- A millionaire at 18 and a junkie at 27, Robert Swift is trying to revive his basketball career and repair his frayed life.
This story appears in the Sept. 26, 2016, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
The first thing Robert Swift remembers is the police loudspeaker. Though, in his haze, he wondered if he’d dreamed it. Then it blared again, and he envisioned the bomb squad and the rifles and he knew what awaited.
Swift wasn’t the target at 6 a.m. that Saturday, in October 2014, when a SWAT team descended on a one-story house in Kirkland, a suburb northeast of Seattle. No, Trygve (Trigg) Bjorkstam was the one dealing the heroin and meth, the one who’d attracted the junkies and whores to the four-bedroom house on a leafy street, less than a block from an elementary school. He was the one who always carried a loaded pistol in a shoulder holster, even in the house; who cut the meth with Coca-Cola to increase volume; who was so paranoid about being ripped off that, according to court records, police discovered 26 firearms on the property, including a grenade launcher.
But Swift was the one who woke up first. He was in a bad way, having just crashed after three days without sleep, fueled by his usual mix of heroin and meth. As he stumbled toward Trigg’s room, past tables littered with used needles and shreds of burned tinfoil, Swift felt fear but also relief. His job was to protect Trigg’s stuff and clean up the place. In return, he got the back bedroom and a steady supply of little, clear packets of heroin, enough to ward off the dry heaves and crushing headaches of withdrawal. Swift had long since surrendered to the drug’s undertow. He had no phone, no money, no ambitions. He hadn’t seen his son in two years; hadn’t spoken to his parents in longer. A year earlier he had been evicted for squatting in his own foreclosed million-dollar home. Part of him thought he’d die here, in this filthy house, and maybe that was O.K. He was sick of trying.
Now, as he followed Trigg out into the predawn darkness, hands raised, Swift noticed a cop staring at him, putting two and two together. After all, there are only so many 7'1", tattooed redheads walking this planet, and only one who was a lottery pick for the Seattle SuperSonics, chosen straight out of high school in 2004. Swift might have looked different now—he bordered on skeletal, and his thick, unwashed hair clung to his forehead—but there was no mistaking him. This was the kid once compared with Bill Walton; the guy who played against Dwight Howard in the McDonald’s All-American game; a young man Jack Nicholson once stopped after a timeout to say, “Do me a favor and take it easy on my Lakers—you’re killing them right now.”
That was a lifetime ago, though. Swift may have only been 28 but he couldn’t have been further from his NBA days, and in the hours to come his image would spread across the Internet as sites covered the sad, sordid case of the millionaire athlete hitting rock bottom, alternately delighting in and puzzling at his decline, publicly freezing his life in its lowest moment.
For the moment, though, Swift was cuffed and lowered to the curb, where he waited, head down, as the police searched the home. Eventually, a cop approached. You know everyone coming into this house has a rap sheet? he said. You know this isn’t a life you want.
And then the detective asked the question so many wanted answered: What happened to you?
What happened? Where to start? Here’s a memory, one that survives:
A gangly boy sprinting across the dirt at a mobile home park on the outskirts of Bakersfield, so close to the train tracks that he can feel the rumble at night. He is seven but tall enough to pass for 10. His hair is a shock of orange, just like his mother’s, and he inherited Rhonda’s height as well. Behind him is his brother, Alex, a year younger but much smaller. Alex is dark-haired and dark-skinned, like their father, Bruce, whose mother is from Okinawa. You’d never peg the boys as brothers, and the differences become more pronounced as the years pass, the elder stretching upward—to 6' 8" by eighth grade. Alex’s growth spurt never arrives.
The boys know they need to get back home. Rhonda is forever worrying. She’s not yet sick with the breast cancer that will chew up years of her life before she emerges, feisty as ever. Bruce, a soft-spoken man with a bodybuilder’s arms, is rarely home, out repairing and maintaining air conditioning units. His neck is still balky from when a driver ran a red light and T-boned his pickup truck, but he manages well enough. When a younger sister, Samantha, arrives, the family will buy a real house with three bedrooms, out on the edge of the vast dirt plains that stretch to the horizon.
Basketball chooses the boy as much as he chooses it, but soon he loves the feeling of snaring rebounds, and pinning shots, and winning, always winning. His 7th grade team goes undefeated. Same for 8th. Bruce nails a hoop to the garage in the driveway. All the while, Rob keeps growing. Money is tight. Rhonda buys a gallon of milk and two boxes of cereal every other day, just to keep up with his appetite. Sometimes she has to put a lock on the refrigerator. At Big 5 Sporting Goods, the only shoes big enough for Rob are sometimes purple, or yellow. Embarrassed, he goes barefoot at times. His size fools people, masks the fact that he’s still just a kid, a sensitive, trusting, stubborn kid, given to introspection. “Even when he was having fun,” says his dad, “he’d have this somber face.”
Rob retreats into comic books, and spends hours lost in his imagination. Sometimes the visions turn dark. He has recurring nightmares about wolves. In one, he walks down the hallway and hears a howl in his parents’ bedroom, then the sound of claws on tile. He tries to run but his legs fail him. He wakes up panting, heart drumming in his chest.
Now it is 2004 and the boy has become a man. Or so he is told. So he believes. After all, boys don’t get invited to play against NBA studs in Las Vegas, banging against Jermaine O’Neal and Rasheed Wallace. Boys don’t land in national publications, or make the McDonald’s All-American team alongside Al Jefferson and LaMarcus Aldridge. Boys don’t stand 7'1".
