Third in a three-part series.
Basketball brought structure, discipline and purpose to Robert Swift’s life.
Without it, he later struggled to cope with his daily existence.
His life fell apart.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” Swift said by phone from California on Thursday.
The former Tokyo Apache center is rebuilding his once-troubled life, and basketball is a focal point of that transformation.
And now, despite past injuries that sidelined him for long stretches and serious off-court problems, the No. 12 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft is plotting a comeback.
Increasingly over the past year, Swift, a 216-cm product of Bakersfield (California) High School, has been focused on basketball — only basketball.
“I want to play again,” Swift, now 30, told Hoop Scoop. “I’d love to play the game again, and training as hard as I have the last few months, I know I can still do it.”
On Thursday, the Seattle SuperSonics’ former first-round draft pick helped his team capture a Folsom city men’s league championship, in Sacramento County, by an 83-82 score. His post-game plans? “I’m at the gym lifting now,” Swift told Hoop Scoop via email.
In recent weeks, he has juggled playing time on three teams in multiple leagues. He’s got the time, energy and desire to do so. And in one of those circuits, the Lifetime League in Roseville, statistics posted online show Swift’s three-game averages as 25.3 points, 20.7 rebounds and 5.0 blocks. while he’s logged all 44 minutes (two 22-minute halves) in all three matches. That includes a 29-point, 30-rebound, five-block effort, while shooting 13-for-17 from the field.
Swift plans to suit up for the first time in the Woo League, an annual pro-am circuit in Sacramento that tips off in May. He’s also looking for an agent to help him pursue opportunities with pro teams in the United States and overseas.
Swift made a memorable comeback in Japan. He resurrected his career with the now-defunct Apache during the 2010-11 season, playing for Bob Hill, one of his ex-Seattle bench bosses. (But now, he declared, his drive to play the game and his renewed focus to excel is even greater.)
For the Apache, Swift was a vital contributor. He averaged 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds for the season and, like the team, improved immensely as the months marched on. In the team’s final two games in the series against the visiting Akita Northern Happinets on March 9 and 10, Swift, whose father has Okinawan roots, had back-to-back double-doubles, with a 22-point, 18-rebound outing in Tokyo’s two-point 2OT defeat in the opener and a 21-point, 16-board effort in the rematch, helping Tokyo salvage a series split at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
The Apache’s overall record (20-14) wasn’t indicative of their potential to make noise in the playoffs; they had the pieces in place to contend for a title.
Asked to share what were highlights from that season in a recent email, Swift responded by writing, “…Off the court we were sightseeing, meeting great and amazing people, but mainly traveling to and meeting my family in Okinawa. I’ve been to almost every state in America and there’s no where here that I’ve felt so at home than when I was in Okinawa.
He added: “Playing in Tokyo was one of the best experiences I’ve had not only in my basketball career, but in my life. If I were to have an opportunity to play in Japan again, I would go without a second thought.”
But when the Apache’s season was cut short by the Great East Japan Earthquake, Swift’s steady progress ended, and in the months to come his life began to unravel.
Swift said that he started using heroin about a year after the Apache’s final game. He became an addict, and had run-ins with law enforcement due to guns and other problems.
Major media outlets chronicled Swift’s missteps, including The Associated Press, the New York Daily News, West Coast-based print publications and Seattle-area TV stations.
For one, Swift’s NBA money had dried up. He was unable to make payments on his Sammamish, Washington, home near Seattle, which was listed at $1.3 million.
A February 2013 Yahoo Sports headline summarized it this way: “Robert Swift is refusing to abandon his bullet-ridden, beer-can-strewn foreclosed house.”
It was foreclosed in January 2013. But Swift was still there, trapped in his own misery.
In March 2013, Swift was evicted. An sfgate.com report described Swift and the foreclosed home at the time: “Broke and bitter, he left the home in squalor, with pizza boxes, liquor bottles and other trash strewn all over. Holes were punched in the wall and a makeshift shooting range was found in the basement, with air guns and live ammo left behind.”
That wasn’t the end of Swift’s troubles.
In October 2014, Swift, then living at a house in Kirkland, Washington, was indicted on gun charges. Twenty-five guns were seized from the property, seattlepi.com reported, including seven (with a grenade launcher among the arsenal) from Swift’s room during a police raid. Methamphetamine and heroin and drug paraphernalia were also discovered, according to the report, which stated that the home had been used for drug dealing.
The home owner, Trygve “Trigg” Bjorkstam, was given a four-year sentence in federal prison on drug and gun charges. Leonid Ponomarchuk, the King Superior Court commissioner, handed Swift a 28-day jail term, served after the police raid, for unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun. He pleaded guilty after serving time.
According to the Kirkland (Washington) Reporter, Swift told police investigators “that he had accompanied Bjorkstam to confront a drug dealer who had failed to give him $2,000 in heroin. Swift stated that both of them were armed during the confrontation…”
In January 2015, Swift was arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm on an outstanding warrant. He was taken to King County Jail in Seattle, and served 28 more days in custody.
At the time of the arrest, Swift was regularly under the influence of drugs, he confirmed this week. “That was one of the things that was hard to deal with after. I couldn’t believe how lost I had got,” he said. “But it made me try that much harder to get my life back together.”
For Swift, going back to prison marked a turning point in his life.
“I needed a fresh start,” Swift said.
Swift revealed that he didn’t have “any focus” or “any motivation” in his life at that time. What’s more, he had “lost a desire to live” and was “surrounded by the wrong people.”
His life was at the crossroads. Ending his use of heroin became a priority.
“I decided to quit and haven’t even been around any of that since,” he said. “It was a personal decision to stop.
“I went to one treatment class and everyone who was in there just talked about going back to it when they got out of treatment. I didn’t want to be around people like that. I used the Bible and playing basketball to get me through the first few weeks.
