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Hard work that paid off

Former NBA player speaks of life at Christian Heritage School fundraiser

Former NBA basketball player Swen Nater speaks to an audience at the Christian Heritage School's annual fundraiser at the Steamboat Grand on Saturday.
Brian Ray

— Anytime opportunity and hard work crossed paths, Swen Nater’s taken advantage.

From no high school basketball to junior college All-American.

From sitting the bench at UCLA to first-round draft pick.



By all accounts, Nater was never the most talented player, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone that’s worked as hard.

When it came down to it, Nater took the daunting situations he’s faced in life and turned them into successes.



Nater shared his story of hard work as the main speaker at the Christian Heritage School’s fundraiser Saturday night at the Steamboat Grand.

“I tell them if you’re in a position in a company or on a team and you really want to move up but can’t, there’s certain things you have to do when the chance comes,” he said.

Whenever those chances came for Nater, he took full advantage.

Nater was born in Holland. When his mom divorced, remarried and moved to America, Nater and his sister were left behind. For three years, they lived in an orphanage. At age 6, Nater and his sister – thanks to the American television show “It Could Be You”- were reunited with their mother in America.

Nater and his family lived in the “semi-ghetto” of Long Beach, Calif. Unlike a lot of stories of rags to riches, Nater said it was never about trying to get out. Like any normal child, Nater was enamored with the intricacies of life.

He was enthralled with everything. More importantly he was enthralled with being the best at everything. Art, music and cars. Nater simply wanted to be the best.

He tried out for the basketball team his junior year of high school, only to get cut. But it wouldn’t have been the Nater way to quit.

Instead, as a 6-foot-9- inch, 175 pound freshman at Cypress Community College who if “I turned sideways with my nose, I looked like a zipper,” Nater saw basketball as a possible future. Nater joined the team and his first year, he didn’t play. That summer, much like art and music did during his childhood, basketball consumed him.

“I was always the one thinking, ‘How can I get better at it?'” he said. “It was try, try, try.”

A friend taught him the hook shot. He did 500 a day. Then on the weekends, Nater would travel to the ghettos and play pickup games.

“I would go and get my butt kicked,” he said. “But basketball was my life. It was all I thought about. It was all I dreamt about.”

That next year, he became a junior college All-American. His junior year, he had his choices of schools: USC, University of Denver, Texas Tech, Florida State and UCLA.

UCLA had a center by the name of Bill Walton and under coach John Wooden, UCLA played only a seven-man rotation. Nater, if he attended UCLA, probably wouldn’t have played much.

But coach Wooden promised Nater something.

“He told me he couldn’t promise me playing time, but I’d get very good training and get the chance to go against the best center in the nation every day at practice,” Nater said.

Wooden also filled a role Nater had been searching for his entire life.

“He’s the dad I didn’t have,” Nater said. “He’s the role model I never had. He was the guy who wouldn’t let me get away with anything that I needed.”

Nater didn’t play much at UCLA until the final 10 games of his senior year. Still, the work he got against Walton and the lessons he learned from Wooden paid off.

Nater made the 1972 Olympic team but couldn’t go because of illness.

Then in 1974, he became the ABA Rookie of the Year. He led the ABA in rebounding in 1975 and the NBA in rebounding in 1980. He’s the only player ever to lead both leagues in rebounding.

After 12 years of professional basketball, Swen retired. To this day, though, he’s never lost his love for the game. He’s worked with big men in the NBA and college games, holds his own big man camp and has authored several books about basketball, including “John Wooden’s UCLA Offense,” who he co-authored with Wooden.

Now 57, Nater wants to get back into coaching. Not at the professional or collegiate level, but somewhere where he can mold basketball players.

“What I really want to do is be a high school basketball coach and teach algebra,” he said. “I want to build a program.”

In the end, Nater said his life story’s a model of not only hard work, but of working smart.

“I got myself ready and the chance came,” he said. “Even if it hadn’t come, it was still worth it because I was working hard.”

– To reach Luke Graham, call 871-4229

or e-mail lgraham@steamboatpilot.com


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