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Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Bulls have constant reminder of Sheri Berto

By Sarah Spain

Since its opening in 1992, the Chicago Bulls' practice facility has been the site of some memorable events. In October 1993, when Michael Jordan announced suddenly that he was retiring, he did so from the Berto Center. Less than two years later, the Bulls invited reporters back to the facility in Chicago's northern suburbs, where they read Jordan's now-infamous two-word statement: "I'm back."

If the Bulls have news to break, they usually do it at the Berto Center. Nestled among a bunch of nondescript office buildings in Deerfield, Ill., the 22,000-square-foot building is a home away from home for Bulls players and coaches. It's where they practice, where they train, where they meet the media.

The Berto Center also is a constant reminder to everyone in the Bulls family, and to everyone who visits, of a very special member of the team who was lost far too soon.

In his more than 20 years as chairman of both the Bulls and the Chicago White Sox, Jerry Reinsdorf has endured the ups and downs of professional sports. He has garnered praise when his teams have won championships, and he has listened to the criticism of frustrated fans when they have fallen short.

In October 2005, shortly before his Sox won the World Series, the then-69-year-old Reinsdorf told the Chicago Tribune that he had lived a "fabulous life" -- with one exception. In 1991, his longtime assistant, Sheri Berto, died from complications of routine surgery. Reinsdorf called her sudden and shocking death his life's "only tragedy."

But the man who went on to build seven championship teams didn't turn away from tragedy; he gave himself a constant reminder of it. The Bulls had broken ground on a new practice facility one month before Berto's death, and when it was completed a year later, Reinsdorf named it the Sheri L. Berto Center to honor the woman who had been by his side for 17 years.

When Berto died in November 1991, she left behind a husband, Graziano, and a 3-year-old daughter, Tina. The Bertos had planned to give little Tina a brother or sister, but before Sheri could get pregnant again, she needed surgery to remove a nonmalignant tumor from her uterus. During the surgery, her doctor cut a vein and didn't properly repair it, causing her to bleed internally. The doctors and nurses who treated her overnight failed to notice, and the next day, at age 40, her heart stopped.

The Berto family was awarded an Illinois-record wrongful-death settlement of more than $17 million, but no amount of money could heal the feeling of loss for them and for Reinsdorf. After Sheri's death, he commissioned a book about her life, and he gave one of just a handful of printed copies to Tina, so that she might know her mother.

Berto has been gone for nearly two decades, and yet her memory remains. Those who knew and loved her are reminded of her when TV, radio and newspaper stories make mention of the Bulls coming and going from the building that bears her name.

Bulls broadcaster Stacey King, who won three championships with the team from 1991 to 1993, remembers the role Berto played in his transition from college basketball to the pros.

"[She] was the nicest lady in the world to me," King said. "She had the best heart and personality ever. When I came into Chicago as a rookie from Oklahoma as a 23-year-old not knowing anyone, she was like a mother to me and the rest of the young players. She was a warm and beautiful lady with a genuine heart, always willing to help when you needed her."

King said her sudden death 19 years ago is still hard on those who knew and loved her. "To this day," he said, "she is missed by everyone that had the privilege and honor to have been blessed to meet her."

There is a plaque bearing Berto's likeness at the main entrance to the Berto Center, and it reads in part: "It has been said that the measure of a life's importance is the effect it has had on other lives. By that test, no life has ever been more important. Her time with us was too brief, but she will always live on in our hearts and memories."

Reinsdorf told the Tribune just this past November that he reads that plaque every single time he walks through the front door of the Berto Center. Even now, as the pack of reporters at each practice grows, and as the hype and buzz surrounding this Bulls team builds, you can be sure he still stops, pauses and remembers his friend.