The Race to Nowhere: Being Robert Swift

(first in a series, The Failed Men of the NBA)

Because NBA careers can plunge into the raging river of hell, Robert Swift was here. Mired in the trap of addiction- heroin, meth, cocaine, alcohol- seduced by trouble and poverty, a thousand miles away from a career that saved him until that career threw him away, Robert Swift rejected the rational world. Questions, then, ran amok. Was the self-inflicted wound bleeding because Robert Swift lacked direction? Was Robert Swift his own worst enemy, taking the path of least resistance? Or was the NBA to blame? Does the career fail the man when the man was only a kid and couldn’t know or do any better?

Here is where the lie and the truth crash into one another. When the world was empty, when money was low, when his house was foreclosed on, when Swift was a nobody because that thing that gave him status and fed his ego was gone- NBA life, NBA money, NBA career- when no one cared, a feckless drug dealer named Trigg Bjorkstam took Robert Swift in. He gave him shelter. He provided a safe space for the seven footer who was now living the other half of the NBA dream, the nightmare half.  It was the NBA gone sour. It was what do I do now that I have f**ked everything up? What do I do now that my body has sunk into the crevice of addiction and I have nothing? I am nothing. What do I do now?

*     *    *    *    *

Robert Swift is barely remembered in NBA circles. Most of the people he played with are out of the NBA the traditional way. They aged. Their skills diminished and they moved on. Because they started at a later age than did the high schooler turned pro Swift, they had patience and a plan and by the time it was over they had luck and a little money and satisfaction.

There is always something before the fall that after the fall makes it all seem logical. Robert Swift never went to college and was at the tail end of the high school to the NBA class that brought the world Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James. For those brilliant four there was lots of adoration and adulation and attention. But for dozens of others who came and went without much of a footnote, perhaps even a yawn, there were crumbs. Who remembers Korelone Young? Who remembers Leon Smith? Who remembers Robert Swift?

*     *    *   *   *

Robert Swift was drafted in the same draft as Dwight Howard, another high school player but so vastly different, like ice is to rock, like paper is to silk. Howard went on to become an All-Star and played in the NBA Finals and is still competing. Was he more mature than Robert Swift? It is hard to say. On draft day, Howard was more talented, more athletic, more explosive, more NBA ready. On the other hand, Swift had a complicated NBA journey that began with a Seattle Supersonics tutorial when he should have been at UCLA or USC for two years before beginning his NBA trial. He wasn’t ready. He was naive. He was clueless. But it is increasingly difficult to stare money down and say no thank you.

Swift didn’t have the maturity, confidence or game, not to mention the support system, to be able to handle the roughness of those first few years of incredible adversity, scrutiny and skepticism, not to mention injury. He was a white guy so he came in not being trusted. He was a center. He had to pass the toughness test. He was judged at every opportunity, that was true, but there was something about Swift, something quiet and sincere and self effacing that made NBA veterans like Tim Duncan give him instructions in-game on what to do. Swift was likable because he wasn’t trying to prove something. He didn’t know what he didn’t know. He was that teammate who never spoke up, never spoke at all. He was trying to figure it out at the age of 18 and 19. God help him, he failed.

Lacking explosiveness and the kind of strength necessary, he was thin for a NBA center, Swift also didn’t have much touch or range. And then the injuries struck. He tore his ACL and 18 months later his meniscus gave out.

His last year in the NBA, his last year before he fell to the earth, was 2008-09.  He scored 10 points once, towards the end of the season and that was his best point production of the year. He had 13 rebounds once, the only time he had double digit rebounds. He played 20+ minutes 5 times. The Sonics were rebuilding with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook.

Robert Swift was incidental. And then he was invisible. And then he was taken into custody by SWAT. And then he was arrested for a home invasion.

*    *    *   *    *

Two years ago almost to the day, Robert Swift and companions tried to gain entry into a home they did not own or possess. Weapons reported by witnesses were a baseball bat and firearms and Swift told the sheriff he was high at the time, not an unusual occurrence for the heroin addicted Swift who two years earlier had his million dollar house foreclosed on.

Then, when the new owners took occupancy of Swift’s home, they found a scene that was rancid, depraved and infested. Dog feces covered every square inch of the deck, a foot deep. Inside the once beautiful residence that was now ruined,  booze and empty food containers and bullet holes and dirt and squalor greeted the new owners, their welcome gift. Prescription drugs and guns and ammunition had been left behind next to empty $1500 dollar bottles of champagne.

To the police, Swift was becoming a familiar face. He was hard not to miss, his seven foot size, his red hair, his tatts, and just like NBA veterans who truly liked him, cops tried to warn him this was a bad road he was going down. Addicts were losers. Their future was death or jail or death in jail. What are you doing Robert Swift?

What he was doing was telling his brain it was okay to eat itself. Cocaine and heroin cause regression; the brain works backwards. Like a cannibal eating dead flesh, the brain cells, high on the drug, eat their own insides until the middle is gone and then they eat the margins. It creates atrophy as the brain changes composition and structure; the cells reduce. Because these half eaten cells never die, they never are replaced with healthy cells. Eternally damaged, they devastate the flesh of the addict. They turn him into a stranger. If you are lucky, you don’t have one in your family. A user who eats up money and then eats up friendships and then ruins love and trust.

