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Back to the Future

After five years at Lincoln, Troy Berry returns to Benson to coach his alma mater

When Troy Berry talks about being the Benson boys basketball coach, he cannot stop smiling.

It's sort of like being a kid with a debit card in a candy store.

Benson is where Berry played two decades ago, where he and A.C. Green played on the Techmen's 1981 state title team, and where he was an assistant coach for six years before leaving to take over the Lincoln High program in 1998.

It's where he matured into a motivated athlete and individual, walking to school every day.

And it's where Richard Washington played before moving to UCLA and then the NBA.

'Richard Washington is the reason I went to Benson in the first place,' says Berry, who will coach his first game for Benson next Tuesday. 'You know, I got to talk with Richard for 40 minutes a couple weeks ago, and that was truly a thrill, talking with someone like Richard Washington.

'During that conversation, I kinda stopped myself and thought, 'You're talking with Richard Washington!' That's the kind of thing I never would have thought would happen when I was a kid.

'And I talked to Phil Knight a couple weeks ago, and he knew who I was. How about that?'

Berry might be 40, but he's a young 40, and he's revved up about taking Benson back to being the top program in the state Ñ where Benson was during his formative days.

'I had a great experience when I was a student here,' Berry says. 'I have kids who graduated from here, family that graduated from here. É I love this school.

'I count my blessings every day that I'm here, and I want the kids on my team to do the same.'

Benson actually is among the top programs in the state. The Techmen played in the state title game in 1998 and 2001 under Don Emry, and they've won or tied for the Portland Interscholastic League title five times in the last 11 years.

But Benson hasn't won the league title since 1999. It hasn't won a state title since 1990, when legendary coach Dick Gray was at the helm.

Berry played for Gray, who guided Benson to state titles in 1971,'73, '74, '81 and '90. Washington dominated the middle of the court on the first two title teams, well before Berry first showed up at the school in 1977.

Berry, who played alongside Gary Payton at Oregon State, could be a college assistant or maybe even a head coach, but he's happy for now in the prep ranks, making a name as a program builder. In five years at Lincoln, he took the Cardinals from 2-21 to the school's first PIL title in 39 years.

He invented the Portland Legends summer program and has coached within the USA Basketball umbrella at national tournaments. His coaching legacy has progressed enough that even a practice player on the Legends teams, 2002 Benson alum Adrian Stelly, elevated himself and recently was promoted to the University of Oregon's 14-man roster.

When Berry was named head coach at Benson, everyone at the school knew his name.

'He has an aura around him,' says senior guard DeShawn McKenzie. 'But that's good because good players will follow him here. When you get good players, you get championships.'

McKenzie says he's been impressed by Berry's attention to detail during the last month of practices.

'He gets everyone's attention,' McKenzie says. 'I know he has mine.'

Berry's coaching move already has motivated at least one player to change his future. Ramon Wray, a 6-5 junior, sat out last season because of grades and may have been an academic casualty this year, too.

When Benson hired Berry as coach and student recovery coordinator, Wray's priorities changed.

'I got my grades in order,' he says. 'I knew I wanted to play for coach Berry.'

Revved up alumni

Terrance Burns, who played on the '74 title team, also perked up when Berry was hired. He talked his son, Nick, who was a standout on the freshman team at Madison last winter, into transferring to Benson. He's on the Benson varsity this winter.

Terrance Burns is busy getting other alums from the '70s to help out with the program. They recently repainted the foyer of the Benson gym as part of preparations for the Dec. 12 game, which is the school's Hall of Fame game.

Burns says the interest he is hearing from alums makes him think there will be a big turnout. And he's hopeful that Berry's arrival will have a similar impact on students.

'When I went here, there weren't any girls,' Burns says. 'Everyone was focused Ñ on athletics, on their education. You used to have the threat that if you didn't do well here, you might get sent to another school.'

Berry's aura and all the talk of past greatness can have a stifling effect, too, as Stelly pointed out during practice Friday.

'They're trying to please you instead of just playing the game,' Stelly told Berry during a scrimmage. 'You need to get on them about that.'

Berry promptly chatted with his players.

A challenging future

Benson certainly isn't going to cakewalk to the PIL or state title. For starters, the Techmen have to play against the revved up Lincoln program that Berry just left.

Grant, with its own hot coach in Tony Broadous, probably will be among the state's top teams. Jefferson has its own college-level coach in Marshall Haskins, plus a pedigree of winning that dates to an undefeated 1972 season.

And that's just part of the league schedule. Benson opens at Hillsboro, which reached the state title game last year, and plays its first home game against Lake Oswego and 6-8 freshman Kevin Love on Dec. 12. Benson also plays in the 16-team Les Schwab Invitational, which features powerhouse teams from out of state.

With just a handful of players returning from a team that reached the second round of the state playoffs, missing the state playoffs or even a losing record -isn't out of the question. How would that affect the candy store?

Berry smiles at the thought of a losing record.

'That doesn't bother me, because I'm focused on what I'm doing and what's going to happen in the future,' he says. 'If you put a team with character out on the court, the winning and losing will take care of itself.'