Everyone wants a piece of Robert Swift now, the AAU brokers and the would-be agents and the pretty girls and the shoe whisperers. He’s played for three high schools in four years. Jealous teammates try to freeze him out. He averages 18.8 points, 15.9 rebounds and 6.2 blocks as a senior at Bakersfield High despite facing triple teams. He commits to USC. Then the NBA beckons. First-round pick, the scouts say. His high school coach tells him he’s not ready. So do family friends. But their words are drowned out by the chorus telling him to snatch his dream while it’s right there. Who cares if his 220-pound body is still frail? He’ll develop in the pros. “I got into the working field early and learned a trade,” Bruce tells reporters. “Learn as you go.”
Rob makes the leap. He buys a fancy suit for prom, leases an Escalade, skips graduation. As always, he quarrels with his mom, each as stubborn as the other. Years later, his brother will point to the death in 1999 of their maternal grandfather, Robert Shaull a tough, caring man who showed up at all of Rob’s games in a folding chair, and who provided “most of the guidance and discipline for us,” according to Alex—as the point when Rob began to pull away. Says Alex: “That’s when he, when we, got lost.”
Now, Rhonda forbids Rob from playing pickup hoops with his buddies. He’s an investment now. Rob fumes. He is 18. He can do what he wants. So he moves in with a friend, gets his first tattoos, including his grandfather’s face on his lower abdomen. When it comes time for a draft party, a teammate’s family hosts.
And so here he is, surrounded by 100 friends and teammates, watching his future announced on live TV. He receives a text from Bob Myers. Technically, Arn Tellem is his agent—The Arn Tellem, Kobe’s agent—but it is Myers, Tellem’s energetic right-hand man, who’s his point of contact.
Even now, on draft night, Swift remains a bit of a mystery. On Tellem’s advice, he didn’t attend the NBA combine or work out for teams. When you’re 7' 1” and devoid of heft or experience, you’re selling the future, not the present. The strategy works. Danny Ainge, the Boston GM, has promised to select Swift with the No. 15 pick.
But then David Stern is at the podium announcing the 12th selection, and Swift hears his name. A lottery pick? Moments later, the Sonics head coach calls. Says Nate McMillan: “I’m looking forward to actually seeing you play.”
Three weeks later Swift becomes a millionaire. Three years, four-point-four mil. We got this far as a family, Bruce reminds him. And indeed, Rob buys his parents a house. A year earlier Bruce had declared bankruptcy for the second time in five years. Now, neither he nor his wife will work for the foreseeable future. Alex’s college tuition will be covered. They’ve made it. All of them.
Napoleon Dynamite. That’s what the Sonics players call him. The kid is big but not ready. Not emotionally, not physically. He never talks in practice or team meetings. “You had to pry two words out of him,” recalls Dwight Daub, the Seattle strength coach. It doesn’t help that Swift’s youngest teammate, point guard Luke Ridnour, is four years his senior. McMillan, famously disdainful of rookies, ignores Swift. The fan base wonders if the team is cursed or just stupid. Year after year, the Sonics chase underachievers and failed moonshots to fill a void at center: Vitaly Potapenko, Calvin Booth, Jerome James. The team’s star, Ray Allen, isn’t pleased to be playing with a project, either. “At this stage in my career, I don’t want to watch somebody take a couple of years to develop before they can help us,” he tells reporters.
Swift feels lost. Teams had yet to smother top picks with support—nutritionists and team mentors and player development coaches who double as big brothers. Some prodigies had thrived since the ruling allowing high schoolers to enter the league. But for every KG there was a Korleone Young or Kwame Brown, young men failed by those around them. That first season Swift plays in 16 games, scoring a total of 15 points.
Still, life is not so bad. Ichiro Suzuki hears of Swift’s Japanese roots and asks to meet him. Swift buys a kick-ass truck, eats like a king. And he gets to play against his idols. The first time he guards Tim Duncan, Swift pushes up on him on the block, trying to impress him.
“Nah, nah, don’t do that,” Duncan says.
Swift is surprised. Duncan never talks to opponents. And yet...
“The ball’s going to swing to the other side, get position,” Duncan continues.
The ball swings. Swift follows orders, shuffling his feet across the lane, staying behind Duncan.
“No, further up,” Duncan says. Swift takes a half-step.
“No, a little higher, don’t let me duck in on you.”
“All right, now come back,” Duncan says, moving across the lane. “The ball’s about to be swung back, but it’s not coming to me this time so don’t worry about it. But now you know how to play it.”
With that, Duncan plays hard the rest of the game, but the moment sticks with Swift. He hopes to be that kind of veteran some day. First, though, he must survive. Daub tries to help. He invites Swift over for dinners and holidays with his family. The young man is polite, respectful. They spend hours talking—about expectations and life and family. Rob becomes friends with Dwight’s son, Bryce, who is on the team at nearby Bellevue College. He is more of a peer to Swift, in many regards, than his Sonics teammates.
Swift’s second season is at least better than the first. McMillan leaves for the Trail Blazers, succeeded by Bob Weiss, who is replaced after 30 games by Bob Hill. Swift plays in 47 games, starting 20, and averages 6.4 points and 5.6 rebounds.
During the ensuing summer Swift finds his footing. He buys a $1.35 million mansion in Sammamish, east of Seattle, with a sport court and huge windows that look out on the lake. Long fascinated by firearms, he begins collecting: a hunting rifle, then shotguns and pistols. He buys motorcycles and cars and cool snakes. Hours in the weight room with Daub pay off, and he returns to the team in the fall borderline rocked. He makes for quite a sight. Gone is the buzz cut, replaced by a long red shag. Tattoos cover his arms and torso. One reads, “Just Believe.” Another: “Anything is Possible.” “Just say I’m growing up,” he tells a surprised press corps. “This is who I am.”
