GLENDALE, Ariz. — Joel Berry II won't show anyone what's in his wallet. The secrecy is not about the money—in fact, that's clipped to the outside—or the cards or the IDs. It's about a plain piece of folded notebook paper he keeps tucked inside. If you glanced at it, you probably wouldn't think twice about it, but it is one of Berry's most important possessions. On it, he has written his basketball goals. And with it, he visualizes achieving them.
Throughout his three seasons at North Carolina, Berry has penciled in a check mark next to almost every item—Be a big-time player for the team; Be the best shooter I can be; Win an ACC regular-season championship; Win an ACC tournament; Go to the Final Four—but one bullet point remains. Win a national championship. Last season, the Tar Heels fell heartbreakingly short of his most meaningful collegiate goal. On Monday night against Gonzaga, Berry will have another opportunity to check it off.
The piece of paper in his wallet now is a spiritual successor to the first one he wrote, when he was in high school. Joel Berry Sr. was driving his freshman son home after a disappointing end to Lake Highland (Florida) Prep's season. The Highlanders had lost to Jones, a team they'd beaten twice already that season and that was ranked behind them in the Super 16, by three points in the Florida Class 3A, Region 2 semifinals. "That was a disappointing moment," Berry Sr. said. "It was like, you have to tell the kid something to help him get over that disappointment. I was trying to give him something that he could keep and that would remind him to be thankful."
So Berry Sr. instructed his son to remember all he had to be grateful for and to write down the things he had left to achieve. The lesson was based in part on Berry Sr.'s interpretation of Biblical scripture. Although the Berrys are more spiritual than religious, Berry Sr. is the kind of man who allows inspiration to spring forth from any source. For this lesson, he relied on words from Matthew 25: "For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."
"The riddle in that verse," Berry Sr. said, "is the word gratitude is missing from it. If you don't have gratitude, what you have will be taken away. But if you're grateful, you receive more than you could want."
That night, Joel Berry II reflected on all his team had accomplished throughout his remarkable freshman season, and then he started scribbling the goals he wanted to achieve in the rest of his high school career. By the end of it, he had won the Florida Dairy Farmers' Mr. Basketball and the Gatorade state Player of the Year honors three times each. He had also led Lake Highland to back-to-back state titles. In his senior season, he was the tournament MVP, averaging 22.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.2 steals during the five-game championship streak.
When he went to Carolina, he expected success to follow seamlessly. Instead, while he appeared in 30 games in 2014-15, he managed averages of just 4.2 points and 13.2 minutes per game. As Berry Sr. watched his son struggle, he started studying meditation more. He discovered an idea called "The Law of Attraction," which posits that whatever you think about most you will create. Berry Sr. wanted his son to stay positive throughout what would undoubtedly be an up-and-down basketball life on one of the brightest collegiate stages. "If you go through enough disappointments, you stop believing," Berry Sr. said. "I never wanted that to happen to Joel."
When Berry II reflected on the season, he realized he hadn't been focused enough. He had spent much of the campaign distracted by keeping up with friends from Florida and by social media and video games. So he started a new note. It's the one in his wallet right now.
The note didn't make him stronger. It didn't make him a sharper shooter. But it refocused him. When he found himself consumed by life's distractions at times when he should have been devoted to basketball, he would unfurl the piece of paper, quiet his mind and visualize his goals. "That's the biggest thing about it," Berry II said. "Sometimes you forget the things you want to focus on. But if you have it on paper, it's easy to pull it out and look at it. It's all part of my meditation."
In his sophomore season, he started every game (except for senior night), bumped his scoring average to 12.8 and entered the NCAAs having been named the ACC tournament MVP. Although he was later named to the All-Final Four team, he left Houston with one box unchecked on his list. "The paper has actually gotten to the point where I can barely even read it," Berry said. "But I know what that last item is by heart."
Berry has been bothered by a lingering ankle injury throughout the season and into the NCAA tournament, but he has still been North Carolina's key player. Although junior wing Justin Jackson is the Tar Heels' top NBA prospect and senior forward Kennedy Meeks is the immovable man in the middle, this team revolves around Berry's play at the point. After Berry reinjured the ankle in the Elite Eight against Kentucky, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he was "scared to death" his point guard wouldn't be able to play in Arizona.
When Williams learned of Berry's note from a reporter at the Final Four, he smiled. "It doesn't surprise me," he said. "He's very much a goal-driven person. I'm the same way, and he sees that in me as a coach. I don't write them down, but everyone knows that we share the same goals."
The practice of visualization was key for Berry in the national semifinal against Oregon. As the Ducks refused to go away in the second half, Berry kept telling himself that North Carolina was going to win the game anyway—he just wasn't sure how. When Meeks missed two potentially game-sealing free throws with five seconds left, Berry watched as junior wing Theo Pinson grabbed an inexplicable offensive rebound, tossing it out to Berry. And after Berry missed the first of his free throws with four seconds left, he told himself again: We are going to win this game. As his second free throw clanked, Meeks grabbed the offensive rebound, and the Tar Heels won. Somehow.
For Berry, the sequence was relieving, but the result wasn't surprising—it was just the latest example of the power of belief. And he believes he knows what will happen Monday night. He can imagine himself cutting down the nets, holding up a trophy with his teammates and then returning to his room that night to celebrate in private. He'll pull that little piece of paper out from his wallet, grab a pencil and check off his final goal.
David Gardner is a staff writer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Before B/R, he worked for Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports. His website is www.bydavidgardner.com. You can follow him on Twitter @bydavidgardner.