January 20, 2009

MARK PATTON: Jesse Byrd living the dream envisioned by Dr. King

Jan. 20, 2009

By Mark Patton, SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS

Jesse Byrd heard all the family stories about racism in the Deep South -- so many tales, in fact, that they soon just faded into the darkness of hatred.

"My dad is a big storyteller, and he and the rest of my family grew up either in New Orleans or this place called Woodville, Miss., which is out in the country," he said. "They were no strangers to the bigotry that was happening during that time period."

But Byrd can now barely remember where one story would start and another would end, to the point that their effect dwindled as he grew up in Northern California.

"Honestly, the only thing Martin Luther King Day really meant to me was another day off from school," he said. "Another weekend day when I could stay up late."

But with equality came education, and with education came enlightenment for UCSB's junior basketball star.

And on Monday, he was the one telling stories about the civil rights hero whose birthday was being celebrated throughout the world, as well as at Harry's Plaza Cafe for the weekly Athletic Round Table press luncheon.

"The stories I heard made me appreciate the freedoms that I have today, and the type of society where I can be judged by the content of my character and not just the color of my skin," Byrd said. "Just like Dr. King said."

The impact of Dr. King, who was assassinated nearly 40 years ago, came to full measure for Byrd the night two months ago that Barack Obama was elected as America's first black president.

While others gathered to celebrate the pending results, UCSB's 6-foot-8 forward sought solitude.

"I knew that I was going to be emotional," he said. "I'm not ashamed to admit that I got very emotional when it happened. I could comprehend how heavy this was and how long it was in coming.

"I'm really proud of my country, I guess, is the best way to put it. I am so proud of my country. We've really grown and matured. Of course, we're not all the way there yet, but the strides are being made, and that's what's most important. The progress."

He's lived the progress every time he's gone on a Gaucho road trip. His teammates have included whites and Latinos; Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.

"I think we get along so well because of the quality of players that we recruit," Byrd said. "We really get a good feel for the guys when they come down for their visit and we take them out and see how they handle themselves in public and on the court.

"Everybody's a good person here, and as long as you have a core group of good people, then you can find your similarities and your differences, and can still always have fun together.

"And we have a lot of fun together on the road, I can tell you that."

The Gauchos have been having fun with Byrd about his recent haircut. He lopped off six inches of dreadlocks and has been unrecognizable to even some close friends.

He was standing next to Gaucho teammate Justin Joyner when one friend walked up and asked where he could find Byrd.

"He was dead serious," Byrd said. "I told him, 'I'm right here!' His wife was so embarrassed, she was holding her hands over her face. But a lot of people have been doing that, walking right past me."

He was disappointed when teammate Nedim Pajevic shaved off his bushy mustache last year: "I don't know why he did that, I loved Nedim's mustache," he said "It was hilarious."

But dreadlocks aren't as easy to groom as a mustache, Byrd insisted.

"I could only get my hair done every so often because I had to go back to Oakland to do it, and it takes so long -- it's a 5 1/2-hour process," he said. "There were times where I felt helpless to look more presentable. So I went with a little more low-maintenance."

Byrd's knee has been high maintenance ever since he tore the meniscus in it on Dec. 20. He underwent surgery a week later but hopes to be back within two weeks.

"Today was the first day I've done any jogging, and I actually did some light sprinting -- and it felt great," he said. "It felt even better than I thought it would feel."

The Gauchos (8-9, 2-3 Big West Conference) have missed Byrd's passion, especially on defense and around the backboards, where he leads them with a rebound average of 7.6 per game. He's also scoring 8.3 points with a shooting percentage of 58.1.

Two freshmen -- 6-8 Jaime Serna and 7-3 Greg Somogyi -- have shared the center position in his absence.

"Overall, I think the freshmen are handling it very well," Byrd said. "They're being forced to grow up real fast, and I think they are really making their best effort to do that. I'm definitely proud of them.

"I just can't wait to get back out there and help them."

In fact, he almost did just that when Somogyi slammed down a follow dunk and then screamed into a defender's face during Saturday's 72-62 win at Cal Poly.

"I loved it, honestly," Byrd said. "There have been whispers, which I definitely agree with, that there are times that our team needs a little bit of that fire. We need to ride emotion sometimes.

"When he got that dunk, I almost wanted to run out there on the court and suit up."

He's had enough days off.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com