Hill is impressed, at least on the court. At 57 and on his fourth NBA head coaching gig, he’s seen a lot of wayward kids, but he believes Swift has a good heart. Swift also possesses rare skills for a 7-footer: He’s mobile and athletic, with a soft shooting touch, a high basketball IQ and an interest in playing defense. Hill envisions a fulcrum for his post-entry offense, Swift catching the ball on the block before kicking out to his sharpshooting stars, Allen and Rashard Lewis.
Swift asserts himself in training camp. Huge dunks. Challenges at the rim. “Did you see Robert Swift?” Hill says to reporters after one early scrimmage. “Oh my God. I have never seen him play like that.”
Then preseason arrives. Early in a game against the Sacramento Kings, Swift plants his right leg and twists, trying to save a ball headed out-of-bounds. A small explosion detonates in his knee. His ACL is shredded. He will miss the entire season.
He is crushed. Still, as his coaches remind him, he’s only 20 years old.
Eight games. That’s how long Swift lasts before tearing the meniscus in the same knee a year-and-a-half later. Another season is wasted. Meanwhile, the Sonics become the Oklahoma City Thunder. Another coach, P.J. Carlesimo, comes and goes.
By the start of 2009, Swift is in the middle of his fifth year in the NBA. He’s 23, earning $3.6 million and living in a short-term rental in OKC, gathering for beers at the fire pit with yet another set of new friends. As in Seattle, where he hosted ragers for Bellevue College kids, trying to live the campus life he never had, he keeps a distance from his teammates. But for friends and family he’s always there. Money for a car? Tuition for school? Swift’s got your back. For years, his parents were, for all intents and purpose, his employees, paid a living allowance. “If you add up all the money he gave to people who said they needed it, it’s astonishing,” Daub says. “Wrong or right, that’s just who he is.”
Basketball is tough, though. Swift wears a bulky knee brace, busts up a disc in his back, breaks his hand. Some with the Thunder wonder if he’s lost his love for the game. “In defense of him, every time he was ready to make a step in the right direction he had an injury,” recalls Scott Brooks, Carlesimo’s successor.
Swift starts a few games, then sits for entire road trips. Fed up, he adopts a screw-it-all attitude. He shaves his long red ponytail into a floppy Mohawk that goes particularly well with his black nail polish. He wears Wranglers and a plaid shirt to a game. Some fans love it. Others, not so much. Royce Young, writing for the Daily Thunder blog, calculates Swift makes $137,659 per game played in 2008-09 (and “$1,193,043 per injury”).
After the season the Thunder let Swift walk. He plays summer ball for the Celtics but doesn’t stick, and ends up back home with the Bakersfield Jam of the D-League.
Like everybody, Will Voigt, the Jam’s head coach, has heard stories. About injuries. About how Swift’s family can be a distraction. But Rob is professional. The family never shows, other than one aunt. Still, Swift remains distant. Basketball isn’t the issue. Swift’s got the tools. His basketball IQ, Voigt recalls, is “off the charts.” It’s the other stuff that’s concerning.
Unlike other players on the strict training regimen, Swift gains weight with the Jam, to a point where he’s ineffective. Voigt sees no evidence of drug use, and Swift never shows up hungover. But something is clearly off. And yet Swift acts like he’s got it all under control. “In reality he was a broken kid,” Voigt says now. “There was a lot of hurt.”
After the Jam’s second game, Swift comes to Voigt. I’m done. I’m going to become an MMA fighter, he says.
It’s the last time Voigt will see him.
There is one final chance to swerve off the path. In July 2010, Hill calls. I got a gig coaching in Japan. Come play for me.
The MMA thing never came together. Neither did it last with Tabatha Smith, a tall, pretty brunette Swift met one night at a Sonics game. Their son, Reiko, was born in April 2008, inheriting his mother’s blue eyes and brown hair. The court set the child support at $5,000 a month, based on Swift’s NBA income. Swift didn’t argue; he had plenty of money, eventually making over $18 million in his career, based on reports. They arranged joint custody.
Meanwhile, he kept partying after leaving the Jam. A lot. Most guys get drunk off a six-pack; Swift needs three. He’d stopped exercising; teams stopped calling. But now here is Hill, the only NBA coach he felt truly understood him, and the opportunity is promising. A Princeton grad-turned-hedge-fund manager bought the Tokyo Apache and is going all out. Elite coach. American-style cheerleaders and frills. Another NBA talent, Jeremy Tyler.
There’s a problem, though: Swift is pushing three and a half bills. The first month in Tokyo is brutal, but he plays himself into shape, alternately battling and mentoring Tyler, a raw, cocky kid who assistant coach Casey Hill—Bob’s son—remembers as “a Great Dane puppy.” Meanwhile, Casey befriends Swift, who strikes him as a lonely young man, quick to trust and generous to a fault, invariably picking up the tab even if his NBA fortune is dwindling. When Swift’s fiancée—who he met after things didn’t work out with Tabatha—breaks it off, Casey provides comfort.
Eventually, Swift drops 70 pounds and regains his spring. Hill empowers him to shoot threes. He has a 22-point, 18-rebound game, then goes for 21 and 16 the next. And then, on March 11, Swift is in his bedroom when the earth buckles and his apartment sways. In the chaotic days to come, after the Great East Japan earthquake decimates the country, no one thinks about basketball.
