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Locker Room Talk: UNC’s Joel Berry II’s journey is proof of how early the road to college basketball must start

The Tar Heels star started his Final Four journey at age 6 when mom and dad figured out what it would take to get there

The regular college basketball season ended earlier this week. South Carolina won the women’s national title on Sunday, and North Carolina won the men’s championship on Monday.

But the second, and perhaps more important, season begins on Thursday, when thousands of college recruiters across the nation hit the road in search of talent they hope will deliver winning seasons, conference titles and perhaps a trip to the Final Four. Over the years, I’ve found this annual spring and summer hunt for human treasure to be the most compelling part of the college basketball season.

The coaches, and the universities for whom they work, represent the demand side of the college basketball industry. The camps, clinics and tournaments they scout over the next five months are part of the sprawling supply-side industry that attracts, sorts and distributes talent. The journey of North Carolina’s Joel Berry II from Apopka, Florida, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a poignant snapshot of how supply meets demand and how the supply-side industry has expanded from a veritable mom-and-pop business to a multimillion-dollar cottage industry that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The supply-side industry is made up of a sprawling network of camps, clinics, shoe-company-sponsored tournaments and teams that will be in full bloom from April through August. For all its many excesses, the industry allows players and parents such as Joel and Kathie Berry to chart a path to a destination — whether it be North Carolina or Division III Babson. Nothing is guaranteed, but the network will at least put players in position to be seen and evaluated by recruiters. At that point, talent takes over.

Berry II is one of thousands of young players who embarked on the journey. He is one of the fortunate few whose journey has, so far, had fairy-tale endings: a remarkable high school career, athletic scholarship to his dream university, back-to-back trips to the national championship game, a national title and the Most Outstanding Player award.

After Monday’s championship game, Berry II told reporters, “This was a dream come true.” In fact, his was less of a dream come true than the fruits of a well-executed plan that has guided him through the supply-side industry. His parents, particularly his father, Joel Berry Sr., were the architect of the journey.

“It was never our goal for our kids to be basketball players,” Joel Sr. told me earlier this week. He and his wife exposed each of their five children to a variety of sports to keep them active.

“But he got out there and started playing and said he wanted to play with the big boys. We got him out there, and he was just as good as the big boys at age 6.”

That journey began at age 6, when he played against his older sisters at the recreation center his father operated. “He was just out there helping me, and he started scrimmaging against his older sisters,” his father said. “All of a sudden I found out, ‘Wow, he has some talent.’ ”

By the time Joel was 7, he was playing with 9-and-under competition. When he was 9, he played 11-and-under; by age 13, Joel was playing with a high-powered, Nike-sponsored AAU team from Orlando, Florida.

The turning point in Joel’s journey came in middle school when he decided to concentrate on basketball. He told his parents that he wanted to play basketball at North Carolina. His father favored Duke, while his mother loved the Tar Heels and predicted that she would someday watch her oldest son play in Carolina blue.

“When Joel said he wanted to go to North Carolina, we said, ‘OK, let’s work this backwards,’ ” his father recalled. “If you want to go there, we know you have to get a good high school education.”

Berry Sr. knew his son had the athletic talent and the basketball skills to reach a program like Carolina. Besides playing above his age group, he was aligned with a powerful, Nike-sponsored AAU team: Nike Each One Teach One of Orlando.

Berry Sr.’s greater concern was whether Joel II had the academic foundation to survive once he got to Carolina. Enter Lake Highland Hills Preparatory School, where Berry’s Pop Warner team had once played. “My son fell in love with the place — in fact, we were all a little awed,” Berry Sr. said. “It looked like a small college.”

Joel Berry’s older sisters had played at the local high school, Apopka High. He wanted to attend Lake Highland Prep. The school’s interests in diversity, and getting better players, aligned with Berry’s interest in becoming academically prepared while playing in a high-profile program.

Berry led Highland to two state championships and was named Mr. Florida Basketball three times. As a senior, Berry took only one of his allotted college visits. His first and only choice was North Carolina. As his mother predicted, she would watch him play in Carolina blue.

These were the memories that Joel and Kathy Berry thought about Monday as they watched their son bask in the glow of a dream come true. “You go through those reflections real fast,” Berry said. “That’s what brings tears to your eyes. I always talk to him about enjoying the journey and not rushing the journey. Good things will happen.”

In the Carolina locker room after Monday’s game, Carolina assistant coach Steve Robinson said the thought had crossed his mind during the championship celebration that he had to hit the recruiting trail Thursday and find the next Joel Berry.

He’ll have plenty of company.

The last two weekends of April are live periods, meaning that coaches can make contact with recruits, for Division I. But there are tournaments this weekend for Division II and Division III recruiting. This includes a large tournament hosted by Zero Gravity in Mansfield, Massachusetts. ESPN is covering the event, according to the Zero Gravity website.

“The exposure these kids get is ridiculous,” said Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne. “Exposure is good and bad. In some cases, kids have an unrealistic view of reality.”

There have been ferocious debates about whether the growth of the supply-side industry has had a deleterious effect on everything from work habits to the motivation of young players. Joel Berry II never had a problem with losing track of reality. His parents saw to that.

His father reminded him of how it used to be in the 1970s when he grew up in the predominantly black Richmond Heights community of Orlando. The opportunities that his son’s generation takes for granted were unimaginable.

“It wasn’t even an option for us to cross the tracks back then,” he said. “It was like a circle. We had as many great players as they have now, but the only thing offered to us was recreational ball at the local parks.”

There are moral and ethical questions about the impact the expanded supply-side industry has had on everyone who takes part, from players and parents to coaches and shoe companies.

There was a time when the allure of a scholarship, sneakers and school apparel was enough.

Not for the type of talent the North Carolinas of the world are recruiting.

The shoe companies and the teams they sponsor have taken care of that.

“By the time they get to us, they’ve got a locker full of shoes,” UNC coach Robinson said. “They’ve got Nikes, they’ve got Adidas, they’ve got Under Armor. It just goes and goes.”

The reality is there is no turning back. From high-profile Division I to nonscholarship Division III, the quest to find the next Joel Berry II (relative to your level of competition) has created an insatiable supply-side industry that runs on dreams, aspiration and greed.

“I’m just hoping the business will get back to the point where people start using basketball for what it was intended for: to keep kids active, build relationships through communities, have diversity and not so use it as an avenue to be a meal ticket for your family,” Berry Sr. said.

Given the industry’s accelerated growth, that may be the real impossible dream.

Liner Notes

Next: Who controls the supply-side industry of college basketball recruiting.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.