“Then after that I’ve had no desire to ever go back to an unhealthy lifestyle.”
Last year, Swift moved back to California to begin a new chapter in his life. But he also mentioned he wants to share the painful lessons he’s learned with others.
Indeed, a return to basketball has helped him turn his life around.
Swift’s Christian faith is another important part of his turnaround. Swift attends Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin. His Destiny pastor, Davin Johnson, is a former University of the Pacific women’s assistant basketball coach. His uncle, Scott Shaull, works at Bayside Church, also in Roseville. He called both men positive mentors, adding that “Davin has helped me get back into shape and become a better Christian.”
Nowadays, Swift also credits a local friend and teammate, Jordan Wilson, a former college player, for pushing him on and off the court “to keep moving forward with a basketball career. . . . He’s looking to play again, too, so I always have someone to work out with. He’s a guard so when we play against each other it’s always a challenge for us to guard each other.”
“I’m living healthy, eating healthy, hanging around positive people and exercising,” commented Swift, who now weighs 265 pounds (120 kg), his playing weight toward the end of his Apache stint.
Swift has a defined purpose in life. Every day he lifts weights for an hour and does other exercises and drills in addition to playing basketball for several hours.
“Time away from the game helped his past injuries heal,” he said. “I don’t have any problems, no injuries,” Swift told me. I want to get back into playing (professionally). I know I can play for more years.”
He needs an opportunity.
NBA Development League teams are always looking for big men, and every NBA team knows a 216-cm player with serviceable or impressive skills can play a role. Other hoop circuits spanning the globe may need starting and/or backup centers. In other words, there are tons of roster spots to fill every year in countless leagues.
Unlike many players his age, Swift doesn’t have the same wear and tear from nonstop competition in hundreds of college and pro games for a decade or more. His career numbers are modest: 97 regular-season NBA games, two D-League contests and the 34-game Apache season. He’s had long spells away from the court.
During his brief NBA career, he played in a career-high 47 games (20 starts) during the 2005-06 campaign, when Hill replaced ousted coach Bob Weiss on the Seattle bench. He missed the next season with an ACL injury to his right knee. Two years later, he had another major right knee injury (torn lateral meniscus). After the franchise relocated and became the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was let go in December 2009.
Years later, Swift is back in his element on Sacramento County’s basketball courts, pushing himself to improve.
“There’s good competition out here, not great,” Swift said of the local hoop scene. “But it’s like a challenge every time I get out on the court (and) I try to make myself stay focused and not just do what I’m comfortable with, but try to evolve as a player and make myself play not only the 5 (center) but play down to the 3 (small forward).
“When I can, I try to guard the best player on the other team at whatever position they play, so that I can push myself to see where I’m at and find my limits.”
Swift — like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, among others — made the quantum leap from high school to the NBA, which isn’t allowed anymore, according to league rules. Looking back on his decision to skip college and turn pro at age 18, Swift said he said he has no regrets.
“I think about that every once in a while, but I don’t regret what happened or what situations I was in, getting drafted and not going to college,” he stated.
“When I look at it, what it comes down to is I’m comfortable with where I’m at now after working to get everything back this last year, year and a half…”
Throughout our 45-minute phone conversation, Swift made it abundantly clear that he has a fierce determination to play at the pro level again.
“Basketball for me is not only a job, a career, but it’s a good way for me to want to work out harder and want to get better in everything, not just on the court,” he explained. “And getting away from that for a while made me lose motivation to want to get better at every aspect of my life.
“When I started playing again, I realized that there’s always something that I can learn on the court and there’s always ways that it can push me off the court to get better and want to do better (in life).
Bob Hill, meanwhile, remains a loyal friend and mentor for Swift. Like a devoted parent, the veteran coach’s concern for Swift has been a constant during our frequent correspondence over the years since the Apache suspended operations and closed down for good in 2011.
“Robert became a part of our family while we were in Japan,” said Hill, who returned to the NBA in February as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns. “He is a terrific person and was becoming the player he had potential to be. When we landed back in the U.S. (in 2011) he had two workouts with New York and Boston only to be canceled due to the lockout. I’m sure it seemed as though things were stacked against him in the world of basketball. His behavior following Japan I’m sure was the result of high levels of self pity wondering why.
“Everyone should be allowed a second chance and Robert Swift is more than deserving. He was totally professional and was a great teammate the entire time I was involved with him.
“I will always be rooting for Robert.”
California native and longtime bj-league guard Darin Maki, one of Swift’s Apache teammates, described Swift as an “extremely loyal friend with a humongous heart.”
By the way, Swift is a throwback to a different era. He embraces the old-school basketball tradition of a big man who anchors the middle and gets bumps and bruises along the way. This was evident watching him play from courtside for more than a dozen games for the Tokyo Apache’s abbreviated season.
“Most teams want to copy the Golden State Warriors,” Swift told Hoop Scoop. “They want bigs to set screens and shoot from outside. Outside all the players now want to shoot 3s and make big plays. I like playing with my back to the basket. The more physical the better. It seems that now players don’t like to play physical, they want to shoot from the outside rather than get a few bruises during the game.”
When he’s on the floor, Swift wants to set the tone for his team.
“As a player I focus on controlling the paint, offensively and defensively,” he noted. “While on offense I try to demand a double team from the defense so I can find my teammates and get them an easier shot, while defensively I try not to give the offense any easy shots or second chances. I can shoot from the 3-point line but I like playing in the paint, drawing a foul and finishing through contact.
“I take a little more of a beating physically every game because of the way I play, but my team usually wins so it doesn’t bother me. I try to make simple plays, so I don’t consider myself a fancy player, but an efficient player.”
Clearly, he’s a player with the inner drive to make a difference. Again.
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