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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Swen Nater

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Some NBA players go from high school star to an excellent college career filled with highlights followed by time of little consequence as a pro. Swen Nater did it backwards. He didn’t play in high school, and didn’t start on his college team. Then he overcame tremendous obstacles and limited basketball experience to carve out a highly successful professional basketball career. The native of the Netherlands played 12 years of pro ball across three leagues, the ABA, NBA and the Italian pro circuit, including a productive one-year stop in Buffalo.

Swen Erick Nater was born on January 14, 1950 in Den Helder, Netherlands. Swen had a very difficult childhood, partly because his parents divorced when he was three years old. He had an older sister Rene and a younger brother. His mother remarried but the couple could not afford all three children. His mother, the new husband, and his youngest brother moved to the United States and settled in Southern California for a fresh start. They left Swen and Rene on the doorstep of a local orphanage before heading to the USA. The two children spent three long and lonely years with no contact with their parents.

However, some of his parents’ friends learned about the orphaned children in Holland and worked with the producers of the television show “It Could Be You” to arrange a reunion. “Swen’s parents were lured to the show on false pretenses as members of the audience,” former UCLA teammate Bill Walton said at an NBA All-Star weekend speech in 2004. “When they were unexpectedly called on stage, imagine their surprise when their two young children – whom they had no contact for years – came walking out of a makeshift windmill, specially constructed for the reunion.”

After arriving in the United States at nine years old and in the fourth grade, Swen did not know how to speak English. He took his stepfather’s name and was known as Swen Langeberg. He adjusted and assimilated quickly. The only sport he knew was soccer from his home country and had never played basketball. However the young lad kept growing, and became the tallest kid in school.

Swen attended Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. He and his stepfather did not get along. Against his step-dad’s wishes but encouraged by classmates, he went out for the basketball team in his junior year. However his family was poor, so he did not have any gym shoes. He arrived at his first practice in bare feet. “We came out for the first day of practice and there was Swen without any shoes,” Bill Fraser, the coach at Wilson at the time, said. “I said, ‘Swen, get out of here. You can’t try out without any shoes.’” Five minutes later Swen returned to the practice with shoes and Wilson’s star center in pursuit. “Swen says, ‘I’ve got shoes, coach’ and my star center says, ‘Coach, he stole my shoes.’” After confirming they were indeed his center’s shoes, Fraser kicked Swen out of practice. The 6-foot-3 and still growing Swen never played basketball at Wilson. He decided not to go out for the team as a senior.

Swen attended Cypress Community College a short distance from Long Beach. Nater had grown to 6-10 and was noticed walking around campus by Tom Lubin, an assistant basketball coach. Lubin brought him to meet head coach Don Johnson, who had played for John Wooden at UCLA. Again Swen’s stepfather forbade him to play basketball. This time, Swen moved out of the house, took back his Nater name, and joined the team.

He did not play much his freshman year, but he was learning the game and working hard. “When he first came to Cypress he couldn’t jump up and touch the rim two times in a row,” Lubin said. “He was 6-10 and couldn’t dunk. About the only thing he knew how to do was work. In two months he could not only dunk, but dunk behind his head.” As a sophomore all Nater’s hard work paid off as he became one of the most dominant junior college players in California. He averaged more than 20 points a game and about the same number of rebounds. He had a high of 39 rebounds in a single game, a state record that may never be broken. He was named to the Junior College All-American team at the end of the season.

During his sophomore year, fortuitously, the Chargers played the UCLA freshman team at Pauley Pavilion prior to a UCLA varsity game. UCLA head coach John Wooden watched the game in the stands and was intrigued by Nater. Swen really wanted to attend UCLA but, despite his excellent game against the Bruins’ freshman, Wooden was undecided. After all, he didn’t need a center with Walton arriving soon. Eventually he offered Swen a scholarship.

“I’m going to make you two promises,” Wooden told Nater. “One, you’ll probably never ever get off the bench. But two, you’re going to get a chance every day to practice against the best player in America, and I promise you, the best coaches in American are going to work with you every day.”

Nater entered UCLA as a junior in the fall of 1970. He practiced with the varsity when he first arrived at school and it was thought that he would play on the freshman team. As the preseason progressed Nater lobbied the coaching staff to be redshirted so that he could gain further experience and seasoning without using up his two years of eligibility that he had remaining.

