For Swift, no place like home

Basketball: Stromile Swift, a Louisiana native, opted to attend LSU instead of Michigan because he wanted to stay close to home. The Sweet 16-bound Tigers (28-5) are happy he did.

Ncaa Tournament

March 23, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Imagine if Stromile Swift had decided to go to Michigan instead of LSU. Maybe the Wolverines would be here playing Wisconsin in the West Regional semifinal tonight at The Pit, and there would be talk of Swift reviving the legacy of the Fab Five and the Final Four.

But there was one problem about Ann Arbor that Swift, coming from Shreveport, La., didn't like.

"It was too cold," he said.

Not that LSU wasn't without its troubles or Swift without some of his own baggage. The Tigers were on NCAA probation for two years, and Swift, considered among the top five high school players in the country, was not going to be immediately eligible academically.

So why did Swift end up in Baton Rouge?

"He wanted to stay home, he wanted to play for LSU, he wanted to make a difference," said Tigers coach John Brady, who was hired three years ago from little Samford University to clean up the mess left by Dale Brown.

Swift has done that -- and more.

He is not the only reason LSU has gone from doormat in the Southeastern Conference to the league's West Division championship. He is not the only reason the fourth-seeded Tigers are 28-5 and favorites to make it to Indianapolis next week for the school's first Final Four trip since 1986.

But he's a big part of it.

While 6-foot-11 senior center Jabari Smith has given LSU its best inside presence since Shaquille O'Neal and 6-4 freshman Torris Bright its best point guard since Chris Jackson, the 6-9, 225-pound Swift is being mentioned with past Tigers legends in terms of the impact he has made.

Asked yesterday what it was like to be in the same category as O'Neal, as well as Pete Maravich and Bob Pettit, Swift smiled shyly.

"That's an honor, to have my name mentioned with those type of players," he said. "Hopefully, this will be called the Stromile Swift era."

There was thought that the era might not even get started. When it became obvious that Swift wasn't going to qualify academically as a freshman, many of the schools that showed interest backed off. Georgetown did, as did UCLA and Arizona. It came down to Michigan and LSU.

Swift had been a fan of the Wolverines because of Chris Webber. The first NCAA tournament game he remembers watching was the 1993 final between Michigan and North Carolina, the one in which Webber called an extra timeout and the Tar Heels turned the technical foul into their second national championship.

"Even now, at the end of games, I keep asking coach how many timeouts we have left," said Swift.

After sitting out the first semester last season, Swift averaged a respectable but certainly not remarkable 7.6 points and 4.3 rebounds in a little less than 20 minutes a game.

What many recalled was a 21-point performance at Arizona and the fact that Swift blocked 10 shots in a triple-overtime game at Alabama.

The numbers shot up this season.

On a team with all five starters scoring in double figures, Swift led the Tigers with 16.3 points a game. He averaged a team-high 8.2 rebounds. He blocked 95 shots, the most in the SEC. His 60.8 field-goal percentage also led the conference. He was the SEC's co-Player of the Year, a second-team All-American.

Not that he enjoyed all the attention.

"I don't really like being in the spotlight," he said yesterday as a television camera moved in for a close-up in the team's dressing room. "I just like to be out there playing."

Swift said he isn't surprised by what the Tigers have done this season.

He could see the talent around him in the team's informal pickup games last summer, when Bright arrived and took over the point. He could see how well he and Smith complemented each other when they played together.

"We knew we had something kind of special," said Swift.

"A lot of people didn't give us a lot of credit. We've proved a lot of people wrong."

The Tigers did it first by beating Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl tournament in late December en route to a 13-0 start, then crushing Arizona by 26 points in late January. The game against the Wildcats was Swift's big introduction on a national scope; he finished with 29 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and three steals.

It didn't surprise Bright, who, as a high school junior, watched Swift score 40 against his team in the state semifinals.

"When Stro's on his game, nobody can stop him," said Bright.

"If Stro stays in college another two more years, he'll be the best player in the country. After I played against him, I couldn't wait to get here to play with him. When I got there last summer, I was throwing alleys [alley-oops] all day to him."

Swift was on the receiving end of those passes, just as he has been since his years in Shreveport.

One of Brady's promises to Swift was that if he came to LSU, the Tigers would return to Swift's hometown for a game. They did this season, playing Centenary.

And next year? Brady still has only nine scholarship players because of NCAA sanctions.

As Brady said recently, "I don't have any scholarships to give if Stromile leaves."

Talk around Baton Rouge all season was that Swift would bolt for the NBA come spring.

According to Swift, that's all it was.

"It was never a question if I was leaving," Swift said in the team's dressing room yesterday after practice. "I always knew I'd be here."

Certainly not in Ann Arbor.

Too cold.

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