I’m not sure if he ever felt this way. It would be an interesting question to ask.
Joel Berry II, the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s most reliable warrior over the past three seasons, ended his Tar Heel career last Sunday. The point guard will leave the program as a two-time All-ACC selection, an ACC Tournament MVP, a Final Four Most Outstanding Player and a national champion.
In his first year, he trusted a coach, even when it seemed as if the coach didn’t trust him. He persevered through small doses of playing time — and then broke out his sophomore year, complementing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson in their quest to bring hardware to a school that had experienced more hardship than it was used to.
By his junior season, Berry became the beating heart of a team that so desperately needed one. He played 30.4 minutes a game, despite spraining both of his ankles on two different occasions in his junior postseason. That same season, his team redeemed one of the most debilitating losses in college basketball history.
He left the North Carolina basketball program a better institution than it was when he arrived. His entire body of work should make him unforgettable.
So when he took off his jersey in the silent, somber locker room after his disappointing finale as a Tar Heel, I hope he found solace in the fact that his name will hang in the Smith Center rafters after he’s gone — that his legacy will be immortalized and appreciated even after he’s no longer diving for loose balls; playing through sprained ankles; and shouldering the blame when his team falls and sidestepping the spotlight when his team reaches ultimate glory.
I hope he finds comfort in the fact that his name — solely because of the feats he individually accomplished — will remain in the Tar Heel faithful’s consciousness even after he graduates in May.
I hope this because, while he played, Berry was taken for granted.
For the record, this isn’t an assertion that can be quantifiably supported, nor is it an opinion that can be rationalized by any sort of principle. It’s a feeling, an idea that will resonate with those who knew how good Berry was — but didn’t take the time to appreciate it until he was gone.
I base this claim on really one, personal observation: He never seemed to be “the reason” for North Carolina’s success.
About two hours after North Carolina defeated Davidson by 10 earlier this year, I remember walking with Chapel Fowler, The Daily Tar Heel’s sports editor and my coworker, on a sidewalk right outside the Spectrum Center in Charlotte. We had just published a quick game story recapping the basics of the Tar Heels’ win, and we were bouncing more in-depth story angles off each other for Monday’s print edition.
I said that I wanted to write about how Theo Pinson and Brandon Robinson provided a spark in a game that UNC could’ve easily lost its focus in. Fowler said that he’d write about Luke Maye. After all, in North Carolina’s game against Davidson two years before, Maye scored zero points; that night, Maye scored 24.
We made our way to the car, and right before I opened the passenger door, Fowler’s voice stopped me.
He said something to this effect: “I’m also going to talk about Joel in my story. He was the leading scorer tonight, and we never seem to write about him. He’s having a great season and no one seems to be giving him the proper attention, us included.”
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but on the ride back to Chapel Hill the next morning, we talked about it some more. I scrolled through some stories other publications ran about the same game. Berry wasn’t in any headlines. I flipped through the archives of the men’s basketball section of the DTH website, and Berry was only our main subject in his return against Bucknell — a game where he uncharacteristically struggled.
As the season went on, we made a more concerted effort to write about Berry. After all, without him as a consistent focal point in our coverage, how could we tell the best, most true stories of the North Carolina basketball team?
Even outside this past season, Berry never seemed to be appreciated like he should have been. At his best, he was a constant presence in uncertainty — a source of leadership, poise and timely emotion. At his worst, he was still one of the most reliable players on the court, even when his struggles ostensibly seemed to be the cause of his team's defeat.
He was the reason for so much of North Carolina’s success throughout his career, but when he was a sophomore, Paige and Johnson were the faces of the team. When he was a junior, Berry was overshadowed by 2017 ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, as well as the emergence of post-shot, folk hero Maye.
And even this past season as a senior — even though this is probably how he preferred it — he was often mentioned in association with his best friend, roommate and fellow senior, Pinson.
Again, my opinion that he was taken for granted during his time at North Carolina may not resonate with much of the Tar Heel faithful. In fact, this might not even resonate with him.
But I bet it does.
After all, if Berry did feel fully appreciated, he probably wouldn’t have given so much to his school. He probably wouldn’t have been a two-time All-ACC selection and a Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
He probably wouldn’t have worked so hard to ensure that his name wouldn’t be forgotten so easily.
If Berry didn’t feel like he was taken for granted, he probably wouldn’t have been the undeniably great player he turned out to be.
At the very least, it would be an interesting question to ask.
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