The American ownership disband the Apache. Back in the U.S., teams call Swift, intrigued. New York, Boston. In April, the Trail Blazers arrange a tryout. Swift is told he’s made the team. He’s older, smarter. He’ll be more patient this time. Then a Portland staffer breaks the news. Sorry, we went in another direction. Swift is angry. Disappointed. In July, the NBA lockout begins. He decides he’s done, with basketball and all the rest. This time, when the wolves come, he won’t try to run.
Every heroin addict’s story is different, but in at least one regard they’re all the same. No one sets out to be a junkie. Swift is sure he can control it, snorting the drug only once a week at first so he won’t get hooked, and then just as a way to counterbalance the rush and jitters from the meth and cocaine he’s begun taking. And he never shoots up. Too dangerous.
His chosen trio of drugs acts in synergy to produce both a glorious, sustained high—and a greatly increased risk of fatal overdose. The heroin acts as a sedative, as do the beers Swift is still pounding, bringing his breathing rate perilously low during his stupors.
Still, it is the heroin that does him in. As with all opiates, users have to take more over time to get the same high. And addiction can take hold within a matter of months, or even weeks. It’s also increasingly prevalent; according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, usage rates continue to climb, to 828,000 Americans at last count. By 2013—and this is where dates and times slip away for Rob in the retelling, when months sometimes feel like years—Swift is firmly among them.
Occasionally he tries to take a break or his supply runs out, and that’s when the symptoms kick in. Think of the worst flu you’ve endured. Now double it. That’s what opiate withdrawal feels like. And the magical part, which is also the most messed-up part: all it takes to make it go away—the fever and headaches and thudding joint pain and dry heaving—is one hit. It’s instantaneous, like pulling up the blinds to reveal a glorious sunny day.
By 2014, Swift is using daily. He goes three or four nights without sleep, never leaving the house, rarely eating. When his body can’t function any longer he crashes into a dreamless slumber. Sometimes he wakes up in a bed. Other times on a lawn chair in the living room.
Rarely if ever does he think about how he’s arrived at this point. No, better to stay in his haze, watching MMA documentaries on YouTube and writing in his journals, telling himself that the drugs make him productive, trying to rationalize using. In his fog, he doesn’t have to think about the child support payments he’s neglected, just as he’s neglected his friends and family. Or about that day in January 2013 when the cops showed up at his old house—the one he was living in with a crew of people who always seemed ready to party but never wanted to pick up a bill. The bank had sold it for $750,001 to a pair of real estate developers. At first, Swift wouldn’t leave. When he finally did, the new owners were shocked by what they found. Bullet holes in the walls. Live ammunition lying around. Maggots in the sink. A pile of dog crap a foot high. More than 100 pizza boxes and over a thousand liquor bottles, including Dom Perignon, Crystal and Louis XIII Cognac, which costs $1,500. A sign attached to the front door that read, DANGER, MEN DRINKING.
The tabloids rushed in, lamenting "the heartbreaking downfall of NBA star who fled filthy foreclosed home.” But Swift was too far gone to care. He would open his first beer around 9 a.m., then end up at bars, stumbling off the stool. Long just a drinker, he tried weed, but it just made him depressed so, at some point—he’s not sure when, he says—he’d turned to harder stuff. Friends worried about him. Someone sponsored his page on basketball-reference.com for a period of time, writing: “Robert has limited funds, he needs our help. Sure basketball players make a lot of money, but they spend a lot of money. Please give generously. Donate today.”
Finally, Swift disappears altogether. Jayson Jenks, a reporter from The Seattle Times, spends months trying to track him down. In May 2014, Jenks finally concludes, “What’s clear is that Robert Swift doesn’t want to be found.”
With good reason. After crashing with one friend after another, Swift decides to do the worst thing imaginable: He moves in with his dealer. As Swift recalls it, Trigg had introduced him to heroin when Swift complained of back pain one afternoon and Trigg offered something to take the edge off, something all his friends were doing. In return Swift agrees to help Trigg. People don’t mess with 7-footers trained in MMA, after all. Though he’s sold most of his prized collection, Swift still has half a dozen guns, including the 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun that he keeps under his bed. At one point, Trigg asks for backup confronting a dealer who owes him two grand. Swift accompanies him, armed, but only, as he later tells the police, “to keep the peace.”
It gets worse. Men waving guns on the street. Bomb scares. Occasionally, Swift wonders about Trigg, and how an intelligent, 54-year-old former aviation engineer with two grown kids became a dealer. They have a weird bond: The two smartest men in rooms full of junkies, having conversations no one else can understand. And yet Swift doesn’t trust any of them. He takes the handle off his back bedroom door, installs a deadbolt to which only he has a key. And then comes the raid, planned on a Saturday morning so the students at Helen Keller Elementary School wouldn’t be around. Once Swift shakes Trigg awake, the dealer frantically tries to throw his needles in the fireplace. “It’s too late for that,” Swift says.
The police take Trigg to the station, grill him. “I should just die,” he says, according to court records. “My life is over, there’s no reason to keep going.” The police ask about Swift. Trigg tells them Swift is “a good guy.” He says Swift had “nothing to do with the drug dealing” and “was actually trying to just clean the place up” and “keep all the bad people out.”
In the end Trigg is sentenced to four years in federal prison. Swift? He is interviewed by police and then set free, pending a court date.
The water and power go first.
