March 30, 2013 11:32:30 PM
Columbus High School senior Devin Berry is spending this spring readying for graduation and preparing for the next stage of his basketball career.
For most, there can be fear and trepidation in what lies ahead. Not for Berry. For him, it is a "been-there, done-that" situation.
After playing his freshman and sophomore seasons at Houlka High, Berry transferred to Columbus High, looking for more athletic and academic opportunities at a larger school.
In his two seasons with the Falcons, Berry took full advantage of those opportunities. While leading Columbus to two successful campaigns, the 6-foot-7 center capped his high school career by being chosen The Dispatch's Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
"Playing at Columbus High was so much more than I expected," Berry said. "All I really wanted was an opportunity. This place has helped me grow so much as a player and as a student. It has made me a better person.
"What it comes down to is 'How bad do you want it?' " I came here not expecting to do this well. I wanted to be successful, but I came here as a normal player. I wanted to see how the program was and then see what I could do to help. Learning everything took some time here. It was a big process."
After learning his new environment, Berry was ready to take the Falcons on his back. Coach Sammy Smith recalls a conversation he had with Berry during the Christmas holidays.
"Devin was giving us so much, but we knew he could give us even more," Smith said. "We challenged him to have a double-double every game. We wanted his game to go to the next level because we knew had those capabilities."
Columbus rang in the new year with a phenomenal stretch of double-double performances by Berry. The Falcons had a stretch where they won nine of 11 games. For the season, Berry averaged 12.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
"The more games we played, we got closer as teammates, friends and brothers," Berry said. "I enjoyed the whole season. It was great getting to know everybody. This was one of the best times I have ever had."
Columbus junior point guard C.J. Scott saw Berry's potential at the start of fall drills.
"When Duke really got going, we could be a special team," Scott said. "When he had the determination in his eyes, you knew he was going to have a special game. As the year along, we developed a really strong inside game and that caused a lot of problems for the other teams."
While Berry received help from Roshad Meeks, Brandon Porter, and J.J. Swanigan underneath, there was no question the opponent's defense centered on Berry, and Berry knew his teammates needed him to answer that challenge.
"Last year was a challenge for me because I was getting to know everybody," Berry said. "The thing is you can't lead people who don't want to be led. This year, the players on the team really accepted it this year. My job was to pick everybody up mentally. The whole mind-set was different on this year's team.
"We approached each game with the mentality we were not going to accept losing. Once I became a senior, I found out my true goal was to be a leader."
Assuming that leadership role was the latest stop in a playing career that was long and short. Despite his obvious size advantage, Berry didn't start playing basketball until his freshman year in high school.
"I was really short in fifth grade, something like 5-foot-5 or 5-6," Berry said. "Then the summer of that year, I grew all the way to 6-foot tall. I was the tallest guy in our school, but I had no interest in sports. I really liked to draw and do stuff like that. I didn't like to run or do anything like that.
"I really didn't understand my talent. When people look at me now, they think I have always played basketball because of my size. However, it was something I had to be talked into."
Giving Berry the proper push was his mother, Delorise Berry. Devin's mother was a classmate of Robert Woodard, the state's all-time leading scorer with 4,274 points. All three played under legendary Houlka coach Jimmy Guy McDonald.
Finally, Berry decided his freshman year was the right time to give basketball a go.
"I started playing (junior varsity) ball and it got fun," Berry said. "It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. It was very fun, very exciting, getting to go places and play games. I got to know more people, like now I know a bunch of the players at other schools. I found out was I playing people that I was kin, too. I liked the excitement of the game and I found out it was something I could do."
After two seasons playing at Houlka, Berry moved to Columbus to live with his father, Daniel Hinton. Berry said the move was "a chance to really grow as a player and person."
"I just wanted a special opportunity at a bigger school," Berry said. "When I first came here, I didn't really know anybody. I thought this was going to be a regular school. Then I found out so many things here were more advanced. It took me a while to get comfortable with that level (of school work and basketball). Then it all clicked and I found out this could be a really great thing for me."
Smith knew little of Berry when he knocked on the coach's door and wanted to join the team. Berry's size and stature accelerated the conversation.
"I am very proud of him because of how far he has come," Smith said. "The thing with Devin is he accepted coaching. I never got easier on him. I got harder every day. When he thought he had mastered something, we moved to something else. I got harder on him every day he was in our program. He met every challenge head on."
The next challenge involves finding the right place to play college ball. A late bloomer, Berry has flown under the radar of most schools. A little more bulk would help, as would an improvement on his 42-percent free throw shooting. Still, the coaches are coming through the Columbus office, and others are asking for film on a regular basis. Smith said the whole Southwestern Athletic Conference has offered Berry, as well as dozens of junior colleges from throughout the Southeast. Other Division I schools are joining the fray.
"The thing we always tell our players it you don't have to toot your own horn," Smith said. "If you work hard enough and do the things you are supposed to do, someone else will toot the horn for you. Devin has done all of those things and more. He has become a leader in every sense of the word."
As the season progressed, Berry assumed that leadership role on game day and in practice.
"I really like practice," Berry said. "I think that really helped set me apart as a player. When you design a play and then run it in the game and it works, you get excited. I loved being the go-to guy and knowing the other team was in practice trying to design a play to stop me. It was a challenge. That is what made it fun."
While Columbus' season ended with an upset loss to Grenada in the region tournament, the Falcons went 15-8. Berry said everything is in place for the team to "have an extraordinary season" next year.
Smith shares that sentiment. At practice last week, the veteran coach acknowledged two ninth-graders who "can jump out of the gym."
"Devin really made an impact," Smith said. "The younger players know what it takes to be a role model, a leader, and a great player. They understand the standards around here. He is going to do some great things with his life. Now, it is these players' time to seize the next opportunity."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter