15 years ago today, Northwestern coach Ricky Byrdsong was fatally shot in Skokie. RIP pic.twitter.com/U0VzOKOben— Kurt Gessler (@kurtgessler) July 2, 2014
Northwestern University's main campus is situated amidst stately colonial homes in the leafy Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois. It seems like a slightly incongruous setting for a Big Ten school.
And Evanston doesn't quite seem like the kind of place where a college basketball coach is supposed to die.
But here's the thing about Ricky Byrdsong, who was gunned down in his bucolic neighborhood more than 15 years ago: the way Byrdsong's life ended was strange and tragic, but it was only the beginning of a much larger story.
So let's start there.
In 1999, Byrdsong was murdered because he was a Black man walking down the street. His death was part of a three-day killing spree carried out by a neo-Nazi, who shot Byrdsong in the back as he walked down the street with his young children.
A racially-motivated killing in one of the most expensive zip codes in America is certainly uncommon, but that's not the reason why Byrdsong's death became a national story, nor is it the reason why more than 1,600 people attended his funeral.
During a 22-year career in college basketball, Byrdsong, with his infectiously positive spirit, gained the respect of practically everyone he met. As a player at Iowa State, he was voted a team captain during his senior season, despite the fact that he rarely got off the bench. Even in his playing days, Byrdsong harbored aspirations of becoming a college coach.
After helping lead Arizona to a Final Four appearance as an assistant in 1988, Byrdsong finally got a head coaching shot at the University of Detroit Mercy.
Though Detroit finished just 7-21 during his first season, a local sportswriter noted that "the bubbly Byrdsong has retained his enthusiasm, optimism and sense of humor." In other words, he was a perfect fit for a Northwestern basketball program that was a perennial Big Ten cellar-dweller.
Byrdsong's optimism was desperately needed in Evanston, where the Wildcats had qualified for the postseason just once in the modern era. In Byrdsong's first year at the helm, he guided the team to a winning season and an appearance in the 1993 National Invitation Tournament.
His antics could be unorthodox. In the middle of a nine-game losing streak, with the Wildcats getting blown out by Minnesota on the road, "Coach Byrd" abruptly left the bench and began walking up and down the aisles of the arena. He high-fived the Minnesota mascot and talked with fans before taking a seat and watching the game from the stands.
It was a motivational ploy that earned him a four-game leave of absence, requested by his wife, who feared the stress of her husband's new job was taking a toll.
"My wife, after watching me, obviously got concerned," Byrdsong later told The Daily Northwestern. "Now, any time I'm going to take a walk on the wild side, I should let her know." While Byrdsong's tactics may have been questionable, the Wildcats went 6-5 after his "walk on the wild side" and qualified for the NIT.
That season was highlighted by a win over Michigan's legendary "Fab Five" and a postseason victory over crosstown rivals DePaul. Byrdsong's future at the school looked bright. But in the three subsequent seasons, he never came close to repeating that success. Yet for a "losing" coach, he remained a beloved figure. When he was fired in 1997, Byrdsong was so well-liked that a Northwestern trustee hired him as the vice president of his insurance company.
Two years later, Byrdsong was busy raising three children and writing a book, Coaching Your Kids in the Game of Life. And then he was gone. On July 2, 1999, Benjamin Michael Smith, an admitted White supremacist who was enraged after being denied a license to practice law in Illinois, embarked on a murderous rampage in Indiana, central Illinois and the suburbs north of Chicago that left 12 dead, including Byrdsong.
But in death, Coach Byrd became the leader of a very different kind of fight. It's impossible to think about Byrdsong's death without also noting how out of place gun violence seems in the quiet neighborhoods that surround Northwestern. Chicago may only be a 15-minute drive from campus, but the social issues and murder rates of the third-largest city in America seem a world away. It is all too easy for college students to ignore those problems, which don't seem to affect their lives on campus.
That is why, despite the fact that he was killed more than 15 years ago, Ricky Byrdsong's story seems more relevant now than ever before.
Telling that story and raising awareness about gun violence is what brought Byrdsong's widow, Sherialyn, to a podium on Capitol Hill last year, just days after a lone gunman killed nine members of an African-American congregation in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Byrdsong's killer tried to purchase weapons from a federally-licensed dealer, but was turned away after failing to pass a background check. So he turned to a private dealer, whose transactions did not require the same kind of screening process. Over a decade later, the South Carolina gunman was able to purchase weapons through a similar breakdown in the system.
"That should sound familiar," Sherialyn Byrdsong told the reporters and Congress members she addressed.
Ricky Byrdsong's story is one that often goes untold, even as gun reform is debated by lawmakers around the United States. But every summer, the city of Evanston holds the "Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate," to raise awareness about gun violence and racial hatred, and to remember the man they called Coach Byrd.
It is a fitting tribute to Ricky Byrdsong and his legacy. During a basketball game in 1993, Byrdsong went on a walk to try and motivate his team to accomplish something meaningful. Every summer, more than 5,000 Evanston residents go on a run to try and motivate the country to do the same.