Flameout: Young Sonics phenom Robert Swift falls hard
At 18, the 7-footer the Sonics selected with the 12th pick in the 2004 NBA draft showed a world of promise, but injuries and immaturity derailed his career. Now, at 28, he’s left behind a trail of people who are no longer sure where he is or what he’s up to.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Robert Swift file
Born: Dec. 3, 1985 (age 28)
Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
High school: Played at Garces Memorial, then transferred to Highland High, but was declared ineligible before his senior year. After a hearing by the California Interscholastic Federation, he was able to play for Bakersfield High.
College: Turned down a commitment to play at USC to play in NBA
NBA career: Drafted No. 12 overall by Seattle SuperSonics in 2004 draft. Expected to start in 2006, but injured his right knee in a preseason game and missed the season. Suffered another season-ending injury to the same knee in February 2008. Cut by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 22, 2009.
After the NBA: Played just two games for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Development League before leaving for personal reasons. Also played for the Tokyo Apache in the Japan League in 2010-11.
NBA earnings: About $10 million
O n a December day in 2010, Bob and Casey Hill walked into a posh apartment just outside downtown Tokyo.
Bob, the former Sonics coach, and Casey, his son, were coaching the Tokyo Apache, a basketball team in the top Japanese league. But their visit had little to do with basketball.
Inside the apartment was Robert Swift, the 7-footer the Sonics selected with the 12th pick in the 2004 NBA draft. Swift entered the NBA as an 18-year-old brimming with potential, but he was out of the league after making about $10 million and playing in just 97 games. He was in Japan as a 25-year-old reclamation project.
Bob and Casey walked into Swift’s apartment and found him in bed. His room was dark. An empty bottle of vodka lay on the floor. He was hung over, and it was clear to Casey that Swift had been drinking alone after his fiancé had called off their engagement.
Bob ordered Swift to get up. They walked to the living room and sat on the couch.
“Robert had hit rock bottom,” Casey says.
Swift’s life and basketball career, for so long intertwined, had often been a tangled mess. Between injuries, millions of dollars at a young age, a troubled family environment and now this, Bob told Swift he needed to be his own compass.
“Maybe being drafted at the age of 18 wasn’t fair,” Bob told Swift that day. “Maybe making all that money at that age wasn’t the right thing for you. But it happened and you have to deal with all this. You’re going to have to plant your feet and take control of your life. You just have to.”
Swift started crying.
“From that moment on, it was like he received marching orders in the military,” Casey says. “That’s really when he turned the corner. I’ll never forget that moment.”
But three months later, his comeback hopes were gone. A devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and ended the Apache’s season. Swift’s basketball career ended with it.
The final public image of Swift, now 28, is his foreclosed million-dollar Sammamish house left in college-party ruins: empty pizza boxes, bullet holes in the walls, maggots in the sink.
But how did he get there? What happened to Robert Swift?
“He wanted his space”
Swift has left behind a trail of people who are no longer sure where he is or what he’s up to.
Tyler Hair hosted Swift’s draft day party in Bakersfield, Calif., in 2004, but he hasn’t spoken to him in months. “I told him I was there for him and if he needed to talk, we could,” he says. “But I could tell he wanted his space. He didn’t say that, but you can feel when somebody is going to isolate themself.”
Gino Lacava, Swift’s high-school coach in Bakersfield, says, “No one’s even heard from him or anything. Have you heard anything? Do you know where the kid is?”
Some of Swift’s best basketball was played under Bob Hill, but Hill can’t find him. “I’d love to talk to him and make sure he’s doing OK,” he says. “But he’s hard to get a hold of. He won’t answer his phone. He doesn’t even have a phone sometimes. I think he’s living with buddies.”
Casey Hill hasn’t spoken to Swift since last summer. Last he heard, Swift was working as a salesman in Seattle. “He won’t talk to anyone,” Casey says. “After the house thing, it really kind of hurt him the way he was portrayed.”
What’s clear is that Robert Swift doesn’t want to be found. He didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, and the old phone numbers associated with him are either disconnected or led to dead ends.
“Stars in their eyes”
The picture painted by others is of a naive and immature teenager who acted every bit his age and who needed strong decision-makers around him. Instead, Swift’s basketball talents were seen as a path toward a better life, not just for himself but also for his family.
“I think his parents probably had stars in their eyes and were taken up with this notion of playing in the NBA as much as he was,” says Kevin Calabro, the former Sonics broadcaster. “And it’s too bad because it impacted a lot of people.”
