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Berkley is the O.C. Small School Boys Athlete of the Year
Marcus Berkley seems to be humoring me.
He has readily accepted my challenge to a game of “PIG” inside Orangewood Academy’s gymnasium – his haven. He finishes a cookie and meets me on the court.
“No dunks,” I stipulate.
“Then you better go first,” he quips.
Berkley receives the game’s first letter for missing a 3-pointer from right of the top of the key.
It’s a shot he made look routine this past season, when he finished second in scoring in Orange County, averaging 22 points. He led Orangewood to its first CIF-SS boys basketball championship and a berth in the CIF State Division V playoffs, where the Spartans advanced to the regional quarterfinals.
He earned CIF-SS Division 6 Player of the Year and All-Orange County laurels.
He recently received the San Joaquin League’s Boys Athlete of the Year award, and he committed to play at UC Riverside.
To cap his remarkable year, he has been selected the Register’s Orange County Small Schools Boys Athlete of the Year.
“He’s an ambassador for Orangewood Academy,” said Leslie Aragon, the school’s athletic director and its former boys basketball coach. “He’s a great student, a 3.3 (GPA), 3.4 student. He’s personable, down to earth. He’s a good kid. I’ll miss him. It’s bittersweet, you know. He’s no longer mine.”
Berkley transferred to Orangewood the summer before his junior year, an unknown commodity with tenacity and a silky game. He fit right in, saying the community accepted him like no other.
Last winter, Orangewood lost to Renaissance Academy in the Division 5A championship game.
Berkley returned this season with a refined jumper and an off-the-bounce electricity matched by few others in the county. He became Orangewood’s best defensive player, leaving the court only in lopsided victories.
On Jan. 27, Berkley scored 27 points in a 61-51 win over Saddleback Valley Christian – the Warriors’ first league loss in nearly four full seasons.
First-year Spartans coach Rob Brooks called Berkley “a natural leader,” adding “he leads with his actions and his words.”
“I wanted to go down as one of the best players in Orangewood Academy history,” Berkley said. “I left my stamp on the school. I did what I planned on doing.”
• • •
Our battle on the court continues. I clank a jumper, giving him the opportunity to launch fire from anywhere he pleases.
I earn my first letter by missing a free throw – a free throw. He and I take turns draining baseline and elbow jumpers.
Berkley eventually positions himself along the baseline and shoots over the right corner of the backboard. Swish.
My second letter.
“It was wonderful playing against him in practice,” said Javier Simpkins, a sophomore-to-be. “He always gave me tips. He encouraged me to set high goals. His toughness, his passion – he inspires me a lot. He’s fun to watch from the bench.”
Berkley and I begin missing shots: regular and banked 3-pointers, free throws, mid-range jumpers, everything.
Berkley finally dribbles into and swishes a 3-pointer from just above the top of the key.
“There we go,” he says. “I was starting to get angry.”
My third letter.
Berkley will continue his schooling next year at Middlebrooks Academy, a post-graduate school in Los Angeles. He’ll play a year of basketball there before becoming UCR’s first commit for 2016. If all goes according to plan, Berkley will play for the Highlanders the 2016-17 season, joining former teammate Devante Cooper as Orangewood’s only Division I basketball players.
Aragon said at some point next season Berkley and Cooper will have their Orangewood jerseys retired.
“The community’s behind me,” Berkley said. “I’ve shook plenty of hands, met people I would’ve never met without basketball. I’m blessed. ... I want to show people that you can come from nowhere and go somewhere.”
Berkley offers me a cookie as a consolation prize. I’m good. But before leaving I congratulate him again and wish him well at Middlebrooks and at UCR.
“Thanks,” he says. “Oh, and good game.”
I leave the gym wondering if he was being sarcastic.
Maybe it’s best I never find out.
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