Remembering Ricky Byrdsong

Ricky Byrdsong Northwestern

Ricky Byrdsong (left, coaching against Wisconsin in 1996) was the coach of the Northwestern from 1993 through 1997. Under Byrdsong the Wildcats had one of their best seasons ever reaching the NIT in 1994. On July 2, 1999 Byrdsong was murdered in a hate crime near his home in Skokie, Ill.

Three Northwestern seniors set out to make a documentary about Byrdsong on the 10th anniversary of his death. What they came away with was a very moving documentary. Their movie, "Fly Like the Byrd," was premiered last week, but it is now available online.
I did a Q&A with Ryan Dietz, one of the co-producers of the film, about Byrdsong and his legacy. You can check it out after the jump.

Chicago College Basketball: 1. How did you come across the topic of Ricky Byrdsong?

Ryan Dietz: I grew up in the Chicago area and knew of the tragedy when it happened, but obviously I was young and didn't fully realize the impact. Our production team was brainstorming ideas and his story came up randomly. We did some research and we ran with it. It's an incredibly compelling story that needed to be told.

CCB: 2. As a basketball coach Ricky showed that Northwestern can be competitive on the basketball court. He even led the Wildcats to the 1994 NIT. While his stint at NU was brief, it included some great moments. What was the best moment on the court for Northwestern while Byrdsong was in charge? The NIT? The win over Michigan's Fab Five? Something else?

RD: As big as it was for the Wildcats to go to the NIT, the win over Michigan resonates with hardcore followers of the program. The Fab Five had so much attention around them at that point and that win really took the Wolverines out of contention for the Big Ten title. Ricky's stint at NU was kind of tough, because he showed he could recruit, but he had some bad breaks, including a player that had a medical condition and couldn't play [Note: That player was Nicholas Knapp].  

CCB: 3. Ricky's death seems to have inspired many people to carry out his memory and try to make sure things like the tragic events of July 2, 1999 never happen again. The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation and the Race Against Hate being two good examples. What did you find most inspiring about how people have used Byrdsong's memory?

RD: Most inspiring to me was how the Byrdsong family has viewed his death. His wife, Sherialyn, said she coined the term "from tragedy to victory" after his death. She refused to let Ricky's killer also hurt them. While it was clearly difficult for her and her family to go through, they refused to be victims. The strength that they showed was absolutely incredible, and while you question humanity because of what Benjamin Smith did to Ricky, you realize how great the human spirit really can be in what I saw in Sherialyn.  

CCB: 4. What did you hope to accomplish with the documentary? Do you think you've done it?

RD: I think what we tried to just simply tell Ricky's story and examine how racism and prejudice has changed since his death 10 years ago. We aren't trying to change the world. That isn't our job. The words that the people in the documentary say about Ricky do that for us. I think we did a solid job with this and I hope that a lot of people enjoy it and at least think about the issues at hand.

CCB: 5. At the end of the video you placed a simple line that states, "As of June 2009, there is no memorial on the Northwestern campus devoted to Ricky Byrdsong." You said during the presentation of the documentary that it was put in merely as a fact. What do you think would be a proper way of memorializing Byrdsong on Northwestern's campus? 

RD: I don't think that is my place to say. Shon Morris talked to us about how his memory has faded, just because of the world that we live in. We can't remember things that happen 10 minutes ago, let alone 10 years. There have been many different administrators at NU since 1999 and there are few remaining that knew Ricky. I think that is the hurdle a memorial faces. Even though he didn't have a good record as a coach [Note: Byrdsong finished 34-78 overall], he still made a great impact on the basketball program and the community. He served the community in so many ways, and that is why he should be memorialized.

Thank you very much to Ryan. The story of Ricky Byrdsong is certainly an inspiring one. Once again, you can check out their documentary, Fly Like The Byrd on Vimeo.

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