*    *   *   *   *

Four things happen when you take a heroin and meth cocktail. You die. Unable to metabolize the chemicals, the body surrenders. You live. But you are psychotic and want to die on the floor where you sleep in some random house. You go to jail. Your body goes through the seven rings of hell laying there on a metal cot. You live. Desperate to reach the high again, you chase it and chase it and chase it- it being death.

Two of those things happened to Robert Swift one morning in October. His high was over. And he was going to jail, courtesy of the SWAT team outside Trigg Bjorkstam’s house.

Five years earlier, he was going to summer league. He signed with the Celtics with zero chance of making a team with Kevin Garnett on it but on the summer league team he was a body and against the Nets he had 6 points and 5 rebounds, nothing very remarkable.

The Seattle Supersonics had moved to Oklahoma City and had no use for Swift so here he was on the tryout circuit. At that point, after a five year career, Swift’s learning curve had been shelved. Too many injuries, too many lost years. It weighed on his confidence. The Sonics/Thunder moved on. Swift tried to keep up but he was developing while the Thunder were establishing themselves as a playoff team.

So Swift had to impress Danny Ainge.

“We’ve always liked what he can do. I’ve liked him since the first time I saw him in high school.” (Danny Ainge)

Ainge didn’t sign Swift. Swift joined the D-Leauge in Bakersfield. But he lost whatever desire he once had. He was heavy and had trouble executing the same footwork that made many consider Swift worth developing. He was a man at 24 but he didn’t have a man’s game nor a man’s heart. Toughness had always been an issue. He lasted for two games before he left the team altogether. The next year he went to Japan but an earthquake ended the season. Swift was never lucky. Never.

He went through the revolving door, punctuated here and there as his addictions could no longer be concealed. A DUI arrest. And a few years later, greeted by SWAT, a thin, gaunt looking NBA stranger. Was that Robert Swift? He was seven feet tall so yes. When this latest turn hit social media all the familiar labels followed: sad, fall from grace, NBA bust. His parents, Rhonda and Bruce, who had complicated lives themselves, were called greedy and loveless. They were blamed as all parents are. Entering the NBA instead of going to college, using their son as a lottery ticket, never working after Swift was drafted, was their social media crime.

*    *   *    *   *

The world can be a harsh and lonely place for the sensitive among us. The quiet men of the world have to hold it all in, all the cruelty and despair and fear and anxiety thrust upon them against their will. They can’t say no when they want to. They can’t turn people down who have their hands out and deserve nothing. They can’t say what they are feeling and worse they cannot let it go. Move on, is a phrase they often hear but when people are calling you a failure you absorb their disgust of you until it becomes your own disgust of you.

It is cliche to say that men like Robert Swift got lost and that is why they failed, that the NBA drowned them. But another way of looking at it is the NBA revealed them. Like a bandaid ripped off a wound in a careless moment, the failed men of the NBA just aren’t good enough. Aren’t tough enough. Aren’t driven enough. Aren’t confident enough. Aren’t ambitious enough. It is a world that eats their young.

Robert Swift once said, “I am growing up.” He was 20 years old. He didn’t know what he didn’t know.

Because a few years later when he wasn’t getting a lot of minutes and attention, for all intent and purposes, he quit. So he wasn’t growing up after all. He was still a kid needing direction in a world used to not giving it. The hunger, what little he had, was gone. The Thunder cut ties with Swift when his contract ended.

Comebacks in the NBA are rare to the point of impossible. Once you are out the league you are out the league. Sure Patrick Beverly was drafted in the first round, played in Europe and is now firmly settled. Sure, Hassan Whiteside was drafted in the second round, was cut, went to Europe and signed a max deal. But two stories don’t determine the ordinary and the routine. Almost everyone playing in today’s NBA were drafted and never left.

Robert Swift’s dealer was sentenced to four years in prison. When he was arrested by SWAT he said, “I should just die. My life is over.” Bjorkstam was as remorseful as a drug dealer could be, depressed that his immediate life was about to be changed but empathy for his self-inflicted wound was in short supply. He lacked the basic insight on the depravity of his crime, the profit of pain, the torturing descent of the Robert Swifts of the world, the insecure who want to escape, the fearful who loathe rejection, the anxiety ridden who can’t bear failure. He had ruined lives for a generation. He robbed children of their parents, parents of their friends, friends of their mental health. There is no criminal punishment long enough to compensate for the broken men and families that drug abuse creates.

A decade after saying he had grown up, Robert Swift spoke to Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated. He was a man who had lived eight out of nine lives. He was playing basketball in an attempt to try to find a contract somewhere overseas but it was dicey because he was a convicted felon. But even if he backslid, he knew exactly where to start, with creating a plan and executing it.

“It was my decision to start and it was mine to quit. I was lost, angry, scared. I had no goals. I was living literally minute-by-minute. And now, I’m absolutely goal-oriented, I have a long-term plan, I know what I want to do. I know what the next step is. Every decision is based off, ‘Is this going to get me to the next step?’ I do very few instant-gratification things. If me of all people can make it back, I know other people can.”

Sometimes you meet the rest of your life the hard way. One moment at a time.