Swen Nater

March 20, 2008

Who am I? Where am I?

I don’t know. It depends. A guy who wishes he could build a fort out of couch cushions. A guy ready to spend the next four days dissolved in a solution of basketball. A guy looking back. 

Twenty-seven years ago I bought a couple packs of basketball cards just as my interest in baseball cards was waning. Basketball was taking over. I got two Swen Nater cards.

A few years later I was in college. I decided to try out for the college team.

Who was I? Where was I?

I was a basketball player in America. It was 1988.

At the top of the basketball world in America in 1988 was Magic Johnson. Magic Johnson was the star of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers were the champions of the National Basketball Association.

There was some minor league basketball being played in America in 1988, but the most talented players in America not playing in the NBA were in college. College basketball was divided into many levels. At the top level was Division I of the NCAA. There were then, as now, many conferences in Division I, some better than others, each conference with its own smaller internal hierarchy, each individual team with its own even smaller individual hierarchy. At the very top of the mountain of NCAA Division I basketball that year was Danny Manning, star of the National Champion Kansas Jayhawks. I don’t know who was at the very bottom of the hierarchy of NCAA Division I basketball, because easily accessed records are not kept on the worst player on the worst team in the worst conference of NCAA Division I basketball.

But I do know that below NCAA Division I basketball is NCAA Division II basketball. I don’t know who was at the top or bottom of that organization of conferences and teams and players. I can however tell you that below NCAA Division II basketball is NCAA Division III basketball.

And below all three divisions of NCAA basketball is the NAIA.

I’m not sure what NAIA stands for. But it is a college basketball federation that has its own hierarchy of conferences and teams and players. Some good players have come out of the NAIA, such as He of the Blond Perm of Unmatched Magnificence (Jack Sikma) and Scottie Pippen. They most likely played on the best teams in a top conference in the NAIA. But this isn’t about them.

In 1988 the worst conference in the NAIA was the Mayflower Conference, a small collection of little-known state-funded schools in northern New England, that regional hotbed of skywalking, rim-rattling basketball talent.

The worst team in the Mayflower Conference, by far, was the Johnson State Badgers.

The Johnson State Badgers employed an unorthodox roster configuration that designated 10 players as team members in full and six other members as “alternates.” The alternates took turns suiting up in the remaining two team uniforms, two alternates for each game. A few games into the fruitless season, all but one of the alternates had gotten some end-of-humiliating-blowout playing time. This final alternate accompanied the team to a game in Plattsburgh, New York. The outcome of the game was never really in doubt, but somehow the Badgers managed to keep the game from being a rout, which of course made it impossible to insert the final alternate into the game. With a couple minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Badgers somehow still weren’t without a slim hope for a miracle comeback. Their first- (and last-) year coach, a befuddled English teacher, realized that the only chance for such a victory hinged on the old strategy of sending the other team to the foul line and hoping they missed. He identified the opposing player most likely to clank free throws and started shouting at the guy guarding him.

“Luneau, foul number 32!” he shouted. “Luneau! Luneau! Foul 32!”

Luneau either didn’t hear or didn’t want to hear, and merely kept trying to play tough defense. He was a good player. He had his limitations, to be sure, but he was a good scorer and a relentless offensive rebounder. He was certainly not the worst player in the world. He had his pride.

“Luneau! Luneau! Foul 32!”

The English teacher’s voice had begun to crack. The gym was mostly empty, so his pleading could easily be heard above the bouncing basketball and the squeaking of sneakers on the floor. Finally he spun away from the action in disgust and looked at the players seated behind him on the bench. He spotted the last alternate.

“Wilker,” he said. “Get in there and foul 32.”


  1. 1.  At least he knew your name.

  2. 2.  1 : That’s true. But it was a pretty small school and I’d been in a couple of his essay-writing classes by that time.

    By the way, I originally wanted to write about Swen Nater, but his interesting story became yet another a victim of my ravenous self-absorption.

    So here’s the first in a series of “Did You Knows” about Swen Nater:

    Did You Know Swen Nater was born in Holland? I always assumed he was from a Nordic country, but he was born in the coastal Dutch city of Den Helder. My wife and I were in Den Helder last year. Unable to find a taxi or bus to take us from the train to the ferry over to the island of Texel, we ended up walking a long, long way through Den Helder with our pretty heavy suitcases. Because of that ordeal, my wife refers to Nater’s birthplace as “Den Hell.”

    Nater was the first prominent NBAer from Holland, preceding the more obviously Dutch Rick Smits, but there was actually a guy named Hank Beenders from the old BAA (predecessor of the NBA) who played for a few years. Hank Beenders (from Haarlem, where he presumably starred in the Ruucker Leegue) was one of eight guys from Long Island University to enter the pros in 1947.

  3. 3.  You may know that Swen Nater was Bill Walton’s backup at UCLA, but Did You Know that Swen Nater outrebounded and outscored Bill Walton as a pro? (Also, Swen Nater never lost a game in his two years as a collegian, whereas Walton lost in his senior year to David Thompson and NC State, a loss he is still haunted by.)

  4. 4.  Did You Know that Swen Nater was given up for adoption as a young boy and then reunited with his parents three years later on a Dutch “This Is Your Life” reality show?

  5. 5.  Did You Know (this is the last Did You Know, I think) that Swen Nater writes poetry and tutors big men on post play and is the greatest San Diego Clipper of Them All and has his own website (http://www.swennater.com/index.htm) and is the only man to ever lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounding?

  6. 6.  For what it’s worth, though I love baseball, I never collected baseball cards. I think I would have liked it, knowing how I enjoy pouring over data now, but I didn’t so have avoided your blog like the plague because of a perceived lack of interest.

