What a long, strange trip it's been, Swen

Updated: February 24, 2004, 4:07 PM ET
By Bill Walton | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is a transcription of remarks delivered by Bill Walton as the presenter of Swen Nater at the NBA Retired Players Association's Legends of Basketball Brunch at the 2004 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 15, 2004 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.

There is nothing quite like the NBA as a vehicle for making one's dreams come true. Who would have ever thought, though, that it would take so long for it to happen for Swen Nater?

Unlike some of the other legends honored here today -- Bill Russell, Kareem, Oscar, Jerry West, Elgin, Dave Bing, Larry Bird, James Worthy and Norm Nixon -- Swen Nater did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Born on the edge 54 years ago in Holland, Swen was a product of a broken home that could not quite keep things together.

As the young family's economic condition deteriorated, Swen, the middle of three children, and his older sister, Rene, were dumped at the door of the local orphanage when he was 6 years old. Of the 60 other children at the orphanage, Swen and his sister were the only children there whose parents were still living.

For three long, lonely and isolated years, Swen had literally no contact with his parents who had fled their homeland for the USA and a chance to start anew. They settled in Southern California. Some of their new friends in America finally learned of the plight of these struggling immigrants. And as can only happen in America and Los Angeles, Swen and his sister were reunited with their parents on the Hollywood set of "This Is Your Life." Swen's parents were lured to the show on false pretenses as members of the audience. When they were unexpectedly called up on stage, imagine their surprise when their two young children -- whom they had had no contact with for years -- came walking out of a makeshift windmill, specially constructed for the reunion.

Now 9 years old and in the fourth grade in a new country, Swen spoke not a word of English. He had also never seen, much less heard of the game of basketball. Because of Swen's daily struggle for survival, what little he knew of the world of sport revolved around soccer, the national sport of his homeland.

Growing, adjusting and assimilating rapidly before the eyes of the world, Swen was soon the tallest lad in school. Someone eventually told him about basketball. Now a junior at Long Beach Wilson High School, Swen tried out for the team. He was unceremoniously cut and told not to come back.

Now a high school graduate, Swen was pursuing his dream of mathematics at a new Community College in the Southland, Cypress, a school in just its second year of existence.

While walking to math class one day, Swen -- now a strapping 6-foot-10 -- was spotted by the assistant basketball coach, Tom Lubin. Swen was hustled into the office of Cypress' head coach Don Johnson, who just happened to have been an All-American basketball player for some of John Wooden's early teams at UCLA in the 1950s.

Swen Nater, John Wooden and Bill Walton
Swen Nater, left, met a coaching legend and a certain redhead at UCLA.
Initially, Swen played very little at Cypress. But through relentless effort, a driving work ethic and wonderful mentoring from Johnson, by Swen's second year at Cypress, he was a Junior College All-American. One fateful day, the Cypress Chargers played the UCLA freshmen team at Pauley Pavilion in the lead-in to the UCLA varsity game. Coach Wooden sat by himself in the stands that night and watched Swen tear it up. They met afterwards for the first time and while Swen desperately wanted to attend UCLA, coach Wooden wasn't so sure. Coach Wooden finally agreed to give Swen a scholarship but made it very clear to the promising talent that he would never play in any of the games. (Editor's note: Nater got to play, as a key reserve for the Bruins.) That mattered little to Swen who only wanted a chance to be a part of something special; to be a member of a team -- of a family -- that he never had.

Most things that coach Wooden has ever said turn out to be prophetic and his caveat to Swen about limited opportunity rang clear as the bells of Royce Hall and Powell Library. But that only served as inspiration to Big Swen, who spent most of his time at UCLA pumping iron and thinking up one-liners to be delivered daily at practice.

Despite never playing in the games for the Bruins (who never lost a game while he was a member of that team), Swen, like all of John Wooden's students, developed both on and off the court. When Swen became the first member of his family to ever graduate from college, that was only the beginning. Soon, Swen became the first and only player in the history of NCAA basketball to be drafted in the first round without ever having started a college game.

Swen went on to a 12-year professional career spanning three leagues -- the ABA, NBA and Italian League. He was the ABA Rookie of the Year. He is the only player in the history of professional basketball to lead all three leagues in rebounding. To this day, Swen still holds the NBA record for most defensive rebounds in a half at 18. Swen is still the single-game rebounding leader for the Milwaukee Bucks at 33. Swen can no longer play basketball at the professional level but even today he ranks eighth all time in the history of professional basketball for rebounds per minute played. The only names ahead of him are Russell, Chamberlain, Mel Daniels, Bob Pettit, Dennis Rodman, Nate Thurmond and Jerry Lucas ... five of these seven people are in the Basketball Hall of Fame and members of the NBA's All-Time Team.

Inspired by coach Wooden, Swen became a teacher himself when he stopped playing. He built a college, Christian Heritage College in suburban San Diego. He was the school's athletic director, basketball coach and Algebra teacher. His teams at Christian Heritage won the national championship.

Swen Nater is so much more than just a basketball coach, mathematician and former player. He is a published author, a film and video producer, a singer/song writer/guitar player and a poet.
Swen Nater is so much more than just a basketball coach, mathematician and former player. He is a published author, a film and video producer, a singer/song writer/guitar player and a poet -- having penned more than 125 poems mostly to, for and about his coach -- John Wooden.

After creating a new world order at Christian Heritage, Swen tried to move on and up. But the basketball world would not have him. He couldn't get a job in a world he helped build. Any job. So he picked himself up and moved on, never looking back.

Today, Swen runs the Costco Corporation, $50 billion enterprise that is the largest company of its kind in the world. He lives in the small town of Enumclaw, Wash., on the outskirts of Seattle, in the imposing shadow of Mt. Rainer.

Today, Swen is the one casting the enormous shadow as he and his wife Marlene -- his junior college sweetheart and the only girlfriend that he's ever had -- celebrate the fulfillment of their dreams. Their daughters Alisha (26) and Valerie (25) are both college graduates and have used their own college basketball scholarships to enhance and create their brave new worlds.

This IS your life, Swen. And I am proud, privileged, honored and humbled to be your teammate and to be your friend. And to joyously celebrate you receiving this most prestigious award.

Swen Nater, you are indeed, Mr. Clipper.

Bill Walton, who is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, is an NBA analyst for ESPN. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

ESPN.com NBA Insider and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton will again serve as a game analyst for ESPN's NBA telecasts. He joined ESPN and ABC Sports' in their inaugural season of NBA coverage in 2002.