“Michelle Berry. Now that’s a story you should tell.”
It’s not hard to get TCU Women’s Basketball coach Raegan Pebley to talk about her players; the seventh year coach is well-known for building great relationships with her athletes, on and off the court. She seems especially willing to talk about her veteran players, and even more so this year, as she has made a concerted effort to enjoy herself in her program’s return to the court after seeing a dream season cut short due to COVID last March.
After celebrating her four seniors a few weeks ago, Pebley mentioned that Michelle’s story was especially compelling, and that push was all that was needed to reach out to the team’s veteran presence for an in-depth interview.
I was not prepared for the story that she had to tell.
Michelle grew up in Miami, FL, first exploring her athletic talents on the soccer pitch, not the hardwood. But encouragement from her mother — who felt basketball provided more promising collegiate offers — led to her picking up hoops, and she quickly rose to prominence as a member of Miami Country Day’s dominant women’s basketball program. “It wasn’t really my choice,” Berry admitted. “It was my mom. Playing soccer, I was in public schools, but basketball offered me the opportunity to go to a college prep school — Miami Country Day.” While at Country Day, Michelle was, in her estimation, one of the weaker players on a team that was ranked #1 in the country her senior year. “I was just playing off of natural ability at that point, while everyone around me had been playing basketball their whole life. I sucked at scoring, I couldn’t really dribble, but our coaches were really hard on us and didn’t accept anything lower than greatness.” That competitive environment and pressure paid off: all five starters received Division I offers, with players matriculating to Miami, Kentucky, Maryland, and Syracuse, and Michelle finding herself on the opposite coast at Cal State Fullerton. She was recruited to be a Titan by Abi Olajuwan, an assistant coach in Fullerton who would serve not only as a key figure in her first stop, but getting her to her last as well.
Berry thrived at Fullerton, averaging nearly a double-double with 14.5 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. But, despite her success, she felt like there was more she should be doing. “I felt like I could give more, I wanted to give more. I wanted to be pushed more as an athlete, to play in a Power Five Conference.” That desire led her back east, where she landed with Virginia Tech in the ACC, one of the top women’s basketball conferences in the country.
Her path would take an unexpected turn.
After sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules (waivers weren’t really a thing at the time), Berry started eight games and played in 37 in her first year as an active member of the Hokies roster. Just as she was finding her groove, she lost everything.
“My third year, I was diagnosed with blood clots in my lungs. It was really hard, questioning my value, not just as a basketball player but as a person. For six months, it wasn’t just that I couldn’t play basketball, I couldn’t get my heart rate up for six months. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play again, at all.” Once a person is diagnosed with blood clots, they are prone to getting them again, which meant that once Berry was cleared, she still had to wait six months before she could attempt full activity again. That time away from the game helped cement her love for it, and confirmed what she already knew: it was time for a change.
“That year, sitting out, really made me sit down and watch the game, because I couldn’t play it. I take a lot from that experience — yeah, it sucked that I couldn’t play and that I was going through the pain I was going through, but I learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself.”
When it came down to determining her next stop, TCU had one distinct advantage: Abi Olajuwan. The Horned Frogs’ assistant coach had matriculated to Fort Worth — and had stayed in touch with Michelle’s mom. All it took was one line: “hey, we kind of need year here”, and Michelle was sold. “Abi s probably the best coach I have come across as a person; I knew I would be taken care of. Once I met the coaching staff, I fell in love even more. They just welcomed me with open arms: from the moment I stepped foot on campus for my recruiting visit, I felt like I had been here [my whole career]. They welcomed me like I was one of them. It was a perfect fit.”
Joining a team that had five seniors, including established stars like Kianna Ray and Jayde Woods, Berry made it her job to fit in. But it wouldn’t take long for her to make an impact beyond just her positive energy, as she was the one who hit the game-winner in Austin, the first time the Horned Frogs had beat Texas on their home court. TCU went 13-5 in conference play and 22-7 overall, good to secure the #2 seed heading into the Big 12 Conference Tournament. The dream of breaking a ten year tourney drought ended before it could truly begin, as COVID-19 shutdown sports across the country. “It was heartbreaking,” Berry admitted. “ Everybody on that team, no one had ever been to the tournament. We just knew how much we wanted to go, how much work we put into it.” Though spring athletes weren’t granted an extra year of eligibility — something granted to all athletes that participated during the 2020-2021 season — Berry had a good case to appeal for a medical redshirt due to the time she lost back at Va Tech. She didn’t hesitate to play her card. “In the midst of things, I kind of knew that I wanted to come back. It was just a matter of the process getting confirmed. There was unfinished business.”
Though this season has had its own unique challenges — COVID, youth, and now weather — there are no regrets for Berry in her sixth year as a collegiate athlete. “We can’t compare last season to this season: we nipped that in the bud really early,” she said. “We are going to work with what we have, build on the culture we already have. This is what we stand for, this is what we do, this is how we do it.” There’s still a chance she could continue building that culture in 2021-2022: all athletes competing this year have been granted a “free” year of eligibility, and the opportunity to return for one last run is out there. “If I had to make a decision today, I would come back for another year,” she said. “Why run away from it when you have an option to stay? Why run away into a world that’s so not sure? I do want to play at the next level, but that’s hard right now with COVID. Nothing is for sure.”
If Berry does elect to spend a third year as a player at TCU, the program, and the community would be better for it. She has been impactful on the court, where she’s averaging nearly 10 points and over six rebounds a game in 35 minutes for the Frogs, but her greater impact might be in the locker room and the greater Fort Worth community. She has served as a mentor to her younger TCU teammates, especially sophomore Tavy Diggs — who she affectionately refers to as Little Michelle off the court — and has been a key figure in the social justice and civic involvement movements of TCU Athletes off the court. Berry was a strong voice during TCU Women’s Basketball’s push to encourage other Big 12 athletes to register to vote, and has been part of conversations with campus and Fort Worth police officers trying to better the community. “I understand that there’s a lot going on worldwide, but let’s try and fix our community. Let’s talk about it, be consistent with it. Keep the ball rolling and don’t let it be just a trend or a phase.” Berry has been surprised at the support TCU has granted athletes but not by the support of her coaches. “Our coaches are the best; they push us to be such great leaders, to use our voices. They made us feel so powerful with what we could do. I give them so much credit and I love them for that.”
While Berry and others certainly have a larger platform as Division I athletes at a Power Five school, they are not exempt from the misconceptions and microaggressions that have been at the forefront of conversations over the past several months. “When I’m walking around the neighborhood around TCU, I have to make sure I have TCU gear on because of the color of my skin. It sucks, but that’s the reality.” When she’s not protected by the shield of being a Horned Frog athlete, “people look at me like ‘what are you doing in this neighborhood?’.” That’s not what she wants for students that don’t have the option, and Michelle has been at the forefront of trying to change it. “This summer, we were trying to say, as athletes, there is stuff going on in the real world and we demand better. We want to have those conversations.”
Berry, who is finishing her Master’s of Liberal Arts this year — and has the desire to pursue a Master’s in Counseling next — hopes to stay connected to her sport and continue to use her platform as a highly successful DI athlete. She has aspirations to work in athletics at the college level — as a recruiting or ops director — or possibly a different path. “I would love to coach. I love talking to people — to kids, their parents,” she said. Or... “I am also really looking into refereeing. I feel like I would be a really animated ref” with a laugh. “I want to stay around the game for sure.”
The longer Michelle Berry is around the game of basketball, and especially TCU, the better. Both for the program and for the community.
You can catch Michelle and her teammates in action this weekend, as the Horned Frogs travel to Morgantown to take on West Virginia.