    However, after mentions by both Neyer and Weisman I read a few of your posts and you have a real gift for words. It’s one of the new highlights of my day. Your moments of introspection are really more interesting than Swen Nater anyway, so I’d like to encourage you to keep indulging your ego. Thanks.

  7. 7.  Ah, the bait and switch!

    Did you know that Swen Nater, while never in any way an adequate Center to replace the Captain, was somehow beloved by Laker fans who would chant his name?

  8. 8.  The thing I remember about 1988 college basketball is Danny Manning’s teammate Scooter Barry. I felt sorry for him because his name was Scooter, so I rooted for him to finally have something he could be proud of. I imagined him showing tapes of the championship game to his grandkids and saying, “My name might be Scooter, but I used to be somebody.”

    Then I found out who his dad was and who his brothers became. He was the worst basketball player in his family. Now I imagine him drinking himself stupid and crying himself to sleep every night.

  9. 9.  National

    The 1986 NAIA champ was David Lipscomb. I assume that the school was named after Mr. Lipscomb and it wasn’t just one guy.

  10. 10.  9
    I heard David Lipscomb beat William & Mary in a game of 1-on-2. Mary was always late to double team.

  11. 11.  There is a park by my folks house and I watch Division III baseball and softball games there. It’s entertaining and the kids are playing because they love the game. Basically, if you set up some chairs, I will watch your wiffle ball game.

  12. 12.  I was expecting a Tim Stoddard card. But, as Pat O’Brien used to say, March Madness rolls on.

  13. 13.  10 OK, that was really funny.

  14. 14.  If this card was from the 80-81 season and it was a regular season game, I’m guessing that it was from Friday night, November 21, 1980. The Clippers lost to the Bullets that night 102-90 to extend their losing streak to 7.

  15. 15.  14 : Nice. I can’t help but think that Nater has just cleared a defensive rebound and is looking, in vain, to pass the ball to his erstwhile Clipper teammate World B Free, who by that season had moved on to Golden State.

  16. 16.  Plattsburgh!. I was in lust with a woman from Plattsburgh in the early 80’s. Tragically, it never became anything.

  17. 17.  14. was a guess, Josh. I don’t really know NBA uniforms from that era, but there is a sign in the pic that says Washington. They could be in Seattle, too, for all I know.

  18. 18.  17 : That’s definitely the Washington Bullets, who used to be the Capitol Bullets who used to be the Baltimore Bullets who used to be the Chicago Zephyrs who used to be the Chicago Packers and are now the Washington Wizards playing the San Diego Clippers who used to be the Buffalo Braves and are now the Los Angeles Clippers.

  19. 19.  Superficial points here. In this picture, Nater looks like the most muscular white center I’ve ever seen, almost looking like he might have been on the clear, oh yeah, it was the 70’s…
    Also, with the mustache, the sophisticated Dutch good looks, the classic Cali tan… he could have been the greatest porn star of his generation if he would have went that way. A cross between Harry Reems and Eric Edwards.

    My vote for greatest dutch center of all-time would be Rik Smits, just edging out Nater.

  20. 20.  19 LMAO at the visual of a 7′ porn star – “Every 1s a Spinner Babe – Volume 37”. Would he need a porn name? Maybe just one name – Sven – would be enough. Dutch Master? Van Gough? Carl Hung? (Not a Karl Hungus reference – he’s German.)

  21. 21.  19 : Yeah, doesn’t he look like a guy who other centers around the league must have dreaded playing against? (“Oh, Christ. Nater.”) He looks strong, sharp-elbowed, clumsy, unorthodox. Just an all-around black-and-blue factory.

    Smits was a really potent offensive player. Nater’s rebounding numbers are pretty phenomenal, though. I never got to see him play, though, except in his last year, when he was a human victory cigar with the Lakers, so I can’t make the call on who was better.

  22. 22.  BTW, Josh. I joined the overthehill gang myself Monday. After work, I went to some new Irish place next door to work. My brother and a couple of friends showed up. An hour later some of the folks from worked stopped by as well, including the receptionist mentioned in the Carl Morton thread. I think that I was drinking Guinness for five hours straight and some shots were consumed, including a couple of Belfast car bombs. There was an 18 and a half minute gap in my memory were I apparently told that poor girl all sorts of weird kinky things that I wanted to do with her. She’s still talking to me, so maybe it wasn’t that bad.

    Left my car at work and went back home with my brother. Hadn’t eaten since noon so I ordered a pizza while we watched the Celtics come back against San Antonio. Actually, I watched the game while he passed out. The pizza took two hours to get delivered because the driver had no cellphone and apparently my intercom was broken. My bro told me that he’d stay the night and give me a ride to work. But he smoked six cigarettes, drank three bottles of my Poland Spring, and jetted at 5.

    I couldn’t sleep well myself. The CPAP mask was bugging the hell out of me that night and I was trying unsuccessfully to replay my Watergate tape in my head before I finally yanked the mask off of my head and got a couple of hours shuteye during the dawn.

    I wound up walking to work Tuesday. Jonesing for a Pop Tart, I stopped into two gas stations. Neither of them caried them, so I settled for some offbrand stale pastry.

    At least you have your wife, Josh.

  23. 23.  Is it too soon to do a whole series on white centers…Henry Finkel, Randy Breuer, Paul Mokeski…

  24. 24.  Chuck Nevitt….Greg Kite…..Mike Smrek…..

    I, too, was once a designated fouler.

    I wasn’t fast enough to catch the guy, though.

  25. 25.  Mel Counts… Mark Eaton…

  26. 26.  Did you know that Swen Nater, in terms of something called “Defensive Rebound Percentage”, is the greatest defensive rebounder in professional basketball history? Walton is second.

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