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Out From The Darkness: Robert Swift's road from NBA lottery pick to drug addict to...

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?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Swift complies. 

“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.” 

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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.