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Originally published Monday, October 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Robert Swift | "This is who I am"

The quiet, unsure boy who nervously walked through the Sonics' doors three years ago with his parents by his side is gone. Now look at him...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The quiet, unsure boy who nervously walked through the Sonics' doors three years ago with his parents by his side is gone.

Now look at him. Take it all in. The fiery-red, shoulder-length hair. The goatee. The tattoos. And those muscles. My goodness, what has happened Robert Swift? He is hardly recognizable now. He looks like ...

"Don't say 'like a NBA player,' because I didn't do any of this to live up to some sort of image or make myself look a certain way," Swift said. "Just say I'm growing up. This is who I am."

Who knew? Certainly not the Sonics and those who've watched him grow up over the past three years. This isn't the same tall, lanky kid whom teammates jokingly called "Napoleon Dynamite" last year and who hardly uttered a peep during games, practices and team meetings.

Although it's a stretch to say that he has been playing like Bill Walton reincarnate during training camp, the new-look Swift is forcing everyone to view him differently.

"I guess just by being here a couple of years, he just got used to being around the guys and he got comfortable being himself," forward Rashard Lewis said. "He grew his hair out and got tattoos. I feel that he's just being more Robert Swift instead of what people wanted him to be.

"Just look at him. That's Swift. That's the real Robert Swift. The first couple of years, we've seen Swift, but that wasn't Robert Swift. He was trying to hide the things he liked to do and didn't really express himself."

So who is Robert Swift?

Well, he is older now. Twenty years old, to be exact. His parents moved from Bakersfield, Calif., to the Seattle area three years ago to be near him, but he lives on his own and rents a Bellevue condominium.

If he had attended USC, which was the plan before entering the NBA draft out of high school, he might have majored in Japanese studies because he's fascinated with the culture. Swift talks about learning the language, partly because his father is half Japanese, and he has a strong desire to visit extended family members who live in Okinawa, Japan.

"Robert, as a young man, is just now finding out who he is, what's important to him and what type of man he wants to be," said Sonics assistant Jack Sikma, who is in charge of Swift's basketball development. "There's more going on inside him than you'd think."

Swift developed a love affair with tattoos during his rookie year and admittedly, he's addicted. By his count, he has 15, which decorate his back, torso, arms and legs. It's difficult to know for certain how many he has because a few of the intricate designs are intertwined and some are in varying stages of being complete.


"The easier way to say it is, overall I've gotten about 40 to 43 hours of work," Swift said. And he's not done.

His parents initially were upset with him because of the tattoos, but he convinced his mother to get one on her ankle and he's still working on his father.

But beneath the body art and underneath the overgrown hair, Swift in many ways is still the same shy young man.

"It depends on the situation," he said. "Around the team, I'm not shy anymore at all. In public, when the lights come on at the last minute and I've got to say something, I get nervous. I'm not good in public like that. I have no idea why."

Who is Robert Swift?

The Sonics would certainly like to find out. When they selected him with the 12th pick in the 2004 draft, the coaching staff and front office executives said they had found the team's center for the future.

In each of the following years, however, the Sonics chose a center with their first-round pick and made similar statements about Johan Petro and Mouhamed Sene.

Swift understands that it's imperative he improve on his career averages of 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds if he's going to secure more minutes and possibly land a long-term deal next summer. He's in the final guaranteed season of his rookie contract. The Sonics hold a team option for next year.

To ensure that he sticks with the team, Swift took only about a week off after the season before returning to the weight room, where he added about 10 pounds of muscle to his 7-foot-1, 245-pound frame. He practically lived in the gym and, despite being a two-year veteran, played with the Sonics' summer-league team.

"It's time for him to break out," said Lewis, who also took the preps-to-pros route. "It took me a couple of years and around my third year, that was when I first started to feel comfortable. Those first couple of years, you get that experience out on the floor, and I think this is a year that he has a chance to make a name for himself."

At times last season, Swift showed glimpses of his potential. He played a career-high 38 minutes against Phoenix in January. He collected a career-high 13 rebounds against Atlanta in February and scored a career-best 17 points against Denver in March.

In his 20 starts last season, the Sonics were 8-12. It appeared as if he had truly began feeling comfortable in the NBA before suffering a broken nose in February that caused him to miss four games and forced him out of the starting lineup.

This summer was a period of reflection. He grew his hair out "just because I wanted a change" and returned home where he added four new tattoos.

"Every one tells some type of a story," Swift said. "I don't look at them as making me any tougher or mature or anything like that. They just explain me without me ever having to say a word."

He's particularly fond of a couple of new tattoos on his arms that read: "Anything Is Possible" and "Just Believe."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or

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