Right after a single-arm weight-lifting championship and just before a meeting of the Midwest taekwondo club, the Granby Halls Leisure Centre in Leicester, England, has pried open a November date for the most meaningful game in the history of England's national basketball team. In a cozy gym next to the wood roller rink, a crowd of 2,500 settles onto pullout bleachers while a bald, roundish superfan known as Jerry the Drummer beats a tattoo on his tom-tom. The BBC camera crews are on hand too, but only to film cricketers, rugby stars and deejays in a pregame benefit riddled with air balls.
This is an article from the Feb. 24, 1992 issue
Neither the network's indifference nor the rec hall setting two hours north of London fazes those who have paid their way to support the Brits against Bulgaria. A roisterous welcome greets the announcement of the national side: "Led out by number 5, Alton Byrd." Byrd is 5'9" and 34 years old, the smallest and most senior player on the floor, with a round face and a faint mustache. At a thickset 175 pounds, he is a good two stones heavier than the whippet-quick playmaker of his San Francisco boyhood and his Ivy League youth. With dark, sure eyes and the serene expression of a Buddhist priest, he now conveys an air of patience rather than of speed. Patience has been a necessity for Byrd; in his 12 years of playing and promoting basketball in the United Kingdom, he has seen the sport go not very far, not very fast.
Byrd's full-court efforts to elevate basketball have been exhausting to the point of danger. Only a month before, he collapsed at midcourt after his club team, Kingston, from outside London, lost badly to underdog Mechelen of Belgium. By winning, Kingston would have advanced to the final 16 in the European club championship, in which the team would have enjoyed much-needed TV exposure that could have produced television and advertising revenues worth as much as $400,000—the rough equivalent of Kingston's annual operating budget.
Despite the high stakes, Kingston had played in a funk against Mechelen, blowing a 19-point halftime lead. In the final period Byrd desperately tried to stop the slide. "It was really scary," recalls his wife, Joni. "All the spectators knew what Alton was trying to do: everything."
At the buzzer he wobbled to the floor and could not rise. He had trouble getting air and lapsed in and out of consciousness. No doctor was present. A fan at the game, who happened to be a flight attendant, wrapped him in blankets. Byrd was taken to a local hospital, where he spent 24 hours, and it was determined that he was suffering from pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart.
Now, still fatigued as he prepares to suit up for the national-team game against Bulgaria, Byrd tells himself, Don't do anything stupid.
From the tip-off he is in complete control of the flow of the game. His second child is named after the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and Byrd's passing tonight resembles Davis's playing: It's fluid and calm. The press calls Byrd the "maestro" and the "supreme provider" of English hoops, and by the second half his teammates are locked into his rhythm and feasting on his dishes. With the score tied 39-39, Byrd feeds a teammate for a three-pointer, converts two steals into layups and then passes to forward Steve Buck-nail, who hits a jumper. Suddenly England is leading 48-39. When Bulgaria scores six unanswered points to close to within three, 48-45, Byrd girds himself, pours down the lane, spins sharply and flicks an assist off his hip to a driving Bucknall. The starkly unimaginative visitors get no closer, and the Brits prevail easily, 62-53.
The victory positions them just ahead of a squad from the disintegrating Soviet Union—soon to be reincarnated as the Commonwealth of Independent States team—in the qualifying series for the European Championship, a tournament of 16 teams that England has never won. England will continue to play well after the game with the Bulgarians, and will eventually gain a place in this round of 16, which is yet to be played. But that tournament seems far off on this November night in Leicester. What matters tonight is the big win over Bulgaria, and the continuing emergence of the national team's new star. This game was only Byrd's 14th for queen and country—he married Joni, a Londoner, in 1983 and received dual citizenship just last September—and it was another fine one.
In the corner of a smoke-filled barroom just down the street, at what is supposed to be a postgame press conference, Bulgaria coach Simeon Vartchev is asked by a lone reporter about Byrd's nine-point, nine-assist performance. "Is very good player, very good player," says Vartchev. "Like a point guard, is excellent. Is very wise man."
In 1979, the year Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived in the NBA, the Boston Celtics selected Alton Byrd out of Columbia in the 10th round of the draft. Texas coach Tom Penders, who coached Byrd at Columbia, has in recent years seen his Longhorn backcourt of Lance Blanks, Travis Mays and Joey Wright picked by the NBA but still maintains that "unequivocally, Alton was the best point guard I ever had. He was a magician with the basketball, a great shooter, the quickest hands defensively I've ever seen. He never backed down to anyone." Of the Sacramento Kings' 5'7" Spud Webb, Penders says, "He's a poor man's Alton Byrd. And that's not a knock on Spud."
Byrd grew up in San Francisco's rough Fillmore District, establishing himself as a schoolyard star but not drawing much interest from colleges because of his size. When Columbia came calling, Byrd was hooked. "The Ivies," he says. "It was that simple." In four years he earned his degree in economics and urban studies, the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award as the nation's best sub-6-foot player and a brief span of respectability for the Lions. Impressive in the NBA's predraft tournaments, Byrd caught Boston's eye. The opportunity was exciting. The 7-Up company was already contemplating a splashy ad campaign with Big Bird and Little Byrd.
But Little Byrd was grounded throughout training camp after his right arch fell, and the Celtics cut him. A Columbia alum from Intercontinental Medical Statistics who admired Byrd offered him a job as an executive trainee in London and suggested he play there for a local club team, Crystal Palace, at the Royal Albert Hall. While such proper names suggest regal treatment, Byrd made $6,000 as a Palace guard, or some $30,000 less than the NBA minimum in 1979-80. "There's no such thing as a minimum here," says Byrd. "The minimum here is free."
