GLENDALE, Ariz. — Before the confetti and the tears, before the trophy was passed out and the net was cut down, Joel Berry II was still mortal, a man who’d experienced crushing defeat but who also felt destined for something bigger.
Somewhere in that sea of 76,168 fans on Monday night, he spotted a handful of family members, and they were pointing to their arms. On their arms, they’d written the same word that Berry has tattooed on his left biceps: Believe.
“It almost made me cry right then. … This word has got me so far in my life,” Berry said.
Along that curvy road that led to Monday’s national championship, where North Carolina was crowned champs and Berry the tournament’s most outstanding player, there were many points where a lesser competitor might have let doubt creep in. That stunning defeat in last year’s national title game, for example, a loss that Berry and his teammates carried on their shoulders for 12 months. Or the ankle injury that kept the junior point guard out of two games early in the season. Or the ankle injuries that resurfaced in this tournament and hindered his play.
It would have been all too easy not to believe. In the national semifinals against Oregon, he shot just 2 of 14. On those same damaged ankles, he turned in a game-high 22 points Monday on 7-of-19 shooting, leading the Tar Heels to the 71-65 win over Gonzaga. Put simply: Without Berry battling through the pain, the confetti that fell to the hardwood floor at University of Phoenix Stadium would have likely been a different color.
“It’s the national championship game,” teammate Justin Jackson explained later. “We were joking, saying, ‘If your toe falls off, tape it and get back out there and play.’ … Now he might be hurt for the next two weeks, who knows. But at the end of the day, we knew he was going to push through this game.”
Berry tweaked his right ankle in North Carolina’s tournament opener against Texas Southern and reinjured it in a practice before the Elite Eight. In that game against Kentucky, he ended up rolling his left ankle too. He was a bicycle with two flat tires, and in the two games preceding Monday’s championship, Berry had shot a combined 6 for 26 from the field and managed just a pair of three-pointers.
All week his condition required constant news updates all across the state of North Carolina. It wasn’t just fans and reporters. The team’s trainers and medical staff kept inquiring on his status, running him through constant rehab and limiting his practice.
“I just kept on telling myself, ‘Look, just a couple more weeks. Just give it your all,’” he said.
On Monday, Berry wrapped up pregame warm-ups with his teammates and shook hands with Coach Roy Williams, who urged him to just use his legs when shooting. And so that’s what he did. Berry hit four three-pointers Monday night. His teammates, meanwhile, were a combined 0-for-14 from behind the arc.
“Some of them were short,” Berry said of his shots, “but the ones that we needed went in. That’s all that matters.”
In last year’s last-second heartbreaker against Villanova, Berry finished with 20 points, and with Monday’s performance he joined some elite company, becoming the first player since Bill Walton more than four decades ago to score at least 20 points in back-to-back title games.
That’s a tiny footnote on the night’s tale of redemption, of course.
“I’m just glad this time we were able to cut down the nets and not have to walk back to the locker room like we did last year,” Berry said.
The tattoo on Berry’s arm helped keep his head straight, but some ink in his pocket made sure he never forgot the bigger picture. Berry carries a folded piece of notebook paper tucked inside his wallet with a list of goals — ACC title, Final Four, et cetera — and these past three years he’s been able to place a check mark next to all but one of them.
“The paper has actually gotten to the point where I can barely even read it. But I know what that last item is by heart,” Berry said the day before taking the court against Gonzaga.
On Monday night, he sat in front of his locker with remnants of a nylon net hanging around his neck, his faith and belief finally rewarded.
“Now I can go back and check this off of my list,” said the night’s star.