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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

The Last Walk in the Short Life of Ricky Byrdsong

July 07, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

On the night of Feb. 7, 1994, Ricky Byrdsong was in a Minnesota arena to coach a basketball team . . . or so everyone there thought. It certainly started out like a routine collegiate experience, with Byrdsong's athletes from visiting Northwestern University beside him on the bench, eager not to lose their eighth game in a row.

While watching his Wildcats on their way to another defeat, Byrdsong could no longer just sit there. The coach, 37 at the time, abruptly took what he would later call "a walk on the wild side."

He marched to the other end of the bench and sat on a stool, far from his assistant coaches.

Then, twice, he walked onto the court to make complaints to the officials, once drawing a technical foul.

When a timeout was called, Byrdsong did not join his players in the huddle.

Finally, without explanation, he turned over the team to Paul Swanson, one of his aides. Going up into the stands, Byrdsong shook hands with the fans, high-fived the Minnesota Gopher mascot and took a seat in the aisle, at least until an usher asked him to move.

Upon returning to Evanston, Ill., to his school's campus, Byrdsong requested a leave of absence. Actually, his wife, Sherialyn, made the request.

"My wife, after watching me, obviously got concerned," the coach said a few days later. "Now, any time I'm going to take a walk on the wild side, I should let her know."

*

A few minutes past 8 o'clock last Friday night, in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, not far from the university where he had once competed against some of the greatest coaches in the business, Ricky Byrdsong went for another walk.

His wife was not with him. Two of his three children were.

A few miles away, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, 21, a white supremacist, got behind the wheel of a 1994 Ford Taurus, a couple of handguns by his side. He allegedly opened fire on a group of Orthodox Jews walking to a synagogue. Six were hit by bullets.

Smith drove off to Skokie. There, he saw an African American man strolling with two young boys.

He allegedly shot Ricky Byrdsong in the back.

Only three blocks from his home, Byrdsong fell to the ground in front of his kids. He died four hours later, on an operating table.

I knew Ricky Byrdsong a little. Met him once, spoke to him on the phone more than once. What a lovely man.

Some who know him are aware only of the night a coach snapped. Ricky tried to explain to everybody--even his wife--that he was using a motivational ploy, not having a nervous breakdown. But even his employers at Northwestern weren't persuaded 100%.

"They want to make sure whether it was genius or insanity," Byrdsong said later, with a laugh. "I'm leaning toward genius."

Alas, his career in coaching lasted only a couple more years. Northwestern fired him. Worse yet, unbeknownst to Byrdsong, a couple of his players conspired to "fix" a couple of Wildcat basketball games, in cahoots with gamblers.

One such player was Dion Lee.

Dion had a falling out with his coach while in school. Byrdsong had tried a motivational ploy on him, calling him "Kenneth," which was Dion's real name. He hated being called that. The coach kept trying to light a fire under Dion, psychologically. But the young man went in the wrong direction, trying to deliberately lose games.

On Saturday morning, Dion heard about Byrdsong being shot. He picked up the phone and called a newspaper reporter.

"I only wish I could have spoken to him," Dion said, "to tell him I want to thank him for trying to make me a better person. I love him as a human being and as another black man. I thank him so much for trying to help me."

The Ricky Byrdsong I knew got his first coaching job at Western Michigan, thanks to my friend Steve Fisher, now coach at San Diego State. Later on, I knew Ricky when he coached at Detroit Mercy, the school that upset UCLA in this year's national tournament.

A sweeter man never lived.

*

A gifted young player was once recruited by Byrdsong to turn Northwestern's program around. But the kid transferred to UC Berkeley, sick of losing. And soon thereafter, Ricky got fired.

Resentful? On the contrary, I remember Ricky raving about this kid, wishing him the greatest success at Cal.

He was a Bible-reading, good-natured man who loved to quote his mother's favorite saying: "God doesn't make any junk." The existence of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith tempts me to disagree.

Ricky's funeral is today. Wish I could be there, sitting up in the stands.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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