UCLA had won five consecutive national championships and seven of the previous eight. In the fall of 1971, Nater joined a team with sophomore 7-footer Walton, forwards Jamaal Wilkes and Larry Farmer and guards Henry Bibby and Greg Lee. UCLA repeated as NCAA champions with an undefeated 30-0 record. Nater played in 29 of the 30 games and averaged 6.7 points per game while also snaring 4.8 rebounds per contest. His biggest battles were in practice as he matched up with Walton on a daily basis. His role was to make Walton a better player. He succeeded, as Walton led the team with a 21.1 ppg scoring average and he hauled down 15.5 rebounds per game. “The best center I’ve played against is Swen Nater in practice. Swen is tougher on defense and a fine offensive player,” Walton said when asked how tough it was to play against Ohio State’s All-Big Ten center Luke Witte.

Nater made his collegiate debut on December 3, 1971, and scored 16 points in the Bruins’ 105-49 victory over the Citadel. He also had double-digit points in wins over Iowa and Texas A&M. In the national championship game against Florida State, Nater replaced Walton in the second half when Walton went to the bench with his fourth foul. Nater played well in the six minutes that Walton was out, and the Bruins still led by nine points when Walton returned. UCLA defeated Florida State, 81-76, for the title.

In April Nater was selected by the Floridians in the ABA Draft. The Floridians went out of business, and in a dispersal draft in June, Nater was picked by the Virginia Squires. Swen decided to return to UCLA for his senior season. But first, Nater tried out for the U.S.A. Olympic team for the 1972 summer games. During the tryout Swen was the leading scorer, averaging 21 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. However, after making the team, Nater lost 20 pounds because the players had to eat their main meal immediately after practice. That did not work for Nater, and no special accommodations would be made, so he told coach Henry Iba that he would leave the team - and did.

Nater regressed some his senior year in 1972-73. He averaged only 3.2 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in a backup role to Walton. The Bruins again dominated college basketball, reeling off another 30-0 season. Nater’s best games of his senior season were a 14-point output in a 96-64 win over Washington State and 10 points and 12 rebounds in a 90-65 win over California that clinched the Pac-8 title.

Swen took some pride in knowing he pushed Walton throughout his two years practicing against him. "I really understood the concept of team basketball, not just in the games, but in the roles you play in practice," Nater said later to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Some guys didn't understand it and pouted. I didn't. No one outworked me, not even Bill. I had fun challenging Bill. I gave him everything he could handle. That was an investment on my part and it paid off."

Nater completed his career by playing in 58 games and averaged 4.9 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. In his two seasons at UCLA the Bruins were 60-0 with two NCAA championships. Swen became the only member of his family to ever graduate from college. Nater played in the Pizza Hut All-Star game for graduating seniors and was named MVP. He also played in an exhibition series against the Soviets.

On April 24, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Nater in the first round of the 1973 NBA Draft with the 16th overall pick. Nater became the first NCAA college basketball player to be drafted in the first round without ever having started a college game. Swen decided to sign with the Virginia Squires and inked a three-year contract for $300,000 on May 1. Since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was Milwaukee’s starting center, Swen thought he would have a better opportunity to play with the Squires.

He made his ABA debut on October 11, 1973 in a 133-96 loss to the Carolina Cougars. Swen came off the bench to score 18 points and snare seven rebounds. He played only 17 games with the Squires before enigmatic owner Earl Foreman sold him to the San Antonio Spurs. Nater went on to have an excellent rookie season, playing in 79 games while averaging 30.1 minutes per game. He scored 14.1 points and grabbed 12.6 rebounds per game while leading the league in field goal percentage at 55.2 percent. The Spurs reached the playoffs but were eliminated by Indiana.

He was named ABA Rookie of the Year at the conclusion of the season as well as being selected second team All-ABA. Upon winning the ROY award Nater said, “There is a lot of personal satisfaction. It was just not playing and knowing you can play (at UCLA) that bothers you. To win this honor, it’s like taking a chain off.”

Nater played one more season in San Antonio, and increased his scoring average to 15.1 and led the league in rebounding with 16.4 rebounds per game. Nater was again named second team All-ABA. He had 56 double-doubles highlighted by a 24-point and 29-rebound effort against Kentucky and a 25-point and 28-rebound output against San Diego. The Spurs were again eliminated by Indiana in the first round of the playoffs. Swen had some knee problems during the season, and had knee surgery over the summer.

