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.
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."