worried about the question of his eligibility all along.
Then Berry came under the thumb of San Jacinto coach Ronnie Arrow, a feisty type who knew that no coach had ever gotten on Berry before. Arrow has been constantly critical of Berry's play, not allowing him to rest on his scoring and rebounding numbers. "He's asking too much of me," Berry says flatly. "I think I go out and play hard every game. But he tells me I'm not. I think he just needs somebody to get on."
What Arrow gets on Berry about most often are his positioning techniques and movement without the ball. Arrow believes that Berry is capable of averaging 35 points and 25 rebounds at the junior college level. "There's no difference in talent between Walter and Akeem Abdul Olajuwon or Michael Jordan or Waymon Tisdale," says Arrow. "The only difference is in intensity. Right now, Walter can't quite lower himself to admit that he can learn something here. When he dominates, he gets every rebound. His man doesn't touch the ball. Everything that comes inside he swats back out. It's almost ridiculous. If he decides to play hard, he can carry us to the championship by himself."
Against St. Philips College of San Antonio, Berry scored 38 points and had 30 rebounds. But more impressive, he graded 76 on Arrow's rating scale, on which 40 qualifies as top major college caliber. "The best anyone ever scored before was 56," says Arrow, "so I guess that means Walter could have started for the Sixers that night."
But Berry can still infuriate Arrow by coasting through stretches of games before choosing to turn it on, or by begging out of practices with assorted headaches, stomachaches and ankle pains. "I'm glad Walt hasn't taken anatomy yet," says Arrow, "because he'd have a different excuse for missing every practice."
Almost surely Berry will be a big help to some major college. The question is: Which college? St. John's can do little more than cross its fingers and keep sending its babysitters around. Says Redmen coach Lou Carnesecca in a mild understatement, "We know Walter so well. If he comes back I'll greet him with open arms." Meanwhile, recruiters from other schools, finding themselves with a second chance to lure Berry from St. John's, are bombarding San Jacinto with calls and visits. Arkansas, Georgia and Nevada, Las Vegas are breathing the hardest.
But Berry is still leaning heavily toward the Redmen. "I guess I'd like to show the NCAA that I'm going to be a man about the whole thing," he says. He is also an admirer of St. John's junior All-America guard Chris Mullin, which makes Carnesecca howl, "Wouldn't you pay to see a team with Chris Mullin and Walter Berry? I would."
But even if St. John's does get Berry, it might not keep him for long. Berry wants to get to the pros as soon as possible. "That's what I'm mainly going to school for," he says. "It's nothing to hide."