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!"