Nater was traded to the New York Nets in June 1975 for Larry Kenon, but lasted there for only 43 games and then was sent back to Virginia. His stats dropped off as his scoring average fell below 10 and his rebound average dipped to 10.1. But he did have the chance to play with Julius Erving with the Nets. “He was a great player and a good guy, too,” Nater said later. “After an away game, the rest of us would get on the bus and go back to the hotel, but Doc would stay and sign autographs until he signed the last one, then take a cab back to the hotel. He did that every single road game.”

The 1975-76 season was Swen’s last in the ABA as his three-year contract expired and the Squires folded. He signed as a free agent with Milwaukee on June 8, 1976. He finished his ABA career with averages of 13.0 points and 13.1 rebounds per game in 233 games.

He played one season with the Bucks that was highlighted by his 33-rebound and 30-point effort in a 126-109 win over Atlanta. The 33 rebounds broke the team record of 30 held by the now departed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Nater finished the season with similar numbers that he had in the ABA, averages of 13 points and 12 rebounds per game.

The Bucks dealt Nater to the Buffalo Braves on June 7, 1977 along with a first round draft choice (13th overall) in exchange for a first round draft pick (third overall). According to Bucks’ general manager Wayne Embry, who wrote about the deal in his book, Braves owner John Y. Brown called Embry and said, “I need a white center.” Milwaukee took Marques Johnson with the newly acquired pick, and he had 10 excellent seasons before a neck injury ended his career. Buffalo traded the pick to the Bulls for a second-round choice and cash in the ’77 draft, which made little sense from a basketball standpoint then or now.

Nater had an excellent season with the Braves, despite the team’s dismal 27-55 record. Swen played in 78 games and scored 15.5 points per game (3rd on the team) and hauled down 13.3 rebounds to lead the squad. Nater’s two best games were a 35-point, 25-rebound effort in a 104-101 loss to Cleveland and a 27-point, 30-rebound game in a 111-107 win versus New Jersey. The rebounding number was fifth in the league. "Every shot was a pass to me; that's the way I thought about it," Nater said. "I couldn't stand not trying. I went for everything."

When the franchise moved to San Diego, Nater went along with the club and over the next five years he became a fan favorite. The Clippers had limited success and never made the playoffs in Swen’s tenure, but that did not keep him from performing well. His best year in San Diego was the 1979-80 season when he was reunited with former UCLA teammate Bill Walton. However Walton was hurt and only played 14 games. Nater played in 81 games and led the league in rebounding at 15.1 per game and also contributed 13.4 points. Swen is the only player to lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounding for a season.

His 1980-81 season was also very good, as he set a career high in scoring average at 15.6 in 82 games. But Injuries began to catch up with him as he continued to have trouble with his knees. Swen only played a total of 28 games in his last two seasons with the Clippers. San Diego traded him to the Lakers on October 10, 1983.

Finally, Nater had the chance to play on a good team in the NBA. Swen played in 69 games and averaged 4.5 points per game while playing a little over 12 minutes per contest. After having spent eight years in the NBA, it was his first playoff exposure. He played in 17 postseason games as the Lakers went down to Game Seven vs. the Celtics in the NBA Finals but were denied the NBA championship. In those games Nater averaged 8.6 minutes and 3.4 points.

The Lakers did not offer Nater a guaranteed contract for the 1984-85 season and he went overseas and played one season for Australian Udine in the Italian League. He led the league in rebounding. This was his last season in pro basketball. He could have kept playing in the Spanish league the following season, but decided to hang up his sneakers. He completed his NBA career having played in 489 games while averaging 12.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

Inspired by his college coach, Wooden, Nater became a teacher after his retirement from basketball. He was an algebra teacher, athletic director and basketball coach at Christian Heritage College in San Diego (now known as San Diego Christian College). He built the basketball program into a power and coached the team from 1985 to 1995, winning a National Christian College Athletic Association national championship in 1990.

Nater then became the community relations director for Price/Costco, a $50 billion enterprise. He has worked there for over 25 years in a variety of roles. Swen is also a published author with several books to his credit, performs magic tricks for any size group, and has penned more than 125 poems.

He and his wife, Marlene, his junior college sweetheart, live in Enumclaw, Washington, a suburb of Seattle and in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. They have two adult daughters, Alisha and Valerie both former college basketball players and college graduates.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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