By Ed Daniels, Clarion Herald Sports
Growing up, I must have been one of the few kids in Jefferson Parish who had never heard of Ray Berni.
But, as this former playground basketball coach at Bright Gym in Metairie grew gravely ill and then passed, it was stunning to see the out pouring of love and respect on social media.
Ray Berni, who died at the age of 91, was much more than just a coach to so many people.
Alan Frey, assistant women’s basketball coach at Tulane University, was one of those.
“The gym was always open,” Frey said. “Sometimes illegally at 1 or 2 in the morning.”
Frey said one of Ray Berni’s greatest attributes is that he wanted all kids to play the game, especially those who may not have been talented enough to play on their high school basketball teams.
Berni was one of those kids. A graduate of Warren Easton high school, he played CYO basketball at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in New Orleans.
“He loved teaching the technical skills of the game,” said Frey, adding how he gave lessons to thousands, for free.
“He would work with a child one-on-one and never charge a dime.”
The oldest of Ray Berni’s three children, Donna Dumas, said her father was not materialistic.
“Many of his cars were just barely serviceable.”
But, one day at Bright Playground, many of those he coached chipped and bought coach Ray a used car.
Berni ran countless camps. There were the summer camps, and the holiday camps. If it were Thanksgiving or Christmas, Ray Berni was at Bright playground running a camp for children.
Donna said if her father coached a child, he would often show up at his games or practices, just to offer support.
Her father was basketball obsessed.
After Katrina, he moved to Thibodaux to be with Donna.
“He would drive around, and just keep basketballs in his car. If he saw kids playing basketball, he would get out of his car and try to teach them.”
For his many players, Berni had one rule that would not be violated, and, if it was, you were kicked off the team.
“He told the kids, ‘if I see either one of your parents cutting grass, you are off the team,’” Donna said.
Donna and her sister Debbie joked that their father retired, twice. But, he could never get away from the game he loved and the children he loved to coach.
In a January 1993 article written about Ray, one of his many pupils spoke in admiration of his coach and mentor.
“My mother and father separated when I was 2 years old. As I got older, I would sometimes get lonely and depressed. At first, I didn’t know where or who to turn to for help and comfort. But I soon found that Ray Berni was there and willing to listen to my problems as well as show me how to play sports.”
In a Facebook page dedicated to coach, another pupil weighed in – “Merry Christmas, coach. Luv you and miss you. Thanks for everything you did for me.”
That could have been written by thousands.
Ed Daniels is sports director of ABC26WGNO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.