With nowhere else to go, Swift returns to Trigg’s house, but he has little money and a dwindling supply of dope, pulled from the stashes the police missed. So he walks next door and asks if he can plug in an extension cord. The woman living there, Sophie Roman, is a 78-year-old widow. She’s been in the neighborhood almost 50 years and has stopped sitting on her front porch, lest she get caught in crossfire. But there is something about Swift she likes. Trusts. He uses the extension cord to run a waffle maker. With no cable or Wi-Fi, he watches Transformers: Age of Extinction 16 times in a row on DVD. He also comes by Roman’s house with a signed ball and jersey, as a thank you. To the horror of her friends, she invites him for dinner. But isn’t this why God put her on the earth, she counters, to help those in need? Swift is good company. He clears his dishes, a gesture that sticks with her. “He was a nice fella, very respectful,” she says, standing on her porch on a recent afternoon. “He just seemed sad, because he had no support. I felt bad for him.”
Swift keeps plummeting. Eventually, he moves in with another dealer, Trigg’s supplier, sleeping in a chair, his possessions bundled in a sheet hung over a ceiling beam. On the days he can’t get heroin, he takes what he calls now, without irony, “unhealthy amounts of meth.” He reads in the paper that a warrant is out for his arrest. He missed his court date and is wanted for unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun, stemming from the raid. (The grenade launcher found at Trigg’s was also Swift’s, as were three other guns.) Swift hunkers down, determined to disappear. He doesn’t go outside for months.
Then, in January 2015, he is found and picked up by the Snohomish County sheriff’s office. Swift, squished in the backseat, high, likely has no idea what’s going on. He’s taken to King County Jail in Seattle and placed in a medium-level security cell with 22 other prisoners, with bail set at $20,000. Heroin addicts are usually treated with a tapering program: low-dosage opiates to wean them off the drug. It can take months to years. Swift is afforded no such cushion. He is dosed with muscle relaxants. The rest is up to him.
All he remembers of the first dozen or so days is lying on his metal cot, curled up to fit on the frame, head under his single sheet. Vomit rises in his throat every few minutes. He shivers. He sleeps as much as he can.
Eventually he comes out of it. He compares the moment with a scene from The Last Samurai, when Tom Cruise’s character sobers up to realize all he’s done. Other prisoners begin to recognize him. Some ask about the NBA. Others give him candy to help with the withdrawal. A thick-chested man with prison tats named Peter, in on a warrant from Oregon, hands him a Bible. “Everything you need will be in here,” he says.
It’s been a long time since Swift opened the book. He grew up attending Calvary Church—one of his first tattoos was a giant cross on his back—but he lapsed. Now it comforts him to read the passages. He asks for pencil and a paper, and begins to write. The first page is jumbled, a cascade of thoughts and regrets and aspirations. The second page gains order. In small, neat writing Swift draws a series of unchecked boxes, each followed by a goal. “Child support papers returned,” “Church every Sunday.” “Inventory everything,” “keep studying Japanese.” Then he copies out Psalms 23. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will be not afraid.
Meanwhile, he surveys his new reality. He has yet to meet his public defender. No friends or family have visited. He doesn’t even know where his son lives.
He feels a powerful surge of remorse. He knows what he needs to do.
It sounds crazy, Swift’s plan.
But Alex watches his brother, and he is shocked. Dude doesn’t touch a basketball for years, destroys his body and spends a month in prison. And yet here he is, in a church gym in Seattle in the spring of 2015, effortlessly draining shots.
Truth be told, it annoys Alex. Sure, he benefited from Rob’s success. He also lived in his shadow, quitting basketball as a high school senior to escape expectations he knew he’d never meet as a 6'1" forward. Now, the brothers have different interests, different personalities. Still, they are blood, exchanging letters during Rob’s incarceration.
Even so, Alex was surprised when Rob called on Jan. 27. He had been released from prison the day before, agreeing to enter a treatment program in lieu of posting bail. Now he was asking for a ride downtown so he could find a park to sleep in. Alex looked at his wife, Jenny. She didn’t hesitate. Bring him home. He’ll stay with us in the upstairs bedroom.
Rob arrived with a small canvas bag holding his notes, a shirt and some beef jerky. He wore jail shoes and shorts, and was so thin that his ribs were visible through his shirt. That night, he ate Alex’s one-pound Fatburger, finished the second half of Jenny’s, then gratefully raided their fridge. He’d been told he was five pounds above the malnutrition line in prison, making him ineligible for extra rations. Now, he gorged.
The first few days Rob kept hugging Alex, thanking him. At five every morning the brothers would leave together, Alex to his job as a FedEx driver, Rob to ride the bus to the Community Center for Alternative Programs, an alternative to jail time for nonviolent offenders. There he takes the first college-eligible courses of his life—on life skills and finances—and loves them. But when the treatment phase begins, Rob balks, not wanting to be around peers whose primary goal is getting out so they can start using again. He doesn’t report for five days. A bench warrant follows. On Feb. 25, Swift returns to jail for six more days, at which point his uncle, Scott Shaull, decides to post the bail, allowing Rob to return to his brother’s house.
