Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
In his first season of college basketball, Hakim Byrd was one of the top freshmen in a mid-major Division I hoops league. A year later, he considered giving up hoops for good.
“I thought about it,” the Neumann-Goretti product admitted, “but I was like no, I worked too hard to get here, to do what I do. Most importantly I wanted to get a degree for free, that’s what’s important, make my mom happy. I had to stick with it.”
Hakim Byrd (above) is in his second year as Jefferson's starting point guard. (Photo: Josh Velrin/CoBL)
Jefferson University head coach Jimmy Reilly and his Rams are sure glad he did. Byrd has revived his college career in East Falls, aiming to help the Rams return to national prominence.
Most importantly, he’s learning to love basketball again, finding his smile after a college path he never saw coming.
The older of Monique and Ron Byrd’s two children, Hakim Byrd was a standout at Neumann-Goretti, the South Philly Catholic school which has churned out dozens of Division I alumni in its long history as a hoops powerhouse. The 5-foot-10, 155-pound point guard was a valuable role player as a sophomore on the Saints’ state title run in 2018, then averaged 12.4 ppg as a junior and 14.5 ppg as a senior, N-G’s 24-4 season cut short by the COVID pandemic.
He committed to Marist College, a school of about 5,000 undergraduates located in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and head coach John Dunne. The Red Foxes play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MACC), a league of 11 small-to-mid-sized private Northeastern schools that’s been known for playing some quality hoops in the form of Iona, Siena, and more.
On the court, Byrd’s first season went well. Starting as a reserve, Byrd moved into the starting lineup midway through the year, averaging 8.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg and 1.9 apg on the season, with a season-high 20-point outing against Manhattan one of seven double-digit scoring outings. At the end of the season, he was named to the MAAC All-Rookie team; the league doesn’t name a Rookie of the Year.
Off the court, however, Byrd wasn’t happy. The pandemic season was tough for everybody — playing games in empty arenas, limited practice time, no social life. For someone just adjusting to their first year of college in a town three hours from home, that was a lot to deal with.
“COVID messed everything up,” he said. “I couldn’t really do nothing, classes were online, I couldn’t really explore the campus, do stuff on campus, I couldn’t really get extra shots up because we had to schedule a time to get in the gym. It was crazy.”
“Especially being a freshman, away from home, I wasn’t really comfortable there at all,” he added. “That’s why I decided to come in the portal and come closer to home.”
Byrd hit the portal and ended up at Maryland-Baltimore County, located in southwest Baltimore, a little less than two hours from Philly. But the program best known for beating Virginia in the 2018 NCAA Tournament turned out to be the wrong spot for Byrd. His minutes plummeted from nearly 25 to game to single-digits and he never scored more than eight points in a single game, with five games where he didn’t even see a minute of time.
More frustratingly, according to Byrd, head coach Jim Ferry never told him why.
“[Against] good teams I wasn’t really getting in the game, but he wasn’t saying anything to me, so that’s what really brought me down,” he said. “I was like damn, I don’t know if I did (anything) wrong or not. It was early on that I got a sense that I wasn’t really going to play.
“That was really frustrating, because coming to practice every day, doing what I do, working hard, staying in the gym getting extra shots up and then not playing, that was really hard, I’m not going to lie.”
The year wrecked Byrd’s confidence, taking away the smile that frequently pops up. He entered the portal a second time in the spring of 2022, but this time had no idea where he would end up. A few Division I programs poked around, he said, but none extended an offer.
Reilly, who had just taken over the Jefferson program’s reins from Hall of Famer Herb Magee and was looking for a point guard, jumped right in, as did East Stroudsburg head coach Jeff Wilson. Both excellent programs, but Jefferson could offer something ESU couldn’t: proximity to home.
Byrd’s family moved from West Philly to Yeadon in Delaware County during his high school years, but he was always a Philly kid through and through.
“That was very important because now I get to have my mom, dad, friends, they can come to every home game now,” he said, “and the teams we play are kind of local too, Chestnut Hill and stuff like that, they can come out to any game they want to. Just like at Neumann, I had family and friends at every game supporting me, so that was very important, too — and I can go home whenever I want, too.”
Reilly sold him on that recruiting visit, getting cheesesteaks from Chubbys delivered to campus. Byrd admitted he’s more of a Dalessandro’s guy, but it did the trick.
When his new point guard arrived on campus, Reilly could tell he had some work to do to build Byrd back up to the player he used to be.
“[His confidence was] really low,” Reilly said. “And honestly, it was the whole year, it was like that. I think he lost the love of the game of basketball, it became like a job, which happens to a lot of kids in college, with the hours they put in.”
Reilly’s biggest message to Byrd all year long had nothing to do with hoops.
Byrd attacks the rim against Adelphi. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“It’s just [to] smile and enjoy it,” Reilly said. “It’s the game of basketball, it’s something you’ve been playing since you were two years old. Go out there and enjoy it — you’re going to play better when you’re having fun.”
Byrd jumped right into a starting role for Jefferson, hearing his name called in the lineups for all 28 contests; he averaged 9.7 ppg, 2.9 apg and 2.1 rpg in more than 31 minutes per contest, with solid shooting splits (.400/.347/.829). As the season went on he turned it on more and more, including a 19-point, seven-assist effort against Wilmington (Del.) in February.
“It definitely was just getting back [to being] comfortable because I was playing a lot of minutes, from barely playing the year before that,” Byrd said. “Just getting back to doing what I do, feeling the game out [...] I had good games, okay games, a couple bad games. Just getting back out there.”
The Rams went 18-12 (12-5 CACC) last season, making the CACC championship game but falling three points short of making the NCAA Tournament in Reilly’s first season.
It was during the offseason, Byrd said, that he realized his enjoyment for the game had returned. While the 2022 offseason was a struggle for him to go work on his game, saying he would practice “here and there,” the 2023 summer saw him getting back to regular workouts and practices.
“It felt good to be back,” he said.
The Rams have taken a few lumps early this season (3-4, 0-0 CACC), losing those four games by a total of 15 points, but bounced back to beat NE-10 squad Adelphi and then local foe Lincoln this week to move things in the right direction. The CACC opener is Saturday at Chestnut Hill, though the majority of league play doesn’t occur until the calendar hits 2024.
Led by All-American candidate Erik Timko (20.3 ppg), and with size and athleticism all over the roster, Jefferson was picked before the season to finish atop the CACC South, the expectations they’ll be in the mix for the program’s first NCAA berth since 2020, and first NCAA game since 2018.
“I never really had a team like this since I’ve been in college, we’re all close with each other,” Byrd said, that smile flashing across his face. “(They’re) all picking me up, we all pick each other up. It’s not really a job, we all enjoy it.”
As Byrd’s learned, that’s the most important thing of all.