“They didn’t try to, but they wound up undermining everything,” says David Benezra, who coached Swift’s club basketball team. “This is the result.”
“He needed some time to mature,” Lacava says. “Not just physically but mentally. He hadn’t even come close to growing into that body yet. Anybody outside of his parents could see a kid that was just not ready.”
Bruce Swift was involved in a car accident during Robert’s childhood and missed two years of work. Rhonda Swift was found to have cancer and underwent multiple surgeries.
Bruce filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and again in 2003, the year before Robert went pro. One coach, after hearing Robert say his house didn’t have much food, dropped off a car full of groceries. Rhonda cried when she saw it.
As a player, Swift fascinated coaches and scouts with his size, footwork and soft touch. “I thought he could be like Bill Walton,” says Kurtis Townsend, a former USC assistant coach who recruited Swift.
In April 2004, just months before the NBA draft, Swift bought a custom-tailored suit and leased a new Cadillac Escalade EXT. A week later, he attended prom. By the end of the next month he received his diploma — he didn’t attend the graduation ceremony — and was drafted by the Sonics.
On the day of the draft, Matt Hurst, a reporter for the Bakersfield newspaper, told Swift he was always welcome at a pickup basketball game he played in every Friday. The next day, after the Sonics made him a multimillionaire, Swift showed up and played despite the risk of injury.
“The term I would use with Robert: He was a nice knucklehead,” Benezra says.
Hurst remembers something else from that time. Rhonda Swift once described in detail the money Robert could make depending where he was drafted. “For some reason that always stuck in my head,” Hurst says.
When Swift’s name was called at 5:39 p.m. on June 24, 2004, he stood up, put on his suit jacket and walked outside before his highlights had finished playing on ESPN. Cars honked as they drove by. His mom cried.
Swift flew first class to Seattle a few days later. His parents flew coach. Before takeoff, Bruce handed Robert a packet filled with bios about every member of the Sonics.
“We made it this far as a family unit,” Bruce said at the time. “And we’ll stick together as a family unit.”
“A breath of fresh air”
The summer after his second year with the Sonics, Swift giddily bounced onto the court. Just before the workouts started, Swift approached Bob Hill, his coach, and told him about the new truck he’d bought.
“Are you done?” Hill finally asked.
“Yeah,” Swift said.
Hill glared at him.
“Robert,” he said, “I don’t give a (expletive) what your truck looks like or what you drive. I’m more concerned about making you better here so you can get another contract and maybe another so by the age of 28 or 29 you can be finished in life. That’s my concern. Not your truck.”
Hill laughs all these years later.
“I wasn’t that polite,” he says, “but he looked at me and got the message right away.”
During one of his first conversations with the Seattle media, Swift’s voice cracked. When he’d get on the team bus, he’d stop at the front and ask Hill to help him with his tie. He asked naive questions and genuinely seemed interested in learning.
“He was a breath of fresh air,” Hill says, “and he was wonderful. I promise you: Robert Swift is a good kid.”
Because of his red hair, teammates jokingly called him Napoleon Dynamite, and his youngest teammates were still four years older than him his first year. He hung out mostly with college students, many from Bellevue College.
“He was throwing huge ragers all the time,” one friend says, “and he was paying for everything.”
When Lacava visited Seattle around the same time, Swift kept bringing up drinking and partying. “Like a frat boy,” Lacava says. “Like, ‘I’m a big boy and can do this.’ ”
Neither of Swift’s parents worked after he joined the league. He bought them a pair of SUVs for Christmas his first year and paid for their housing.
“In my opinion, it was too much to ask,” says Rick DuPree, who was in charge of player development for the Sonics. “Instead of having that parental support, it was flipped. I don’t think he ever had individuals in his life that he felt he could truly trust.”
“The good, the bad”
Rhonda Swift is hesitant to talk. She’ll answer some questions through texts, but she’s writing a book that will explain everything.
“Do you have any idea how many mean things have been written about us?” she asks in one text. “My book will tell the whole truth. The good, the bad.”
She’s told that many of Robert’s coaches, teammates and friends have said critical things about her and Bruce. They’re still married. Twenty-nine years.
She mentions Bruce’s car crash, her battle with cancer, her daughter’s illnesses over the years. She says all Robert wanted to do was play basketball. “The NBA was harsh,” she texts. “We tried to help Robert. We did so much for him. Reporters did not accurately report a lot of things. Even his salary which is listed was doubled.”
