Searching for his wings
Despite early career struggles, Russell Byrd remains determined to find success at MSU
Sophomore guard Russell Byrd, rests his arm on junior guard Keith Appling in the second half of the game. The Spartans defeated the Fighting Illini,, 80-75, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, at Breslin Center. Justin Wan/The State News
From the moment he steps on the Breslin Center floor, Russell Byrd hears everything.
The barking of orders by his head coach Tom Izzo. The constant squeaking of shoes as they pivot and drive on the hardwood surface. The roar and the cheers of the Izzone with the intention of willing each member of the No. 13 MSU men’s basketball team to victory.
But unlike most of his teammates, Byrd has found a growing divide between two very different factions of fans as of late.
One group cheers on the third-year sophomore guard with words of encouragement and high-pitched squawking indicative of a bird call. The other mercilessly heckles Byrd on his home floor, meeting each of his possessions with negative remarks and pithy jeers.
“Anybody would be lying if they said they didn’t think about it at least, but it just matters how you handle it from there and I’m not dumb,” Byrd said. “I can see why they’re saying some of the things they’re saying and the way I should be playing.”
A spot shooter out of Fort Wayne, Ind., Byrd has managed to average 1.9 points in 8.9 minutes of playing time per game. A greater struggle, Byrd only has made 7-of-35 (20 percent) attempts beyond the arc, potentially robbing the Spartans of their top perimeter player — a fact that frustrates fans, coaches and Byrd.
And although he dropped Byrd from the regular playing rotation, Izzo has made it a weekly ritual to mention he hasn’t lost hope of the young guard’s abilities.
“It’s just getting in the situation, this is where you wish you had a couple games where you’d have 20-point wins that you could get a guy in there,” Izzo said. “But I haven’t given up on him yet, I really haven’t.”
After a successful career at Blackhawk Christian High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., it seemed only natural Byrd would take his game to the next level. With offers on the table from MSU, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan, among others, ESPN.com heralded Byrd’s skill set and praised him for his confident shooting ability along with his size and strength.
But not long after picking the Spartans, Byrd’s career was derailed with injuries.
Byrd was forced to redshirt the 2010-11 season after breaking his left foot during a workout session. By May 2011, Byrd was on to his third foot surgery, forcing him to not only fight for playing time in a talented backcourt, but to battle his own confidence level on a day-to-day basis, according to his father Kelly Byrd.
“(The staff) may have known it but I don’t think Russell understood, and I certainly don’t think the general public understands the physical and emotional hole he was in after three surgeries and two and a half years,” Kelly Byrd said. “Just a lot of heartache and setbacks but I don’t think he had any idea how far he really had to go in terms of a comeback to being a significant (contributor) and a player at the level at which he’s used to functioning.”
Having talked to former Spartan Kalin Lucas about the return from his own Achilles injury prior the team’s media day in October 2012, Russell Byrd said he was starting to feel his jump come back. It was that same confidence that allowed the team to vote Byrd a captain along with senior center Derrick Nix.
As his health and ability continues to return, Byrd insists he’s ready to return to a basketball frame of mind.
“Just my overall mindset was I have to get back, I have to get back,” he said during MSU’s media day. “I needed to just take my time and make sure that my body and my foot got healthy before I started to think about basketball.”
It’s not easy to predict how the career of Russell Byrd will play out at MSU.
Even as he continues to return to form, the Spartans consistently are talent-heavy at the guard position. With only Nix set to depart at the end of the season, Byrd still will have to compete for playing time. Still, that doesn’t even account for any unknown recruiting additions to the roster.
Yet, Byrd still possesses many of the same attributes he had when averaging 23.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game as a high school senior, which earned him various Indiana state honors.
“He’s been doing well, he’s been shooting the ball like crazy,” Harris said. “So I mean, he’s gonna start knocking down some shots in the game and we’ll start to look forward to him making some good shots.”
It’s been a long road for the guard but he knows he can play his way out of this stretch.
With a little success, Byrd said he wouldn’t mind changing a few minds among the fan base and, if things go according to plan, that goal might not be so far away.
“You’re free to say what you want and voice your opinions,” he said. “Hopefully one day I’ll change your mind. I don’t have anything to say to what they’re saying, there’s no point in addressing that. I’m just gonna take care of mine and change their opinions.”