The last time I saw Robert Swift, in the fall of 2016, he was broke and had barely eaten in two days. His back hurt, he was having trouble sleeping, and he was about to be kicked out of his hotel room in Roseville, Calif., where mounds of laundry abutted empty Coors Light cans. I worried about him.
At the time, Swift was in year two of trying to come back from a dark place. Drafted out of high school in 2004 by the Sonics, Swift struggled with injuries and depression during his six years in the league. He squandered his money. Felt used by his family. Became sullen and overweight. He ended up in the D-League and then Japan. After that, the descent continued. Heroin, meth, cocaine. He ran through his savings. Lost his house. In 2014, he was discovered at the house of a drug dealer during a raid. Eventually, Swift was arrested on weapons charges and booked into King County Jail.
It was there, once the worst of the withdrawal symptoms subsided, that he came out of it. Swift took a pencil and paper and started making a checklist of what he needed to do to reclaim his life. The last item: play pro ball again.
That was three years ago. This past weekend, Swift debuted for Circulo Gijon, a fifth-division team in Spain. He looked a bit slow, and his lift wasn’t where he wants it to be, but he notched a double-double. Three days later, when I spoke to him by phone, Swift was still glowing. “Honestly it’s been amazing,” he says. “This sounded like a great situation but now that I’m here it’s better than I could have imagined.”
Over the past year and a half, Swift says he’s kept grinding toward his goal. At first, after the Sports Illustrated story came out, he heard from old friends and peers. People offered to help. Bob Myers, his former agent, helped arrange a tryout with the Warriors’ D-League team. Swift didn’t make it, but the experience boosted his confidence. He worked out harder and joined a Christian basketball group, Identity Hoops International, for a US tour. While at another tournament, in Las Vegas, he reconnected with his parents, who he hadn’t seen in half a dozen years. Their relationship has long been complicated. Swift’s not sure why, but this time it went smoothly. He stayed with them for a while. Figured some stuff out.
Meanwhile, Swift finally got an agent, who began working to clear him for a passport. Overseas teams had been reaching out. He just needed to be, as he says, “passport ready”. Then, earlier this year, his lawyer told him to give it a shot. No official notice had come through but why not try? So Swift went to the passport agency, applied, and then waited and hoped. Says Swift: “It came through and four days later I was here [in Spain].”
For now, Swift is living in a four-bedroom apartment with Circulo Gijon’s three other American players, including his good friend from Sacramento, Mike Kuethe, who initially recommended the team to Swift, and Swift to the team. You’ll love it out here, Kuethe told him. So Swift video chatted with the owner. He says the club paid for his flight, and covers two meals a day. He lives, “literally a block from the beach and three blocks from the arena" and speaks enough Spanish to get by. The pay, says Swift, ‘is enough to live on.” If the team finishes first—“when we finish first,” Swift clarifies—then he says he’ll have a guaranteed spot next season, and his salary will triple. Though a lower tier team, Circulo Gijon aims to keep moving up, every year or two. “We’ve got big dreams,” Swift says.
Heroin relapse rates are notoriously high, but Swift says he’s stopped keeping track of how long it’s been since he used. “Honestly, I don’t even know. It’s not an issue. Ever since I got out of county [jail], I never looked back.”
Now he’s hoping to keep this momentum. The team plays again on Sunday. He aims to be more effective, springier. He wants to take advantage of tournament opportunities this summer, then come back to Spain. Create a life around basketball again. On the phone, he is excited. Grateful. Almost giddy at times. He feels like he’s taken the next step. “You know that list that I was telling you about, from prison, about what I want to do with my life?” he says before we hang up. “I guess now I have to sit down and write a new one.”