Trash-talking, fancy-dribbling Harley “Skeeter” Swift has scored some street cred.
The man who brought elements of streetball to East Tennessee State basketball and helped pave the Bucs’ way from the Ohio Valley Conference cellar to the Sweet 16 can now drive down memory lane. ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland announced this week that Skeeter Swift Lane will become a part of campus.
“I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. … While you were a student here, you took us to heights that we’ve not had since,” Noland said at a luncheon Wednesday.
Swift was an All-OVC first team selection each of his three varsity seasons in an era when the integrated league produced numerous draft picks and frequently triumphed against segregated power conferences. He was the league’s player of the year in 1968 and the coaches’ co-player of the year in ’69.
Swift had a game-high 22 points and 10 rebounds to help ETSU reach the Sweet 16 with a win against Dave Cowens-led Florida State in the 1968 NCAA Tournament. He was 18-for-18 at the foul line in the NCAA Tournament.
Swift scored a team-high 20 points in ETSU’s win at No. 9 Duke his senior season (1968-69). He also scored a record 41 points at Western Kentucky when the Hilltoppers had three future pros, including Jim McDaniels, who led them to a Final Four.
Hall of Famer George “The Iceman” Gervin got a kick out of learning that his gabby San Antonio Spurs teammate got a street. He needled Swift, who never hesitates to tell how he beat Gervin and Louie Dampier in a 3-point shootout at a Spurs reunion.
“Skeeter can be like Ice with a street … ha-ha,” Gervin texted after pointing out that he lives at 44 Gervin Pass.
Many of those in attendance Wednesday were reminders of Swift’s improbable journey. Bob Mason, a teammate at George Washington High School (Alexandria, Va.) and on ETSU’s freshman basketball team, recalled having to go before ETSU dean Calvin Mercer during their freshman season after too much late-night fun led them to campus cops.
“I thought we were getting kicked out,” Mason said. “We probably would have if it wasn’t for Skeeter.”
Their freshman coach, Gary Scheuerman, might not have complained. He’s formed a meaningful bond with Swift in recent years, but Scheuerman left Madison Brooks’ ETSU program after a season coaching Swift thanks, in part, to Swift running a Brevard player into the wall with a hard foul. (Swift says it was retaliation.)
Scheuerman attended this week’s ceremony. He smiled and shook his head while thinking about how the loose cannon that shot Scheuerman’s Baby Bucs past Tennessee with 26 points when the Vols had Bill Justus and Billy Hann was being honored with a road.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Scheuerman said. “He’s come a long ways. It’s my pleasure to know Skeeter and have coached him.”
ETSU legendary track coach Dave Walker and Jack Maxey also attended. Then an ETSU assistant coach, Maxey recommended that coach Madison Brooks offer Swift a scholarship.
It wasn’t an easy call. Swift, who has bipolar disorder, was hardly a model student. Interest that had initially come from Frank McGuire (South Carolina), Bones McKinney (Wake Forest), Gene Bartow (Valparaiso), Lefty Driesell (Davidson) and many others had dwindled down to ETSU due to academics and the fact that Swift was—at the peak of recruiting season—a 6-foot-1 ½, 240-pound guard.
Swift also played poorly in the state tournament in Richmond, and no-showed on Maxey after a last-second loss.
“It’s quite a story,” said Maxey, who signed ETSU’s first handful of African-American players, including Tommy Woods and Ernie Sims, and had Howard Porter coming before ETSU administrators botched it. “I guess Skeeter was so disgusted that he didn’t show up. So I left him a message and told him I’d be in contact with him. He still has the note.”
When they met, Maxey told Swift he must lose weight. Brooks was less diplomatic.
“When Brooks first saw how stocky he was,” Maxey said, “he said, ‘I didn’t want a football guard, I wanted a basketball guard.’”
Maxey said Swift lost 30-35 pounds and got down to 204 to earn a scholarship. He also grew to 6-foot-3. Maxey wasn’t surprised Swift went on to a five-year pro career that was cut short by a knee injury.
“It was just a matter of him getting down to a playing weight,” Maxey said. “And he had the temperament. He was confident, cocky, but he could back it up.”
Also in attendance was Sam Campbell, a GW assistant coach in football and basketball when Swift became a legend by drop-kicking a game-winning field goal after a bad snap and making a length-of-the-court shot – both on Friday the 13th.
Swift and numerous Northern Virginia coaches credited Campbell and then-GW head basketball coach Clay Estes for pushing the right buttons to help Swift overcome a challenging upbringing.
“We were trying to help a young man, but give him the credit,” Campbell said. “He was a listener as well as a talker. I think somewhere maybe his sophomore or junior year he began to realize that basketball might be his way out.”
Swift lived with other families his final two years of high school and often stayed elsewhere long before officially moving out, and the rough childhood left a chip on his shoulder.
“He was at our house one time between years at East Tennessee,” Campbell said, “and he said ‘I’m gonna get this degree, and when I do I’m gonna go up and down King Street and wave it to the all the people that said I’d never make it.’”
Swift went to great lengths to get an ETSU degree, although studying initially wasn’t one of them. Eventually, he figured out he was cheating himself, thanks to an assist from Mary Herrin. She caught him cheating in Preparation for Marriage—a stunt which would prove ironic—and after hearing him mispronounce ignorant (igger-unt) she prescribed a course in public speaking as punishment.
Swift appreciated Herrin’s interest, grew to like public speaking and, after his rookie season with the New Orleans Buccaneers, returned to thank her.
“She said, ‘Skeeter, I’ve only done one thing wrong, I taught you how to speak and now you won’t keep your damn mouth shut,’” Swift said, suggesting he was paraphrasing by apologizing to Dr. Noland.
Swift has been married five times, but he’ll tell you he hasn’t been divorced since being diagnosed with a chemical imbalance. He met Demetria Harr when he was near a nervous breakdown some 19 years ago, and he paused perhaps five seconds while his lips quivered and his eyes glistened before introducing her Wednesday.
Another lady special to Swift was present. Martha Culp, 97, was being honored with Martha Culp Avenue. ETSU’s First Lady when he was in school, Culp has often talked about how “Skeeter” arrived as a “maverick” that required “taming and civilizing” by men such as Brooks and football coach/athletic director John Robert Bell.
“I’m so proud of that young lady over there,” Swift said while smiling at Culp from the podium. “She was my mentor. … When I was feeling sorry for myself, she’d pick me up by my bootstraps. …
“The one whose fault it is that I got down here is Dr. Jack Maxey. Can you imagine a 6-foot-1, 240-pound guard? He believed in me, and I’m so thankful. … I’ve had so many people be good to me. I’m not a humble person, but I’m truly humbled.”