VILLALBA, SPAIN -- The NBA book on Walter Berry was that he had an attitude. Berry's writing a new book in Spain. The only attitude he's showing here is that of a hard-working winner.
Halfway through his first season with Atletico Madrid, Berry is leading the league in scoring despite missing his first two games because of an ankle injury. His 34.8 points per game average is seven points better than anyone else's. A forward, he's fifth in the league in rebounds.
And best of all, Berry said, the team has rebounded from a dismal 2-8 start under coach Clifford Luyk to go 8-3 since another American, Tim Shea, took over.
"I like to win. I've been a winner everywhere I've been. When we started to lose, things got tough," Berry said after a recent practice in Atletico's modest arena north of Madrid.
Berry, 26, gives the credit for turning around the team to Shea, a fellow New Yorker who has played and coached in Europe for 16 years. He said Shea knows how to get the most out of him, former St. John's University teammate Shelton Jones and the other players.
Shea said Berry is an artist, but one who is willing to make sacrifices to win.
"Walter's the heart of this team. They're going to build a franchise around him," he said. "With a player like Walter Berry and some of the national players I have here, it's a pleasure to coach."
Since Shea came to Atletico, Berry's point average has dipped -- some. But now he's handing out four assists a game instead of one.
"I was scoring forty, fifty points. But what good was it? We weren't winning. Nobody was happy," Berry said.
Berry has so impressed outspoken Atletico President Jesus Gil that the two are now negotiating a new, four-year contract. The 6-foot-8 Berry has asked for $8 million, according to a source close to the negotiations.
It was Gil who hired Luyk and gave him the green light to bring in big-money talent. Atletico, a soccer club, took over the Villalba-based team this year to extend its rivalry with Real Madrid to the basketball court. Real won the first test, however, beating Atletico, 98-69, last weekend. Berry had 27 points and nine rebounds despite triple-teaming, but fouled out with four minutes remaining.
Berry received a reported $700,000 to sign a one-year contract and come here from Italian club Napoli, where he had played for a year after failing to reach an agreement with the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets were his fourth team in a rocky NBA stint that started in Portland and never seemed to live up to the promise of his brilliant college career.
"There's a lot of politics," Berry said of the NBA. "When I first went into the NBA, I was 21 years old. I didn't know a lot of the things I know now."
Berry said he asked Portland not to draft him in 1986 because he felt he wouldn't fit into the organization. But they did, and by December he was headed to San Antonio in a trade for Kevin Duckworth.
"When I went to Portland there was a lot of bad blood. Once I got there I held out for money reasons and the situation went cold," Berry said. "They just put a reputation on me which stuck."
The next season, he averaged more than 17 points for the Spurs -- 22 in the playoffs. But he was traded to New Jersey and from there it was on to the Rockets.
Shea has nothing but praise for Berry. He believes his play will carry Atletico, now fourth in its division, into the playoffs.
"He's coachable. I don't know why he has a reputation. Walter's a winner. He'll do what he has to do to win. He plays defense and practices mornings," Shea said.
Berry said he misses family and friends. And he admits that playing before an average 3,250 fans in the Villalba Municipal Sports Pavilion is not the same as stepping out in Madison Square Garden.
But he said he likes Madrid, unlike Naples, where the fans are famous for their fanaticism and good aim with the heavy coins and cans they rain on players to show displeasure.
"Any player that played in the NBA that's over here thinks about going back," Berry said. "I believe if it's for me to play in the NBA it'll happen next season."
But he said Atletico "is my number one priority. If I can get the contract I want, I'll bypass everything else."