SOME MORNINGS, PERHAPS EVEN ON A morning like this one, James Berry III will lie on his mother's couch at 4 a.m., unable to sleep. The only light in the living room will be the flicker of the television. The thoughts inside his head will collide and carom off of one another until he cannot sit any longer.
He'll slip into his athletic shorts and a black hooded sweat shirt. He'll walk through the living room and pass the shiny silver and gold boxing trophies that bear his name. He'll open his front door, step off his porch and soak up the quiet, cool darkness of Ellerslie Avenue.
He does not like to run. But he will run anyway. He wants to strengthen his legs, prove he can take a punch in the late rounds and stay off the canvas. His coach, an ex-fighter with long arms and a smoky, dry voice, believes Berry can fight in the Olympics, that he has the talent to win a gold medal. But only if he gives himself to boxing without reservation or hesitation.
He is quick, he is fierce and he has heart. Already, he has won Golden Gloves state and regional titles at 141 pounds. He has learned, for the most part, to control his anger inside the ring. When he lifts his shirt, his abdominal muscles are the smooth, curved shape of river rocks, the kind that have been sculpted and carved into form by a century of movement and force.
He is 19 years old.
Berry runs because it helps him think. The streets of Baltimore are quiet at this hour, except when birds chirp, or a siren wails in the distance. Running in the dark, the temperature rises as his heartbeat quickens. On mornings like this, he tries to find the patience to be the kind of man people expect, and are begging him, to be.
He is stubborn. He can be difficult. At times, he has been foolish and selfish. He has sold marijuana, and has been arrested by police three times. He pleaded guilty to one count of drug possession. His reasons for dealing - he won't call them excuses - are simple. And they are also complex.
The simple version: He wanted money to buy new clothes - Air Jordans, Polo shirts. Money that would give him status, money he couldn't ask his mother for because most of her paycheck was going toward paying the bills. And he wanted it now. He was the kind of kid who could spend hours in a gym, sparring or pounding on a heavy punching bag, but he couldn't focus on a nine-to-five job. When he saw friends flush with cash, he wanted a piece for himself. It was materialistic, but the truth. Having a little money made him happy.
The complicated version: The Game, and the life that surrounds it, is in his blood. His mother was a drug dealer. His father was a drug dealer. His mother grew up in a household of drug dealers. The profession, like bad genes responsible for a fatal disease, was inherited from one generation to the next. For much of Berry's childhood, the sale of heroin and cocaine put food in his family's refrigerator. It paid for his clothes. It put a roof over his head.
It also came very close to destroying his family.
Getting in "The Game'
Seeing his mother's face each day is a reminder of the havoc drugs have wreaked on the lives of the people he loves. And yet he chose to stand on a corner not far from his house and sell marijuana. When his best friend, someone he looked up to for years, started hustling, Berry joined him. He knew right from wrong, and chose wrong anyway. He told himself he would be smarter and better than those who let it ruin their lives. He would only sell weed, and he would not use. People around him thought Berry was trying to be in The Game, but not of it. He didn't judge his parents for their past sins. To him, it was a means to survive.
When asked if he thinks he'll deal again, he pauses before he answers. He leans his head back, sticks out his lower lip until a half-frown forms on his thin, angular face. In a rapid mumble, he gives his best and most honest answer.
"It's what's around me," he says. "It's my habitat. It's everywhere I go. If there wasn't nothing else for me to get money from, I know in the back of my mind, I still got that to back me up if everything else [with boxing] falls through. I'm still struggling with it. I still don't have no money. Anytime I could slip back. It's hard because I know I got to keep my focus and stay on that straight path."
Boxing became his salvation, his way of dealing with anger. He was a fighter and had always been one, in some fashion, since he was 4 years old. That too was in his blood. For Christmas that year, his father gave him an inflatable plastic heavy bag, one with Sugar Ray Leonard's face on the side. He spent hours throwing haymakers, hooks and jabs at Sugar Ray, knocking him over, only to watch him spring to life again, wobbling like a buoy in the ocean.
The thirst he developed for standing toe-to-toe with another fighter only intensified as James grew into his long arms and his muscles developed, giving him power to complement his quick hands. Inside the ring, he looked emotionless, the blank expression on his face never changing. But he was fearless.
In New Jersey, on the day he won his regional Golden Gloves title, he charged forward against a larger, taller opponent, throwing sharp jabs and pounding away with his vicious left hook. Stubborn but strong, he absorbed heavy shots to the temple in exchange for position, and unleashed sharp uppercuts that snapped the other fighter's head backward. Only when it was over, when the referee raised Berry's right hand, did he show emotion. He fell to his knees, looked up at the ceiling, and very briefly put his hand over his eyes. He punched the air with his fist and held up his Golden Gloves trophy, feeling like anything was possible.
But was it? When he runs, usually circling the old parking lot on 33rd Street where Memorial Stadium once stood, Berry thinks about his parents. As he heads west toward Johns Hopkins University, he thinks about his mother, Yolanda, a former heroin addict. She's been clean now for nearly 10 years, and he tries to make her proud. He is closer to her than he is to anyone. Over the years, they've shared everything from laughter to a cell phone. He remembers, as young as 8 years old, holding her hand as they marched into burned-out, broken-down neighborhoods, seeking her next high.
He thinks, too, about his father, James Berry Jr., locked up in the state prison in Hagerstown, 85 miles away. Inside a tiny cell, the father's days creep by, his hours full of remorse. The son is not ashamed of the man he was named after, nor of what he did. He loves him. More than anything, James wishes his father could come home and start over. He wishes he could watch one of his fights.
James Berry III is in the fight of his life
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.