Middle school is one of the most important time periods for development in a young athlete’s career. It’s an oftentimes difficult transition period between casual recreation leagues and the intensity of high school sports, separating those who can hang with the best from the ones who can’t.

Of course, it’s the perfect time to sharpen one’s skills, too. Most players come into sixth grade raw and still learning the basics of their respective sport and they go from there.

So when Imari Berry came into Richview Middle School and was playing help-and-recover defense while guiding her teammates on where to position themselves to maximize their defensive prowess, head coach Kevin King knew that someone special had arrived.

“Really, a lot of it through those three years was just trying to make sure she was in a good position,” King said. “Honestly, she’s just a great player. My biggest concern was that I wouldn’t inhibit her.”

Berry started playing basketball in fourth grade after her mom, Shaquitta, saw her playing in the street with her two older brothers – who would both go on to play at Clarksville High – and her talent was clear.

Listed at 5-foot-10, the combo guard’s favorite NBA player is Kyrie Irving and her innate ability to control the game with raw talent, knowledge and awareness mirrors her idols.

As a seventh grader, she was called to the sideline by her coach while taking the ball up to receive instructions. While heading over, she took a shot from half court – much to King’s bewilderment – only for the shot to go in as the buzzer went off.

“That was one of those moments where she’s just aware of everything,” King said. “You can see her get a steal and as he’s going down the court she’s looking at the clock, she’s seeing where everybody’s at. She just knows what’s happening.”

One time on defense, she was defending the top of the key and grabbed a rebound about eight feet from the baseline. Without hesitating, she turned and threw a full-court bounce pass in transition between eight bodies to hit a teammate for a wide-open layup.

There was even one game in sixth grade when Imari was playing for her AAU team, the Tennessee Sol, where her mom remembers watching Imari take three-pointer after three-pointer.

“I never saw her shoot a three, but she kept shooting threes back-to-back,” Shaquitta said. “That’s how I knew basketball was hers.”

People have taken notice. Before even finishing her middle schooler career, she was offered full basketball scholarships by Murray State and Vanderbilt with an offer from hometown school Austin Peay coming shortly after.

But you wouldn’t even know it if you didn’t hear it from somebody else.

“She wasn’t like ‘I’m getting offers from colleges!’ she just still didn’t want to talk about it,” King said. “She was just worried about her teammates and wanted to play basketball. She didn’t want to gloat about it or brag about it.

“To have an offer from Vanderbilt? She doesn’t even really tell people.”

Berry led Richview to final four appearances in the state tournament as a sixth and seventh grader and a top-three finish in eighth grade. They finished with a 59-14 record and 81 percent win percentage in her three years.

She packed the scoresheet every single game, leading the team in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.

But if you were to ask her how many points she had scored last game…

“She’d say ‘zero.’ She’d have 26 or 30,” King said. “She’s just so humble and doesn’t want any attention, she just wants to go play basketball. She doesn’t do any of it for fame or glory, anything like that.”

Her disdain for the spotlight and selflessness often led to her passing up open shots so that her teammates could have a chance to score – that’s just how she is.

It doesn’t stop there. Berry’s personality exceeds even her talent on the court, making her an extremely pleasant person to be around for people of all ages.

“She’s just a sweet kid,” King said. “I have twin three-year-olds and every time she sees them, she runs up, she says hi, she gives them a hug, she picks them up. One of them follows her around everywhere she goes. Even if we see her at one of the high school basketball games, she takes them to the concession stand and just lets them tag along, and to me that says a lot about the person.

“She’s such a great kid, and she is still a kid. A ton of balance, she’s doing a phenomenal job trying to balance the attention she gets as a basketball player and still being a down-to-Earth kid.”

With that innate ability to take over a game while making everyone around her better, the state of Tennessee should be put on notice. She’ll join a Clarksville Lady Wildcats team returning almost all of its production (and getting key players back from injury) from a 14-14 season that saw them advance to the Region 5-AAA tournament.

Not only that, but Berry will be under the tutelage of coach Brian Rush who has already handled one mega-prospect in Bashaara Graves – the greatest women’s basketball player in CHS history who went on to spend four years at Tennessee and get drafted into the WNBA. She has already helped Berry and the two will likely be a popular pair for years to come.

Between her magnetic personality and dazzling on-court talent, Clarksville clearly has itself another special talent. Witness her while you can because it won’t be long until she’s on a much grander stage.

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