He might not have measured up well when he stood next to Wilt Chamberlain, but Columbia's Alton Byrd proved to be a basketball giant in the United Kingdom in the 1980s.
After leaving for Columbia in the 1970s and conquering the basketball and business world in England for two decades, Alton Byrd is finally home and his journeys have made him all the wiser. "There's no greater educator than travel," he said.
As a senior at Riordan High in San Francisco, Byrd was selected a fifth-team All-American, earning the attentions of Division I programs such as Oklahoma State, Memphis State, California and UCLA. But there was also a school on the opposite coast that coveted the 5-foot-7-inch point guard as well.
"What are you going to do if you break an ankle, or rip your knee up?" his mother asked. "I just decided that if you had the opportunity to go to an Ivy League institution, that those opportunities don't grow on trees."
At the time of Byrd's cross-country sojourn in the fall of 1975, the Ivies still held their freshmen back from varsity play, a policy that finally changed when Byrd was a senior.
"I remember arriving in New York City and being completely daunted by the size of it all," said Byrd. "But I also remember looking at film and meeting Jim McMillian, and thinking this is tradition ... this is history."
The 1975-76 varsity Lions, who went 6-8 in Ivy play and 8-17 overall, might have had a much better season with the outstanding freshman class of Byrd, Ricky Free and Juan Mitchell among others.
Better, indeed, as the 1976-77 team went 8-6 in the League and 16-10 overall. More improvement in 1977-78 when the League record shot to 11-3 just one game behind Penn for the championship and another great year in 1978-79 as Columbia went 17-9 overall and 10-4 in the Ivies.
"He was probably the most dominant player in the League, despite his height," said former Columbia Coach Tom Penders. "He was a great point guard. He always knew where the other nine players on the court were. He could break any defense down. There was nobody in the country who could guard him."
And with the team's success came individual honors. Byrd was three times a first-team All-Ivy selection, just the 11th player so honored. To this day, only three Lions — McMillian, Byrd and Buck Jenkins — have accomplished that feat. Byrd recalled many special moments of his collegiate career. Most were from his senior year, but he singled out two games in particular.
"The highlight was beating Princeton," said Byrd. "They were so well-drilled, so disciplined, and my senior year we beat them twice. They were nationally recognized as the nation's top defensive team, and that made it extra special."
Basketball continued to play an even bigger role in Byrd's life, and so did David Dubow, a 1956 graduate of Columbia Business School and a Londoner.
"At the time, David's company (IMS) was the largest international market research company in the world," said Byrd. "He had no mid-level managers, and he wanted to start an executive training program."
But Dubow also had another holding in which he knew Byrd would have some interest. Dubow was, in the words of Byrd, "the quiet backer" of a basketball club called Crystal Palace. Byrd took the first step by visiting England in 1979, and Dubow told Byrd that if he "fancied" playing basketball while in London that he had a team for him.
There were only two problems. One was that Byrd had designs on playing in the NBA, but after being drafted in the ninth round by the Boston Celtics he suffered an unfortunate foot injury the night before rookie camp and never really had a chance to make the team. He had told Dubow that if he didn't make the NBA, he'd accept his offer, but that's where the second problem came in.
"I hated it," Byrd said of his initial feelings towards England. "I arrived here at the end of a Labor government. The country and the economy were in turmoil. And it was a comfort thing. But I have to say that David Dubow, the staff at IMS, and the people at Crystal Palace did their best to make me feel terribly comfortable ... so much so that I was only supposed to be here for a year and I ended up being here for 20."
Crystal Palace went 50-5 during Byrd's rookie year in England. He was Player of the Year in the British professional league in both 1979-80 and 1980-81. Not content to showcase his skills in England, he moved to Scotland following his three years with Palace.
Up north, he played and helped run a sports organization on behalf of David Murray, the owner of Glasgow Rangers (soccer). Murray's basketball team, with Byrd at the controls as player, coach and general manager became the best in the U.K.
In 1987, he crossed back into England for a one-year playing stint with Manchester United Basketball Club before finishing his career in Kingston. His playing resume included three Player of the Year awards, six all-star team berths, and titles like "the mini-Magic of the U.K." that Sports Illustrated bestowed upon him in an early 1990s article.
"Alton is considered by many to still be the best player ever to play in the (English) League," said Ian Whittell, an English basketball journalist who writes for The Sun. "He is certainly the most successful in terms of the honors and trophies he's won. He's probably the closest thing we ever had to a household name in British basketball."
Thanks to a shrinking world, courtesy of technology, and basketball's growth in popularity, Byrd feels the United Kingdom might now be about five years away from making the kind of impact on the court that teams from the European continent already have made. Only when pressed did he take some of the credit for that popularity growth.
"I'm happy that I had a chance to play, to teach the sport, to contribute something to it," he said. "We'd always like to have more good players over here, but that takes time. It's not indigenous to the public. But it's a global sport, and I think the people are starting to realize that."
As fascinating as his basketball odyssey is, Byrd's employment career has taken its share of interesting turns. From pharmaceutical research with David Dubow and IMS, he went to Scotland to run a host of different businesses on behalf of David Murray. Included was the opening of a multi-purpose "leisure center" that we might call simply a health club or gym.
"I then decided against all common sense that I wanted to become a broker," Byrd picked up the story. "We moved to Manchester, and I was a stock broker for the next few years in Manchester and then in London. And then I decided to go out on my own and start a sports marketing company."
Alton Byrd Associates helped run sporting events in the U.K. on behalf of the NBA "Hoop-It-Up" and "NBA Jam 2000" and Major League Baseball "Fan Festival" among others before he moved his family back to the U.S. and the Bay Area. He had been named the vice president of corporate partnerships for the Maloof Brothers, who own and operate the Sacramento Kings. A few years later he launched San Francisco-based Clear Focus Company, which markets and manages events and promotions.
He has fond memories of his time in New York. "You can't beat the three forms of education you get at a place like Columbia. One, you get obviously in your curriculum. Secondly, you get the benefit of living in New York City because that in itself is a different education. And thirdly, playing basketball in an inner city school ... you can't get any better pickup games than in New York City.
"It's as good an education as you're ever likely to get, and it provides you with a great support system to be successful."
— Chuck Yrigoyen