I have never been a "dining out type-of-guy", but here's something I will be able to dine out on for years. In 1994, I took part in a slam-dunk competition and commentating on this event was a basketball legend. He has been recognised by the basketball hall-of-fame in Springfield and having been drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1979, he embarked on an extremely successful basketball career that featured many championships and MVP awards. His name is Bird.
Impressive stuff, right? However, all is not as it seems. It is still a true legend of the game, but one that most of you will not know about. All of the above is true, except his name is not Bird... it's Byrd (not that my dinner guests would be able to distinguish between the two). His career would ultimately not be in the NBA, but over here, in England. Larry Bird wasn't drafted in 1979 (although that was his rookie year), he was actually drafted in 1978. In 1979, in the tenth round, the Boston Celtics selected a young guard named Alton Byrd and now, 26 years on, I am proud to tell you all what became of him.
Alton Byrd, or "AB" to his friends, kindly agreed to speak to me about, amongst other things, being drafted by the Celtics, his career and his feelings towards the NBA now.
Byrd, standing at only 5'8", was born and raised in San Francisco, but attended college at a New York-based Ivy League school, Columbia University. The Basketball Hall of Fame, recognised him in 1979, by awarding him the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award for the nation's top male collegiate basketball player under six feet tall. The award has subsequently been awarded to such greats as Tim Hardaway and Muggsy Bogues, and in recent years was awarded to Earl Boykins and Brevin Knight.
Despite these credentials, Byrd lasted to the 186th pick in the 1979 NBA draft, before eventually being selected by the Celtics. "The process of the draft in 1979 is very different than now," recalls Byrd, "Back then, there were 10 rounds and only if you were a top 20 draft pick did you get invited to the draft."
"I did not go to the draft, nor did I work out for the Celtics beforehand," he continues, "I spoke to Red Auerbach after I was drafted and the first person I met was the then President, Jan Volk."
Byrd had his heart set on a career in the NBA and understood fully the challenge that lay ahead. "Getting drafted was special," he said "and getting drafted by the Celtics was even more special given the history of the franchise and the fact the many of the great players-Bill Russell, KC Jones, etc. came from the Bay Area."
Unfortunately, fate would strike Byrd's NBA chances a cruel blow. The night before training camp opened, an unfortunate foot injury would severely hamper Byrd's chances of making the team. However, Byrd remained resolute. "Even though I hurt my foot, I believed that if I was healthy I would be in a great position to make the team with my quickness," he recollects, "I went to camp anyway, and had a chance to play against Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, Gerald Henderson, Eric Fernstein, etc..."
Unfortunately, due to his injury, Byrd had "only played one day and pretty much watched the rest of the days." His decision was to play in England for one year and then try again to make it to the NBA, but he would end up staying for 20 years (including a 17-year playing career) and would become the most recognisable face connected with basketball in England, even today. Byrd would ultimately have a greater impact upon the global game than he ever would have if he had played in the NBA.
"I decided after my 3rd year that I could make a living in England, and decided to no longer chase an NBA career," he recounts, "I was invited in my second year in Europe to the Nets veterans camp, and I was then invited to the Indiana Pacers veterans camp after my 3rd year. I decided against both, given that my career was going well in Europe."
Byrd enjoyed a long and successful career in England and virtually became the face of basketball in England, as well as being recognisable throughout Europe. "I accepted my role as an ambassador [for the sport] in England because it was fun, and it was motivating to a nation of underdogs that a small guy could play at a very high level," he said.
I can recall very clearly one particular incident, where a fight broke out during a nationally televised game and Byrd simply withdrew himself from the brawl and sat with his back to the action until it died down. "I cannot remember a lot about the event other than it was my decision to step back from the fight to ensure that we did not lose by attrition," said Byrd, "In other words, there would have been many a referee looking to throw me out of the game, and after initially trying to get between the protagonists, it made more sense for me to step back. My team-mates understood, and it went by really without any notice from many people."
"I know that my team needed me more on the floor at that stage than to be in the locker room." If only certain NBA players were able to display the same level of restraint. This is just one example of the type of guy Alton Byrd is.
Before his career was over Byrd had already started to make use of his Ivy League education and likeable personality as he would become a TV presenter, columnist for a National newspaper and worked with several media and promotion companies to front many nationwide events, mostly publicising the game.
Byrd would go on to meet many NBA stars on his radio and television shows, including Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O'Neal, and Muggsy Bogues. "Shaq was most impressive," says Byrd, "[he had a] good sense of humor and [was] gracious and well mannered. Dikembe was very intelligent."
After returning to the States, Byrd would remain involved in the international game, but these days he runs the Clear Focus group of companies (www.clear-focus.com), which he explains as "a coaching, consulting and marketing organization built to enhance consumers connections with themselves and the brands they use in the real world."
Byrd no longer has any connections with the NBA, apart from some friends who still work in the league, but he is proud of his connections to the league. "I am very happy that I had a chance to be a small part of the Celtics organization for rookie camp, and my career has been going upward since 1979." he says.
He went on to say "in all my years of basketball, I never saw anyone as exciting and talented as you were in that dunk contest in 1994". OK, maybe he didn't say that, but when I re-tell this story the next time I dine out... he will have (and I *was* awesome).
Many thanks to AB for agreeing to speak with me. It was a real pleasure to speak to someone who, over here at least, is looked upon as a legend and continues to help people as he has done throughout his life.