BY JEFF EVANS, Californian staff writer
After five years as a professional basketball player, all Robert Swift is looking for is a healthy, fun season.
Injuries have played havoc with Swift’s career since he was selected by Seattle as the 12th pick of the first round in the 2004 NBA Draft following his senior season at Bakersfield High School.
The last three seasons, Swift, a 7-foot-1, 280-pound center, was limited to 34 NBA games. The main reason: a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a preseason game against Sacramento on Oct. 25, 2006.
Earlier that day, Swift had been named Seattle’s starting center. Instead, he never got into a game that season.
He played in only eight games in 2007-08 when a torn meniscus in his right knee ended that season early. He got into 26 games last year after the SuperSonics left Seattle and became the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A fractured right hand, illness and back spasms kept him out of many games last season.
Now he’s focusing on a new start — with the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Development League.
“My knee is finally back to 100 percent,” Swift said from the bedroom he’s using at his aunt’s home near Liberty High School. “It’s the first time in four years I’ve been completely healthy.”
Swift, who lives 20 miles east of Seattle in the town of Sammamish, returned to Bakersfield Wednesday night and participated in his first Jam practice Friday.
“I haven’t even unpacked yet,” said Swift, who turns 24 on Dec. 3.
Swift, a two-time Californian All-Area Player of the Year when he starred at Garces and Bakersfield high schools, has some simple goals as he starts his Jam career.
“I just want to play — hopefully just play and have fun again,” he said. “Get back to the way it was supposed to be. Get that experience of actually being in games. And not having to worry about anything else.”
Returning to Bakersfield
Following last season, Swift played for the Boston Celtics’ summer league team after leaving the Thunder organization. But he never signed a contract with the Celtics and did not join any team for training camp. He said he never considered playing in Europe and began focusing on possibly joining the Jam.
“His agent reached out to us,” said Jam coach Will Voigt. “Through him we talked about the possibility (Swift) was interested in the D-League. ... Once we realized he was interested, we started to pursue it.”
The D-League signs players to contracts and assigns them to the different franchises. The Jam requested Swift as an allocation player, a designation of a player who has geographic ties to a community.
“I got two offers for training camps, but I thought this was the best thing for me,” Swift said. “I wanted to be able to play here again and have a winning season. I have always had winning seasons here. Hopefully I’ll keep that tradition going.”
So many changes
The Swift who is eyeing a spot on the Jam roster has a much different style of play from the Swift who left Bakersfield after being drafted in 2004, he said.
There’s an obvious size difference. He’s an inch taller and about 60 pounds heavier, he said.
There are other physical changes. He was one of the most tattooed players in the NBA — he said he’s had 168 hours of tattoo work. He is covered from his waist to his neck, and also on the outside of his legs.
“Tattoos are something I wanted forever and I had a chance to get them,” he said. “I keep going and get what I want.”
On the court, Swift’s added bulk will translate into a more effective player, he said. He said he added muscle in vigorous workouts while recovering from the ACL surgery.
“And I dropped 5 percent body fat. I got the upper body size I needed,” Swift said.
When playing at a lighter weight, Swift found himself being pushed around by larger players.
“I wasn’t able to hold my ground,” he said. “I’d get moved around a lot and pushed out of position. Now I can fight for position. I can hold my ground.
“I went from being shoved out of the way to being one of the stronger guys on the court.”
Swift said he has benefitted from individual coaching from former pro players Mark Bryant and Detlef Schrempf.
“I learned so much from Mark Bryant. He was always teaching me when I was sitting on the sidelines. In games, he’d say, ‘Hey, you see that? This is what you should have done, what you can do.’ You’re learning all the time.”
Schrempf, a former NBA All-Star, helped Swift learn how to take advantage of his bigger body. “He helped teach me a completely different style,” Swift said.
One familiarity: The crewcut he was known for in his high school years has returned. He had very long hair at times in Seattle.
“It started out as a bet with a teammate: who would grow his hair longer,” Swift said, adding that the bet was with point guard Luke Ridnour, who now plays with the Milwaukee Bucks. “He lasted three months; I went 21⁄2 years without a haircut.”
Voigt is hoping Swift can stay injury-free.
“We could not think of another player with the potential for a stronger impact,” Voigt said. “He’ll be a big part of what we can do.”