For 28 years, Sacramento Kings fan have lived and died with their team. They have seen tragedy and triumph. They have cheered and cried.
But more often than not,they have felt pain.
Pain comes in many shapes and sizes. Losing is one measure, but it doesn’t capture the totality of being a Kings fan. Draft picks like Joe Kleine and Pervis Ellison in the franchise’s early years set the stage for a decade of losing basketball in the California’s capital city.
Trades that brought in broken-down talents like Derek Smith (God rest his soul) and Ralph Sampson didn’t help the cause either. Neither did the Bill Russell or Dick Motta eras. This team was destined for the lottery in all but one season from 1985 to 1998.
If losing wasn’t bad enough, there are real tragedies that cannot be forgotten. Before Chris Webber‘s catastrophic knee injury in the 2003 playoffs, there was the near fatal car accident of Bobby Hurley 14 games into his NBA career. And before Hurley, there was Ricky Berry.
The Kings faithful dealt with the shocking suicide of Berry on Aug. 14, 1989, which is by far the saddest day in franchise history.
Berry was coming off an exciting rookie season after joining the Kings as the 18th overall pick in the 1988 draft. He averaged 11 points a game in his first and only NBA season, including a magical night on Feb. 9, 1989 when he scored a career-high 34 points and set a team-record seven made 3-pointers. He was a budding star with incredible potential.
“As a player, Berry was on the cusp of becoming that new breed of NBA player,” said Rob Hessing, a long-time Kings fan and editor of Sactown Royalty. “The 3-point shot was still relatively new as a weapon and here was a guy that was long enough to get his shot off with ease. He might have been Dale Ellis or Glen Rice, but with better ability to get to the rim.”
The sky was the limit. No one saw signs of a darker side hiding.
On the night of Aug. 13, the 24-year-old Berry and his wife Valerie got into a disagreement. She left their home in Carmichael and when she returned the next morning, she found Ricky dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Berry left a suicide note which has never been publicly released. The questions are bigger than why? They are bigger than how did no one see this coming? Because no one understands and no one saw this coming.
Former Kings executive Greg Van Dusen recalls that fateful day vividly. The chain of events he remembers like yesterday. The words spoken that day are mostly lost to the wounds of an unimaginable tragedy.
Berry’s mother and father were at ARCO Arena speaking to coach Bill Russell when the call came in. There were tears, but also a scramble to prep for the impending rush of questions and cameras. While arrangements were made for a press conference, Russell had to escort the Berry’s out of the building before the media vans arrived.
Shock, anger, confusion and a whole lot of unanswered questions were all that were left.
“There was grief,” Van Dusen said. “We were not that far away from preparation for the 1989-90 season. We were just watching Ricky develop as a young star.
“Ricky was not only going to be a star,” Van Dusen added. “He was really nice. A really good guy.”
A father himself, Van Dusen struggled sharing the events of that day and the memories of a young athlete lost at such a tender age. Even though more than two decades have passed, the wound still felt fresh.
Russell would leave the organization three months later, lasting less than two years on the job. While his legacy as a player is above reproach, he left the Kings in a far worse place than when he arrived. It’s unclear just how much of that can be blamed on happenstance and how much can be laid directly at Russell’s feet. Clearly, he was at a disadvantage without his budding young star.
The story is still a mystery some 24 years later. While remnants still exist inside the walls of Sleep Train Arena, they are locked deep in the hearts of long-time members of the Kings family, like Jerry Reynolds and Gary Gerould. As quickly as he rose to stardom, he was gone and the scars left are deep.
“If you look at his life,” now Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson told reporter Marty McNeal on the one-year anniversary on Berry’s death in 1990. “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?”
Johnson had known Berry for nearly a decade and like everyone else was stunned by the loss.
It is a cautionary tale that never really received the notoriety of other tragic tales of the time. The passings of Len Bias, Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis in that the same era were national stories that still resonate today. Berry’s death, meanwhile, has gone almost unnoticed.
Bias died of a cocaine overdose just days after being selected third in the 1986 NBA Draft. Like Berry, he was the new breed of perimeter player. Both Gathers and Lewis died on the court of heart failure. Gathers while a senior at Loyola Marymount in 1990 and Lewis in 1993 as a member of the Boston Celtics. Both Bias and Gathers deaths made ESPN’s 100 Most Memorable of the past 25 years list.
“For me, it wasn’t the loss of the player, but the loss of the individual,” Hessing said. “And with that loss, a bit of innocence was lost as well. The Kings were still in the infant stages here in Sacramento. It kind of felt collegiate, as though the community had a hand in raising the team. And Ricky Berry was gone almost as quickly as he was here.”
The loss of innocence for sure. It was a different time and a different NBA. Players were more accessible. Berry and his wife actually worked at a local car dealership. These were real people and real members of the community.
This is one of the many stories of the Sacramento Kings franchise. While it is heartbreaking, it is part of the fabric of this community and this fanbase. This is a tragedy that resonates with long time members of this region everytime an athlete or young person takes his or her own life.
While Sunday Musing are usually of the lighter variety, certain stories should be told from time to time. With so much uncertainty surrounding the Kings’ future, the story of Ricky Berry should never be locked away in a safe or transferred from one city to the next.