With his case in limbo and no money, driver’s license or immediate purpose, Rob spends a month weeding Alex and Jenny’s overgrown backyard. Soon enough, he’s hanging out with Jenny’s family for Sunday dinner and going to church—in his flannel and Wranglers, his only nice-ish clothes—and mowing the Adams’s lawn. The neighbors are freaked out by the giant, tattooed man they’ve heard about on the news, but K. Adams, Jenny’s dad, says to talk to the young man before they judge. That he’s got a gentle soul. Besides, Rob is one hell of a gardener. He installs a trellis, tends the petunias, organizes the garage. In exchange K. lets him crash at the house, buys him protein powder and slips him $100 on occasion. Slowly, Rob returns to a healthy weight. And soon enough K. and Craig, Jenny’s brother, are bringing Rob to their regular game at the LDS temple court. Rob stays on the perimeter, shooting jumpers, but still dominates. His plan no longer sounds so outlandish. Return to the NBA? Why not?
All the while, Alex and Jenny watch for signs that Rob is backsliding. The relapse rate for heroin addicts is as high as 97% in some studies, after all. His joints lock up on occasion. His hands shake. He drinks—a bottle of wine with an ex-girlfriend one night, tequila another. But he never appears high. It is, Jenny reasons, a Swift family trait. They’re all so damn stubborn that once they decide on something, they just do it. That’s how Alex stopped smoking. And now it’s how Rob is kicking heroin. Not that they don’t clash. Alex doesn’t want Rob drinking in his house. Rob feels like he’s imposing, especially with Alex and Jenny’s first child due in late September. But the lawyer keeps filing continuations.
Finally, on Sept. 16, 2015, under the guidance of a new public defender, Katharine Edwards, Swift accepts a deal for a felony charge. No more time, no probation, a $600 fine. Sure, he might have stood a chance at trial, but it would likely come at the expense of many months and a swarm of media trucks. In a quiet moment he tells Alex that, after years of the little brother emulating the big, the situation is reversed. Rob’s new goal is what Alex has: a house, a wife, a family.
Rob sells off the last of his gun collection. He joins Jenny’s family for one final Sunday dinner. Then an old friend, his MMA coach, arrives from California to pick him up, having promised to let Swift crash with him. Swift loads two camo duffle bags and they pull onto I-5 South. He doesn’t have much of a plan. All he knows is that he needs to start anew.
What happened to you? Maybe that’s the wrong question.
It is late July 2016 and I’m sitting across from Swift, who’s wedged into a booth at an Asian bistro in Roseville, half an hour east of Sacramento. He’s wearing cargo shorts and a black T-shirt. His hair is shorn. Add a wispy chin-strap beard and he resembles a giant, inked-up leprechaun. Tats cover his arms and legs: tribal symbols, phrases, the image of a wolf emerging from flames. Some are only visible in black light. Swift is back up to 275 pounds, much of it muscle, but he moves like a man trying to stay out of the way, hunching his shoulders and thumbing the loops of his shorts when standing. He orders three entrees but eats little, getting them boxed to take home. In April, he spoke to a reporter at the Japan Times, Ed Odeven, but this is the first time he's spoken to a US publication in years. He's both wary and nervous, his leg tap-tap-tapping. He is O.K. talking about the future. He’s not sure about the past. “There are still moments where it’s tough, thinking about everything that’s happened, what I would have done different,” he says. “But then I gotta remember that there’s nothing I can do about it now. I gotta move forward.”
He chose Roseville, a hot, flat city full of malls, churches, McMansions and liquor stores, because it’s familiar. His grandmother once lived in an apartment here. Shaull, his uncle, is here now. Most important, the basketball scene is strong. He tells me he’s played 14 league games in the last 16 days, that his team won the Woo Pro-Am League, that he hasn’t moved this well in 10 years.
During the first of his two games on this night, at a fitness club, Swift towers over his teammates, who include former overseas players and a young woman with a deadeye shot. His primary defender is a 6'5" man whose graying hair and ample gut make him look older than his 43 years. The man does what many might: Fouls the crap out of Swift.
Annoyed, Swift takes him outside. He hits 15-footers and bank shots. Drains a long three. Rises for follow dunks. Extinguishes layups on the backboard. More impressive, he shows on high pick-and-rolls, switches onto guards and talks constantly on D. He makes a pair of beautiful passes to cutters out of the high post. High basketball IQ. “D-League?” I scribble in my notebook. “Overseas for sure.”
Two days prior, Casey Hill offered a gauge of Swift’s progress. “He’s a warrior so you won’t see it during plays,” Hill said. “But watch during free throws and timeouts. If he’s grabbing his shorts that means he’s taking pressure off his back.” On this night, Swift never does, despite playing all 40 minutes. He is, however, wearing a neoprene knee brace. Only, on closer inspection it’s just a hole in his worn leggings. Similarly, his shoes are scuffed and dirty.
After the game he exchanges bro hug, ribs opponents, laughs, heads outside to take a hit off his vaporizer, proud he’s slowly reduced the nicotine level, from 22 mg to 12 and now to six. His mood only changes when a buddy invites him to a fair that weekend: “Eat lots of food, take my kids on rides.” Swift shakes his head. “That’s a lot of people,” he says of the crowd.
Two hours later, in the second game, Swift wears the same sweat-soaked undershirt. His teammates ignore him and jack threes, even though Swift is guarded by a 6'3" dude. The team loses. Afterward, Swift is pissed. At the refs. At not getting the ball. “I’m done with this league,” he says. “I only played in it as a favor anyway.”
He trudges out to the parking lot to his 1996 Ford Explorer and hangs his shirt on the driver’s side door to dry. It is late on a Wednesday night at a health club outside Sacramento. This is the reality of the road back.
“Robert Swift? I think about him all the time” says Bob Myers, Swift’s former agent and now the GM of the Warriors. Like most everyone I talk to, Myers wants to know how Swift is doing. Not in basketball but in life.