Finally, she texts, “I would not do interviews. My stress level is high. I now have trouble trusting. This is too stressful at this time.”
Robert still talks often with Bruce, but he has not spoken to his mom in a long time.
“He has not talked to me in years because I said take better care of your self and save your money,” Rhonda says. “He bought and did things for his dad and sister but not for his brother or me. I love him very much but would still say please take better care of yourself.”
“This is who I am”
Swift grew his hair long before his third season and refused to wear it in a ponytail. He had covered his body in tattoos and looked nothing like the 18-year-old the Sonics drafted.
To many, the tattoos and long hair were signal flares for help. “I’m not a psychologist,” Dupree says, “but I think part of it was rebellion.”
Swift saw it differently. “Just say I’m growing up,” he said in 2006. “This is who I am.”
Says Hair, a high-school teammate and friend, “He’s always talked about getting tattoos. Forever. To see him getting crazy-haired and have tattoos, that wasn’t something the money or position or the environment he was in changed.”
On the court that year, the Sonics expected the 20-year-old Swift to start at center alongside Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. After watching Swift in a 2006 preseason scrimmage, Hill gushed to the Seattle P-I: “Did you see Robert Swift? Oh, my God. I have never seen him play like that.”
A week later, in the first minute of an exhibition game, Swift tried to save a loose ball in front of the Seattle bench. He landed awkwardly, tore the ACL in his right knee and was done for the year.
The next season, Swift played in only eight games because of a torn lateral meniscus in the same knee. He played one more season after that, for Oklahoma City in 2008.
By age 23, his NBA career was over.
“A lot of scar tissue”
By the time Swift joined the NBA’s Development League team in Bakersfield in 2009, he was overweight. He couldn’t move like he once did, and he had to realize just how far he was from the NBA.
Swift asked for a leave of absence after just two games, and that was the last the team saw of him. Around that time, he also learned his girlfriend was pregnant with his son.
“He had a lot of scar tissue by the time we got him,” says Will Voigt, the Bakersfield coach. “He always had that air about him: ‘Hey, I’ve got this under control.’ But he was burying emotional scars. Just not so deep that you couldn’t be aware of them.”
The next year, Bob Hill accepted the coaching job with the Tokyo Apache. His first call was to Swift.
Hill held preseason workouts in Dallas, and he was sitting on the side of the court when Swift walked in. He had his hair in a Mohawk and weighed 330 pounds. Casey Hill didn’t recognize his old friend.
Bob Hill just stared.
“He sat down next to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get a haircut tonight,’ ” Hill recalled. “And he did.”
Swift lost 70 or 80 pounds — “I think a lot of that was water weight,” Casey says. “He does enjoy drinking quite a bit” — and averaged a double double.
Hill said Swift was playing so well in Tokyo that the NBA’s Knicks and Celtics called with interest.
Then the earthquake hit in March 2011, and the team disbanded. Swift worked out for the Portland Trail Blazers in April 2011 but didn’t get a contract. He was arrested for DUI in June that year, although he was found guilty of reckless driving, and by July 1 the NBA entered a lockout.
Best anyone can tell, that was the last time Robert Swift played pro basketball.
In Japan, Swift played alongside Jeremy Tyler, an immature teenage star who left high school early. Tyler and Swift clashed consistently as teammates. But Tyler, who plays for the New York Knicks, now speaks about Swift with an appreciation for what he went through.
“He’s one of the greatest, most genuine guys I’ve ever met,” Tyler says. “I think about him all the time.”
One of the things Tyler heard from Swift sticks with him as he maneuvers through his own NBA career: “He always said, ‘Your money is your money and don’t be afraid to say no.’ I still use that today, every day.”
“It’s a strange tale”
The people who knew Robert Swift talk about him like he’s an old man, even while acknowledging that he’s not. He’s 28, a year younger than four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, but it doesn’t feel that way.
He has had his career end before most people start theirs. He has had his house foreclosed on after owing more than $1 million.
He has been a phenom and a bust, made millions and then lost them, embraced fame and then shunned it.
Hurst, the reporter in Bakersfield, followed Swift’s every step as a senior in high school. Swift had everything in front of him then, and the possibilities were endless.
That feeling has given way to something else: empathy.
“You’ll definitely hear this a lot,” Hurst says, “but it’s a strange tale. Every time I read more about him I’m fascinated. But I also want to give the kid a hug and say, ‘Dude, it’s OK. You’re 28. You have the rest of your life.’ ”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org