The Ghost of Robert Swift

Robert Swift was paid a lot of money for a few years of nondescript basketball. And now he's all the way gone.
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Robert Swift entered the NBA mostly unknown and undefined, and left the NBA not very long after in more or less the same state. During his brief NBA career, Swift was opaque in the way of teenagers and teenage prodigies, but was also never notable or popular enough, or skilled or charismatic enough, to demand attention or to warrant endorsement deals or -- even for the most dedicated basketball pundits -- serious consideration. He was tall and lean and young and had potential, but that type of person and player is a recognizable NBA type. Swift was a rare specimen among humanity, but not all that unique among his cohort.

The Seattle SuperSonics made him a lottery pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. There were basketball reasons why the 7-foot teenager from Bakersfield, California might not have -- and in fact did not -- work out. But there were some non-scientific, non-basketball reasons for this, too. Young players can be too raw or slow or stiff or distractible; many are. Robert Swift, for some of these reasons and some others, always felt more doomed than that.

You can see it in his rookie picture. It starts with his eyes; they’re small, glassy, green fireballs, both sad and flat. The skin above his eyelids is swollen and puffy, his eyebrows are a raised arch of thin, wispy red. He’s looking down, away from you and the camera and everything else. His brandy-colored hair is shaved down to the scalp and his papery skin glows against an equally lifeless grey background. His lips are pursed and you can tell he’s trying, as if for the first time, to lift the corners of his mouth. It looks forced and uncomfortable; the smile just isn’t there.

Swift was 18 years old in that picture. It sure looks like he knows what’s coming, and maybe he does. But of course it would look like that to us now, because we know where things went for him from there.

***

Swift’s high school coach will tell you that photo never should have happened, or at least not at that moment in Robert Swift’s life. It was too soon. He was a seven-foot teenager, body long and thin; the statistical record does not support this, but people whose jobs depend on this sort of judgment believed Swift was talented enough to be a star. At the time, though, he was what teenagers often are: awkward, introverted, and confused. What potential there was, and it was there, was buried below a roiling and inhospitable surface.

Maybe Swift didn’t want to be a basketball player. Or maybe, after a few years of college ball and emotional and physical growth, all that potential and latent ability, would be realized and made more accessible to him and his future employers. It’s hard to say, and Swift himself couldn’t say, even if he wanted to talk about it, which he doesn’t. He had scholarship offers, from schools that might have strengthened his understanding of everything about basketball and everything away from it. He also had the promise of guaranteed, life-changing millions.

Swift played an even 1,500 minutes over four NBA seasons, and was paid more than $11 million for his efforts. In that sense, and retrospectively only in that sense, he made the right choice.

The 2004 NBA Draft had its share of blunders but it still produced five individual All-Stars, a multiple Defensive Player of the Year award winner, and the first rookie in NBA history to be named Sixth Man of the Year in his rookie season. Dwight Howard, the first player picked, is probably a Hall of Famer. After the draft, 15 of the rookies gathered on stage for a photo. Swift, who went 12th overall that night to Seattle, wasn’t there to commemorate that moment. He didn’t need to be. The men that posed in that picture are still in the league, many still ascending to the peak of their careers. Swift hasn’t held a job in the NBA for three seasons.

His rookie salary was around $2 million dollars per year. In his first season, he hardly played. The next year, the team drafted another center named Johan Petro. He was just as long, just as skinny, just as full of potential. That word again.

It was in 2006 when Swift got a chance to prove his worth, and he did it fairly well. After averaging six points and six rebounds in 20 minutes per game in the previous season, he was slotted in as the team’s starting center the following year. He showed up to training camp early and in shape. He played in the summer league, although it was his third season by that point, and he didn’t need to be there. He showed up with the longshots and the newcomers and the no-hopers and caught the ball on the low-block, where he used his frame, now packed with 30 more pounds of muscle and a whirl of tattoos, to clear space. His hair, once military short, now curled and spilled down to his shoulders. This was going to be his season.

What ended it was a preseason injury. In an exhibition game against the Sacramento Kings, Swift lunged out of bounds to keep a ball in play. Then there was a pop, a rupture, a torn ACL, and an entire season lost. He laid on the floor, clutching his right knee. His fingernails, now painted black, curled into his palms. He punched the floor and then there was nothing left.

