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Former professional basketball player Swen Nater speaks to a gym full of North Harrison High School students who can't help but look up to him. (Photo by Nick Simpson)

Ex-ABA/NBA star speaks at N. Harrison

October 29, 2008
Last Wednesday morning, North Harrison High School students were treated to a visit from Swen Nater, a Dutch-born professional basketball player who made a name for himself in the ABA and NBA from 1973 to 1984.

Swen Nater speaks at North Harrison
Nater gave his speech to a gymnasium full of students and focused his message of success through perseverance and self-acceptance by giving examples from his own life. He began his talk with a reading of the poem "Richard Cory," a favorite from his high school days. Nater told the students that his message was hidden in the poem. He then gave the students a tour of the long winding road that has been his life.

He was born in the Netherlands in 1950 and recalled that while growing up there was only one TV set in his neighborhood. Every week the neighborhood children would gather around the small black-and-white set to watch "Roy Rogers."

"Roy Rogers was my hero," Nater said. "There wasn't a lot of world news then. All I knew about America was cowboys. I thought everyone was a cowboy when I was 5."

In the late '50s, when Nater was still a boy, his stepfather, mother and younger siblings moved to the United States while the two oldest children, Nater and his older sister, had to stay behind because his parents could not afford to bring everyone.

Nater and his sister lived in an orphanage until September 1959, when they were contacted by a popular U.S. game show called "It Could Happen to You." The show paid for Nater's and his sister's flight from the Netherlands to Beverly Hills.

"In 22 hours, I went from staying in an orphanage to staying in a room at a Beverly Hills hotel," Nater said with a laugh.

Nater enjoyed the room service at the hotel, saying that he had never had a cheeseburger or a Coke before.

Nater's parents and younger siblings were invited to the show, but they had no idea what to expect. On the stage, there was a six-foot windmill where he and his sister hid. On their cue, they jumped out and surprised their parents and then ran to them for a big group hug. Nater's family had been reunited.

While growing up in America, Nater's family lived in a ghetto in Long Beach, Calif. Nater went to Wilson High School, an upper-middle class school, where he admitted that he felt "out of place" because he couldn't "afford all the cool stuff" that the kids wore. Nater's extreme height also made him stick out a lot.

Nater said he hung out with the "nerds" at the school because the nerds weren't afraid to be themselves.

While at Wilson, Nater's hero changed from Roy Rogers to Wilt Chamberlain.

He always tried to mimic Chamberlain's moves when he played on his own, often quite unsuccessfully, Nater said. When it came time to try out for the high school basketball team, Nater showed up barefoot since he didn't have athletic shoes and tried all of his best Chamberlain moves, but sadly the coach was unimpressed and Nater was cut from the team. Nater didn't try out again after that and ended up not playing high school basketball at all.

After Nater graduated from Wilson, he went to Cypress Community College, where he met his future wife, Marlene. His freshman year he was six feet, nine inches tall. When the college basketball coach saw him eating breakfast one morning, he told Nater that he wanted him on the team.

"The first day of practice was horrendous," Nater recalled.

He was not in proper shape for a college basketball team and he still tried to do all his fancy Chamberlain-like moves.

Nater sat the bench for the entire season except for the last four games. However, the next year he was named an All-American and signed a basketball scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles.

Nater got better because he practiced constantly and started playing with his own style instead of copying Chamberlain.

When Nater got to UCLA, he found out that future NBA legend Bill Walton was also going to be on the team. The coach, John Wooden, told him that he wasn't going to be playing much because of Walton.

This ended up being true as Nater sat the bench for his first three seasons and only averaged about 2-1/2 minutes a game of playing time.

But Nater was not disheartened by this because he had his out-of-game goals. Wooden told him he had a job for Nater to do.

"He told me to get good enough to challenge Walton," Nater said. " 'Don't try to be like, Bill,' he said, 'Let's see how good a Swen Nater you can be.' "

So, Nater worked hard and gave his all against Walton every day in practice. As a result, Walton got better and so did Nater. After graduating UCLA, Nater became the only player ever to be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft who did not start in college. He was the 16th overall pick, drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1973.

After being drafted, Nater was traded to the ABA Virginia Squires after one season and became the ABA Rookie of the Year in 1974 when he led the ABA in field goal percentage. The following year, when he played for the San Antonio Spurs, Nater led the league in rebounding. He was also named to the All-ABA Second Team in 1974 and 1975 and played in the All-Star game both years.

Nater played in the ABA until it was disbanded in 1976. That year he returned to the team that first drafted him, the Milwaukee Bucks. After a season there, he spent one season at the Buffalo Braves and then five seasons at the San Diego Clippers before playing his last season with the L.A. Lakers in 1984.

During the 1979-80 season, Nater led the league in rebounding, making him the only player ever to lead rebounding in both the ABA and the NBA.

Nater also holds the NBA record for defensive rebounds in one half, with 18.

After telling the students how he was able to overcome great odds and ultimately become a successful basketball player, even though there were so many roadblocks in his way, Nater spent the rest of his presentation outlining the "Pyramid of Success" that coach Wooden taught him. The five-tiered pyramid begins with a base of the qualities of Industriousness, Friendship, Loyalty, Cooperation and Enthusiasm and ends with the pinnacle of Competitive Greatness, a term coined by Wooden.

Throughout his talk, Nater peppered his message with humorous anecdotes of his time spent in America as both a foreigner and as a literal giant at 6-11. He even told students about the one time he got to play against Michael Jordan when "His Airness" entered the NBA the year Nater retired.

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