Crowds at the Albert Hall were in the low hundreds. Jerry the Drummer, a superfan even back then, remembers those leanest years in the late '70s: "Our pet saying was, 'We can't do any worse.' "
As in the Ivy League, though, play was not the thing, work was. Just as he had in college, Byrd suited up for the competition and for the fun of it. Even though, to him, this was all something of a lark, Byrd soon changed the British mind-set about basketball. His size refuted the widely held notion that height made might in the sport, while at the same time he tapped into the national fancy for the underdog who keeps a stiff upper lip. "A charismatic little guy, weaving in and out with exceptional precision, running the team—it went against what people thought of basketball, that you had to be tall to play," says Micah Blunt, who starred in England and now is an assistant coach at Fairleigh Dickinson. Adds Bucknall, a North Carolina grad, "He was the idol for every kid who went to the Crystal Palace games and saw him play."
Interest grew and crowds swelled. After three dominating seasons with the Palace team—two of them as the league's Most Valuable Player—Byrd moved on to Edinburgh. He played there from 1982 through '87 and was named Scottish player of the year four times. Then he went to Manchester for a year and finally came to Kingston in '89. In 1990-91 Kingston became the first English team to reach the quarterfinals of the European Champions Cup, and Byrd was again the national player of the year and the playoff MVP. Such sterling play and such a growing pile of honors could not go without larger notice. In the past several years Byrd has been offered the coin of various realms to transfer his talents to the Continent. These teams see in him American ingenuity rather than just more of the usual Yankee Doodle dunking. In the mid-'80s the Indiana Pacers also evinced interest. Byrd has listened to all the offers and refused each one. "I like where I am," he says. "I'm putting my degree to use, riding the wave of basketball as far as I can. I could go to Italy and play basketball and have a whale of a time, earn a lot more money, but I'm happy. I come home, I got my own house, my own car, my own career outside basketball. I see guys play because they have to. I do it because it's fun. So I don't complain."
There's a pause. "Well, I could complain," he says. "But no one would listen."
Byrd's life abroad has been equal parts basketball and business. His latest point-guard-sized enterprise is called Alton Byrd Associates. With an office in leafy Wimbledon and a capable secretary. Byrd manages and promotes events from basketball games to rock concerts, serves as agent to a half-dozen players, consults with companies like Spalding and Converse about opportunities in Great Britain, runs several summer camps and handles the accounts of all the companies that do promotional tie-ins with the Kingston club. Before a recent European Cup game against a team from Greece, in which he set up the winning basket in double overtime, Byrd was coolly supervising the placement of advertisements at courtside.
He also does color commentary for NBA games that are shown occasionally on British television. The King's English for hoops is a far cry from, say, Bernard King's English for hoops. "New York is one and a half games adrift from the top," Byrd told viewers in one recent intro. He has indeed ventured far from the Fillmore District—even, for that matter, from the Ivy League.
So although Alton never became the Little Byrd of the NBA, he has become the mini-Magic of the U.K., an entrepreneur and playmaker in a smaller arena. Between his two pursuits Byrd makes more than $100,000 a year, and it's hard to tell what he likes setting up more, a dunk or a deal. Since being hospitalized, though, Byrd has had to back off from his 17-hour workdays. "It helps my profile in business to be out there in the public," he says. "But it doesn't help me when I can't stand up to do business."
While whatever advances English basketball has made are due in large part to Byrd, he does feel disappointed that the country lags so far behind much of Europe in embracing the game. Despite being the sport's main front man in Britain, he still gets greeted at business calls with a handshake and a remark like, "I thought you'd be 12 feet tall." Although more British kids are taking up basketball—some 500,000 play it now—the game's fandom has dwindled down to a hard core. The hardest part of that core just might be those who follow Byrd's club team. About 900 spectators regularly jam Kingston's arena, paying ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£7 apiece to watch sub-CBA-caliber ball in a sub-USBL facility. They snap up NBA videos at a concession table, join the booster club and yell at the guard being covered by Byrd, "C'mon, chicken! 'E's old enough to be your father!"
But that's Kingston, and it's still only 900 people. The London tabloids give basketball less play than they give a financial symposium, and such sports as snooker, darts and badminton have elbowed English hoops off the telly since the early 1980s. Andy Jacobs, a television sports editor and basketball junkie, has to battle just to air national-team highlights. "You know how hard it is to score a goal in soccer?" says Jacobs. "It's exactly the opposite in basketball, and you know how much we love soccer. So we may speak the same language, but there's a bit of an ideological difference when it comes to sport."
Another obstacle for Byrd is that the British appreciation for fair play and the good show undermines his more American aim: winning. Even when he plays for fun, he wants to win—that's how he learned to play the game. "The hardest thing is trying to get guys here to believe they can be successful, that it's all right to be on top," says Kevin Cadle, who played at Penn State from 1975 to '77 and now coaches Byrd on both the Kingston and national teams. "There are so many non-believers. They think if you come close to someone who's a big name, like the Russians or the Yugoslavs, that's good enough. Uh-uh. It's about winning and losing. Alton has helped change that, because he's a winner."
As he drives from Leicester to his south London home, Byrd pauses to reflect on the game. "To a great extent I feel like I have helped contribute for 12 years to what happened tonight." he says. "The magnitude of beating the Bulgarians. To someone in the States, it's like, So what? It's not winning the NBA. It's not even winning the NCAA. But for a country where basketball is deemed a second-tier sport, it's the biggest victory we've ever had."