Long Island Nets VP Alton Byrd is once again blazing a new basketball trail
From California to Columbia to the British Basketball League, Byrd has carved a unique path
Alton Byrd has been in on basketball's ground floor before, carving a pioneer's path to become one of the best-known names in a British basketball scene that was very much in its infancy when he arrived after three standout seasons at Columbia University.
These days, after an eclectic career in broadcasting, marketing, the NBA, WNBA and NFL Europe, he's working on building something again as Vice President, Business Operations for the Long Island Nets in the NBA G League.
"This is the biggest growth area in NBA basketball," said Byrd. "I think this is going to be the biggest evolution of player development, of executive development. In my mind, this is the laboratory for trying things that may or may not work. Coming here, I get to experiment. I get to learn some things about how the NBA works. We get to be on the front end, the sharp end of everything that the NBA is thinking about doing in the future. This is the future of the NBA."
The NBA G League is in its 17th season, but it's only year two for the Long Island Nets, and the first season in their permanent home at NYCB LIVE, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum after an inaugural year playing at Barclays Center during NYCB LIVE's renovation. And the Nets have arrived at a promising crossroads for the league, as part of a wave of expansion that is fueling a new business and development model of G League franchises as direct affiliates owned and operated by parent NBA franchises.
To get the business end moving, the Nets brought in Byrd, bringing him back to the New York area for the first time since he starred at Columbia, where he still holds the school's all-time assist record. Byrd was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year as a sophomore in 1976-77 - freshman weren't eligible for Ivy competition - and earned three First Team All-Ivy selections. Next weekend he'll be honored at the Ivy League Tournament in Philadelphia as part of the second class of Legends of Ivy League Basketball.
A Columbia alum saw Byrd play and reached out to the San Francisco native shortly before graduation in 1979 about working for his market research company in London as a manager. In addition to Intercontinental Medical Statistics, David Dubow also owned a team in the British Basketball League, Crystal Palace. When a foot injury scuttled Byrd's chances in training camp with the Boston Celtics, who had drafted him in the 10th round, he headed abroad.
It was the start of an unexpected journey, one that lasted longer and took Byrd in directions he never would have imagined.
"I played for 18 years, traveled all over the world, got a chance to play in some great places and play against Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja," said Byrd. "I really had a chance to do some things that were fun on a global basis. And all the time I was playing basketball, I worked. I had a career on top of that. So I was preparing myself for, what if It doesn't work out?"
He moved to Scotland after a few seasons and spent five years as both coach and GM of his team there, and continued his playing career up until 1997
"If you'd asked me if I was going to be playing basketball for 18 years, I would have said no way," said Byrd. "But it kind of evolved. And then it evolved into a career. And then it evolved into a career and a broadcast career. I did 16 years of television in Britain as a commentator. I had my own television show. I had a show called NBA Jam Session that I did for three years. I did a radio show called Sports American on BBC Radio for five years. It was interesting. It was a basketball career that turned into something completely different."
As he retired, Byrd took an offer from Oliver Luck, then president of NFL Europe - and father of NFL quarterback Andrew Luck - to be general manager of the London Monarchs franchise. In 1999, he returned to the United States, back home in California, as a vice president with the Sacramento Kings. After two seasons, he left the sports world to found his own company, but returned as Chief Revenue Officer with the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA in 2013. The next stop was Long Island.
On Long Island, Byrd saw an opportunity to grow a team in wide-open environment, with a state-of-the-art arena in a community with a passion for basketball.
"Strategy is making sure that we're accessible, making sure that we are focused on families," said Byrd. "Making sure that we are affordable. Making sure that our players and our staff have something to look forward to and something to look at in the future.
"It's kind of cool that you're at the cutting edge of what you do and how you go about building a league and the talent level for the next generation of players. Or the next generation of your team's players. That's why it was really interesting."
On a Friday night at NYCB LIVE, a sneaker show snakes around the concourse, while a local teen band gets a chance to play on the court before the game. A young dance troupe entertains at halftime. Behind the basket, the Long Island Nets Kids Zone is set up on the arena floor.
The commitment to family entertainment - buy and adult ticket and two kids come free - is at the center of Byrd's approach. As the first season on Long Island nears its conclusion, he's looking forward to building on a strong start.
"Year two really focus on the most important things," said Byrd. "How do we build more family initiatives? How do we build our theme nights? How do we build our education days so that they're big? How do we create a bigger presence in the community? How do we do functionally more to impact lives on Long Island?"