LOOKING UP TO HIM : Swen Nater Is a Lifetime Rebounder With Valuable Lessons to Pass On
Swen Nater found out early that life was a lot tougher than making a hook shot or battling Bill Walton for a rebound.
Perhaps that’s why Nater never seemed concerned that his goal of playing professional basketball was too high, even though he didn’t play the sport in high school or start against a Division I team while at UCLA. If there is one thing Nater never lacked, it was confidence. He knew that one day, if he played against the best and was coached by the best, he would make it.
That might also be why Nater still talks with reverence of John Wooden, his college coach, and Tom Lubin, the Cypress Community College chemistry teacher who talked him into playing basketball competitively and worked hours with him on his game.
Now that memories of his 12 years as a top rebounder in the NBA are becoming more distant with each season, Nater has different goals. They are more serious, because they affect more than the dreams of just one gangly kid in Long Beach.
Nater is the one being looked up to by players, and not just because he’s 6-feet 11-inches.
Nater and Ray Slagle have shared the men’s basketball coaching duties at Christian Heritage College since Jim Huckaby left after last season to take an administrative position at another college. Nater joined the Christian Heritage staff as an assistant 2 years ago when the NAIA school decided to start its first athletic program.
The co-coaches split the duties, Slagle handling offense and Nater defense. So far the arrangement has worked well: Christian Heritage was 8-2 after Friday night’s victory over Cal Baptist.
Nater admits he never imagined himself in this role, one that isn’t only played out on the basketball court.
“I never thought I’d be a coach,” Nater said. “Now I’m a coach, athletic director and physical education teacher. But I spend less than half my time coaching. I wish I could spend all my time coaching.”
Nater wants to coach more because he wants to be good at it.
“Just because I played so long doesn’t mean I know the game,” Nater said. “I don’t know the game as much as people think I do.
“My goal is to know everything about the game. To become a great end-of-the-game coach.”
But coaching to Nater is not X’s and O’s. It is a tool to help his players, the kind of help he didn’t have when he was younger. This is where Nater is perhaps most ambitious.
“I plan to help kids grow up--in more ways than one,” Nater said. “The biggest, though, would be to have a player come back after he’s done playing--maybe a year or two later--and say, ‘I didn’t understand then but I understand now what you were trying to do--what you meant by tough love. Because it is paying off for me now.’ ”
This may be so important to Nater because of his own childhood. His start as a coach has been a lot smoother than his start in life.
He was born in Den Helder, Netherlands. His parents were divorced when he was 4, and his mother and stepfather left for the United States shortly thereafter. When Nater was 7, he and his sister were abandoned by their father and placed in an orphanage. When he was 9, family friends in Arizona arranged for them to come to rejoin their mother in the United States through a television show called, “It Could Be You.”
Nater’s chief form of exercise during his troubled youth was fighting. He began his freshman year at Long Beach Wilson High School as a gangly, 6-foot youth and graduated 4 years later as a gangly, 6-9 youth.
“Whenever they ran the 50-yard dash, guess who was last?” Nater said. “I couldn’t do one push-up.”
Nater entered Cypress College with no plans to play basketball, a sport in which he only dabbled. Then Lubin, who helped with the team at Cypress, saw him on campus.
“He came up to me and asked me to play,” Nater said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you give it a shot.’ ”
So Nater did. Six hundred to 800 times a day.
“Hours, hours, hours,” Nater said. "(Lubin) started working with me on my hook shot. That was the first shot I ever learned. I shot 300 to 400 a day with each hand. And he wouldn’t let you make one error.
“He was a great coach. He had a way with working with people. He was the same guy who spotted a 7-3 kid changing tires at Mark C. Bloome while at a stop light and got him to play basketball. That was Mark Eaton (still in the NBA with the Utah Jazz).”
Even with Lubin’s encouragement, Nater did not consider taking up the sport seriously at first.
“I was interested in a lot of things,” Nater said. “But I was looking for something to do with my life. Pretty soon, I thought, ‘Wow. I think I can be good at this.’ ”
So Nater played 2 years at Cypress College and then came up with his plan, an unorthodox one for someone interested in the NBA. Nater’s idea was that if he played behind one of the premier college centers for 2 years, even if he hardly ever started, he could successfully play in the pros.
Nater, who was now 6-11, was redshirted his first year at UCLA, then played behind Bill Walton for 2 years while the Bruins won national titles in 1971 and ’72.
“It was like an investment,” Nater said. “I could of had more publicity if I had gone somewhere else. I thought if I stayed with it, all those fundamentals, all that (John) Wooden coaching and all the playing against Bill Walton would pay off.”
Payday came during an all-star tournament in Las Vegas after Nater’s senior year.
“I knew I was a pretty good player,” Nater said. “It finally showed up in the Pizza Hut Classic. I scored 34 points and had 25 rebounds.
“My goal was not college basketball, it was the pros. If my goal was college basketball, I would have gone to another college. I knew I would be a much better pro if I played behind Walton. Everybody has talents, one of mine is accomplishing goals.”
Nater was impressive enough as Walton’s shadow and in that tournament--he was the most valuable player--that Milwaukee drafted him in the first round, the 16th player picked.
But Nater declined the Bucks’ offer. He was finished as a No. 2 man. And Milwaukee had a guy named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing center at the time.
So Nater joined the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Assn., finally ready to show what he could do. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 1973-74 and led it in rebounding (1,279) the next year playing for the San Antonio Spurs.
He went to the NBA--the Bucks--in 1977 after playing for three ABA teams. Nater eventually finished his career with the San Diego Clippers and set single-season team records for offensive rebounds (352), defensive rebounds (864) and total rebounds (1,216) in 1979-80. He also held records for field-goal percentage (.569 in 1978-79) and rebounds in a game (32).
Nater’s career ended the way many players’ did. He suffered a knee injury and gradually faded from the pros.
That’s when he realized that he had made one mistake; he had failed to get a diploma from UCLA. So Nater went back to school and completed requirements for a teaching degree at Christian Heritage this past summer.
That’s one error Nater does not want to see any of his players make.
“I saw so many kids that that was all there was--just basketball,” Nater said. “Afterwards they had nothing except some memories.”