“I feel bad I couldn’t help him,” says Voigt. “I hope somebody can.”
“He caught the bad side of the business,” says Casey Hill, now the coach of the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Warriors of the D-League. “An NBA athlete who has a lot of money who’s 18 or 19, with parents who’ve taken advantage of him... ” He trails off.
“How much pain was he in?” wonders Sherman Alexie, the author, poet, and a key figure in the save the Sonics campaign in Seattle. “How much pain did he carry into the league? Was he doomed to fail?” Alexie, a recovering alcoholic, says he feels "total empathy and hope for his recovery.”
Others only speak off the record, or are protective, agreeing to talk only after they’ve cleared it with Swift. Some, like Davin Johnson, a pastor and the sports ministry director at Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin, Calif., have hopes for him. Johnson says he received a message from the Lord instructing him to help Swift. The two met for heart-to-hearts. At his urging, Swift began attending a men’s group on Wednesdays, even played the role of God in a dramatization of David and Goliath, though in this case the Almighty wore jeans and a white undershirt. Johnson calls Swift “an overcomer.” The next step, he says, is sharing his testimony. “It’s one thing to do it privately and another publicly,” Johnson says one morning, as Christian rock blares at the Destiny athletic facility. “But think of the difference he can make, the lives he can impact. He’s got the story, but is he ready to share it?”
Two weeks pass. Swift texts. He’s ready to talk. About all of it. So here we are, in his room on the third floor of the Extended Stay America Hotel in Roseville. Outside, I-80 rushes by, just down from the credit union, 7-Eleven and Family Christian store. Plastic shelving holds Campbell’s Chunky soup, next to giant bottles of protein powder. Melatonin and supplements surround his bed. A drained sixer of Sudwerk beer rests on the floor, next to empty fast food bags. The closet is draped with hoops gear. A pile of books leans against his backpack; once interested in philosophy, the man who now uses the runic alphabet to jot private notes reads tomes like The Philosophy of the Dark Knight and a Game of Thrones companion book. He clears clean laundry off a swivel chair for me, apologizing for the mess. “I’ve clearly done nothing but go to the gym the last week or so,” he says.
Over the course of a long afternoon he relives it all, periodically taking hits off the vaporizer. He never evades questions or avoids eye contact. The restless body and nervous laughter disappear. Asked who is to blame—What happened to you?—he doesn’t hesitate. “It was my decision to do all that, no one else’s. Even if there were other people putting the wrong ideas in my head or the right people not around, it was still my decision.”
His words recall treatment mantras; whether Swift internalized the lessons during his brief exposure or figured them out on his own is hard to tell. He’s eschewed therapy since his release, believing that listening to others and not trusting his gut was what got him in trouble. He says he hasn’t thought of using in 19 months. “It was my decision to start and it was mine to quit,” he says. He hates the excuse of addiction, that it’s a disease, not a choice.
Told this might be hard for some to relate to, he nods. “I can understand and respect that but if I choose not to, then I’m not doing it. I understand not everybody can do that, but that’s how I am.”
All Swift can do is hope you believe him. He talks about how he is “older and less emotional.” How he can understand a GM’s perspective now. The “downward spiral,” as he terms it? “I was lost, angry, scared,” Swift says. “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.” He pauses. “If me of all people can make it back, I know other people can.”
Besides, he says, he has a support system now. During our conversation, he receives a text from Jordan Wilson, his phone cackling with the sound of the Joker (Swift is a huge Batman fan). A quiet 24-year-old point guard, Wilson played at William Jessup University, a Christian school in Rocklin, and then in New Zealand. He and Swift work out four or five days a week. Swift texts him daily. Says Wilson: “I know it’s just an adult league, but it’s kind of refreshing to see how serious he takes basketball.”
Then there’s Shaull, who occasionally loans him money, and insists on meeting me upon hearing I’m writing this story. (He hasn’t spoken to Rhonda, his sister, for 11 years due to a “falling out,” but he pulls me aside to ask that I take it easy on the family.) And, perhaps most prominent, Deon Taylor, a 41-year-old film director (Meet the Blacks, Supremacy). Taylor grew up in Gary, Ind., earned a scholarship to San Diego State and then played in Germany. A loud, joyful man with a thin mustache who says things like “HOW’S THE DAY GOING FOR YOU MAN?!” and namedrops Jamie Foxx and Justin Timberlake, Taylor hooped with Swift and then took him on as a project of sorts. He hooked Swift up with a lawyer, Chris Fry. Dropped off hightops. Paid for two stints at the Extended Stay. “I ended up just really caring about him,” says Taylor. “My biggest thing with Swift has been, allow basketball to put you in a place to be successful but you don’t live for basketball. If you don’t make it back to the NBA, it’s not the end of your life."
Taylor pushes Swift to think beyond the court. What’s the bigger plan? What’s next? When I pose these questions to Swift, he says he can’t afford to think that far ahead. That if he thinks basketball won’t work out, for even a minute, “it will destroy me.”
The road back is complicated. Fry, who says he’s working pro bono for the moment, describes a succession of obstacles. Swift owes a significant sum in child support; when the NBA recently released a six-figure residual check to Swift, Fry says the state of Washington froze it. Fry hopes to renegotiate the debt, and the monthly fee, now that Swift no longer has an NBA income. “It’s counterintuitive,” says Fry. “They’re taking away money so he can’t make money.”