He’d made around nine million dollars by this point, which is a lot of money for anyone and maybe too much for someone searching, as all people his age are, for an identity, both on the court and beyond it. During his rehabilitation, the Seattle franchise made its way out of town. They’d been sold to an investment group, headed up by Oklahoma City petro-businessman Clay Bennett.

Bennett lobbied to relocate the team to Oklahoma and in the process he dismantled the team’s management structure. That kid with the bad knee, the one who was always around the training facility, he was left with no coach, no mentor, no internal supporters. The patience the franchise had once shown had dried up, the potential had been forgotten. Swift would play one more short season with Oklahoma City, appearing in 26 games, before limping out of the league. It barely registered.

***

He didn’t give up, though. Not entirely, and not initially. He tried to get back into the league through the NBDL. He went home and played for the Bakersfield Jam, but that lasted only two games. He left the team, citing personal reasons, which is just what it sounds like, and as opaque as it sounds. It doesn’t offer much explanation, but Will Voigt, then the Jam’s coach, said he thought Swift was done with basketball forever.

He wasn’t. He tried his hand overseas, playing in Tokyo, where his former coach in Seattle, Bob Hill, tried to get him back in NBA shape. He lasted less than a season, and then that was it, really it this time. He was now 25 years old, had made more than $11 million dollars and had nowhere left to go.

Back in Seattle, back to where all of this had started, there wasn’t an NBA team anymore. Bennett had gotten his wish and the Seattle SuperSonics had become the Oklahoma City Thunder. Swift still had his home in the city, though, and that’s where he went. It was large and impressive, but far from opulent and sat on a quiet side street. Less than a year later, that would be gone, too. The banks came calling: his property had been foreclosed and was later revealed to have been disturbingly, stunningly neglected.

There’s a local news segment on it, which is alternately nauseating and heartrending. Empty beer cans littered the lawn, a bullet hole had pierced the garage window, four cars sat in the driveway, some rusted out but each worn and unmoveable. The couple that bought the house in foreclosure found a reeking sink with ancient vomit in it, covered by a towel. In the basement, Swift had set up a sort of improvised shooting range, and had been pumping bullets from an automatic weapon into the foundation of his own home.

Swift stayed inside, refused to leave. Then, years after he was last deemed worthy of attention, came the headlines. Reporters showed up, their cameras on their shoulders, eyes peering into the windows, fists hammering on the doors. They needed to know: what and why and how, how had it come to this. Swift wasn’t just a cautionary tale anymore, he wasn’t just a disappointment, he was everything that everyone else didn’t want him to be. He was a mess, clearly, and he was lost. He was still an enigma, but the stakes seemed notably higher than they had in those first days, when he was just another rookie filled with potential.

Maybe it had always been this way. He’d been told what he could be, what he should be, but never quite seemed to become what he was, or might have been. The last reports of Swift’s whereabouts speculated he was sleeping on a friend’s couch, somewhere in Seattle. He’s 27 now, and his former life, everything he had been trained to do, everything he was supposed to accomplish, seems well and truly gone.

***

In the first draft of this story, I didn’t use Robert Swift’s name. My editor changed that because it was confusing, but the facts of Swift’s story don’t strictly require that you know his name or remember him as a player. You’ve heard his story before, because it’s familiar. Swift, like many of his peers, made a lot of money and lost nearly all of it, and is now someone to puzzle over or mourn or judge harshly for his failures, secure in the sense that neither you nor I nor anybody else would ever make those mistakes. But, of course, we can never know that.

Robert Swift probably won’t be a basketball player again, and maybe that’s all right. We will likely not hear his name again anytime soon, and maybe that’s all right, too. He deserves privacy like anyone else; he deserves to be happy in his work and as himself, like everyone else. It’s natural to worry about him, given how he was living and how fast and how far he fell. His life, from now on, is his own business.

It’s comforting, in a way, to imagine him somewhere quiet, playing the game. Just him and a ball and a hoop and the sound of leather falling through mesh, chasing it down and getting it back and doing it again, for himself. Or maybe he’s somewhere else. Wherever he is, he’s out there alone, as much as he ever was.


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