Then there’s the job market. Some countries don’t allow felons to play, so Fry is targeting Japan—“the only country that is a pretty realistic, actual candidate.” He says he hopes to discuss the matter with the NBA. (The league office would not speculate on anything specific to Swift.) Though he’s not usually a sports litigator, Fry is hopeful. “Once they meet Rob, they’ll see,” he says. “He’s a very sweet, very honest guy.”
Swift’s friends list the positives. At 30, he’s younger than Chris Paul and LeBron James, with only 97 NBA games of wear-and-tear on his body. “He’s definitely a guy [D-League teams] would go look at,” says Myers. “It’s hard to find big guys. But you have to earn it.” Myers pauses. “It’s hard for me because I’m so biased. I want to give him a chance. It’s something I’d love to look at. Just for his life, to get back in a good place.”
A good place. The term is relative. Swift laments that he still has yet to see his son again but knows he needs to get his own life in order first. Everyone I talk to in Roseville thinks Swift is still clean, though of course no one is with him all the time. Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says someone with Swift’s profile has factors in his favor: He began using later in life (starting in your teens leads to a greater risk of relapse);, his use was relatively short-term (years, not decades); and he lacks what Compton calls “co-occurring psychological problems.” Swift has also found a positive social environment and a larger goal (crucial for keeping momentum). Then again, Compton notes that, “alcohol is notoriously related to relapse.” Stressful situations are similarly perilous. Still, Compton is heartened: “The idea that someone can pull their life together is an important message, and whether it’s done through treatment or in unexpected ways, it’s done at great personal dedication.”
In Swift’s case, it’s been on his own, and with people like Taylor. “I don’t know his family,” says Taylor, “but for me, dude, your family has to be there to help you. You know, you should always have a floor to sleep on.” It is difficult to unravel Swift’s family dynamic. While Swift is open about his addiction, he doesn’t like to talk about his parents in detail. The living allowance he gave them in Seattle that I’m told ran into the tens of thousands per month? The idea that, according to one person, they “treated him like a reverse scholarship”? He says he made his own decisions. What about the opinion that his parents saw him as an NBA player first and a son second? He produces a pained grin. “That’s not the first time I’ve heard that.”
He only reopened communication over the last year and a half. It’s still a work in progress. He says of his mother, “She’s borderline senile and very, very much opinionated and if it’s not her way, it’s wrong. I might have her number, I don’t know. I only talk to her on Facebook.” On the other hand, Rob also proudly shows me photos. Of his sister, with dyed blue hair and a tattoo that reads I’M FINE, which, if seen from another direction, reads SAVE ME. Of his dad, young and with a brilliant tattoo of Rhonda, watched over by a samurai, on his upper arm. Of his grandfather, with Rob on his lap. You only get one family, after all. When I hear Rob end a phone conversation with Bruce, he says, “I love you, Dad.”
I’m also with Rob when he reads a text from Rhonda the day after he’d learned about an NBA residual check. His mom says she’s happy for him. She also says they could really use $10,000.
When I finally speak to his parents, it’s after weeks of trying and then only because Rob asks Bruce to talk. He has a new job in Las Vegas, where the couple now lives. He also filed for bankruptcy again this past June, according to public records. On the phone Bruce is cordial but wary. He describes Rob as, “a very caring guy” who is also “extremely smart and extremely stubborn.” Of Rob’s leap to the NBA, he says it was, “his decision, flat out.” Rob’s 20s? “As a parent, you can’t make decisions for him.” And: “He didn’t need me watching over him.” And: “I tried to be a parent and let him have his room.” Their hope for Rob now, he says, is “that he gets where he wants to be. That’s all I can offer now. If he wants to get back to the NBA, I hope he gets there, if that’s his desire. All I can say is, I wish the best for him.” Rhonda declines to speak.
Rob says he’s trying to maintain the relationship while holding the line. “The way I look at it now is I’m going to do what I need to do to take care of myself first and after that, if they need help, I’ll see what I can do,” he says as we walk to his car. “But until I’m back to where I need to be, that’s one thing I’m going to be a little selfish about.”
In the weeks to come Swift plays in various league games, proudly sending along his stat lines. A month later, in early September, I’ll watch him play in a championship game in Roseville. He’ll be named Co-MVP of the league that night, and enter the three-point contest (5 of 15, from the NBA line) and play an inspired game, passing out of double teams, protecting the rim, and finishing strong, ending with 28 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 blocks in a blowout win.
He’ll also tell me he hasn’t eaten anything other than protein shakes for two days because he ran out of money again. He’ll drag himself up the gym stairs on account of his aching back. He’ll look winded at times, yanking on his shorts. His hotel room will be messier than before, littered with fast food bags and Coors Light cans and laundry, and this time his apology for the clutter is half-hearted. He’ll tell me he hasn’t slept much in two weeks, from the stress, and that it’s too much to worry about being broke and training and also having to be the one texting coaches and finding a place to play, and that he’s hoping to get his lawyer going on that, but that he’s not a sports guy so it’s tough. And at the end of the day I’ll feel a sadness creeping over me, because now I too am rooting for Swift, am hoping this is just a blip because he’s worked so hard. And I’ll worry about how a flame, once lit, can whisper out so quickly.
That evening I’ll buy Swift dinner twice, the second time at In-N-Out, and I’ll look through some of his old writings—he’s working on a fantasy novel—and feel a sense of relief when he learns that Taylor, who’s been busy on a movie shoot, has come through again and put up more money for his room, which he’s only still in based on the goodwill of the front desk clerk. Now it’s paid through the weekend, Swift will tell me, and he won’t have to take all his stuff and find another couch. “I’m all good now,” he will say.
And he will be. For one more night at least.