Skeeter Swift, at 63, says he’s just happy to be remembered by anybody, anywhere.
Truth is, folks all over the place find Swift unforgettable. Next week, the current resident of Kingsport, Tenn., will be inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Swift earned the honor by leading unrenowned East Tennessee State University to the Sweet 16 of the 1968 NCAA basketball tournament.
But Swift was born and reared in Alexandria, and he’s also remembered well around here. Morgan Wootten, the iconic former DeMatha basketball coach, recollects him as “one of the great legends of athletics” in our region. Wil Jones, a playground superhero during his days at Dunbar and later as an All-American at American University, remembers him as “the most charismatic guy, and one of the best athletes, to ever come out of this area.” And, as a five-year veteran of the original ABA, he’s occasionally cited as one of only two Alexandrians (along with Earl Lloyd, the first black player in NBA history) ever to play pro ball in the U.S.
Swift’s greatest glories came as a multi-sport athlete at Alexandria’s George Washington High School in the mid-1960s, a time when there was no fame like that enjoyed by the high school star.
“We had so many papers in this town covering us then,” says Swift, in a heavy Southern drawl that he brought with him from Alexandria when he left for college in Tennessee. “We had the Washington Post, the Star, the Washington Daily News, the Alexandria Gazette, and the Northern Virginia Sun covering high school sports. So if you were a good athlete, you were a really big deal.”
Swift was a big enough deal to have the city of Alexandria proclaim a Skeeter Swift Day in the 1960s. (“That was quite an honor,” he says. “But I lost my key to the city.”) By then, Swift had done big things. He was the quarterback on GW’s football team, but the play on the gridiron that helped build the legend of Skeeter Swift came as a kicker. In the opening game of the 1963 season, against Annandale, Swift lined up to kick a field goal, but the holder couldn’t place the bad snap, so Swift grabbed the ball and drop-kicked it 28 yards through the uprights. GW went on to upset the always powerful Atoms, 16–7.
“I always heard he kicked it with his left leg, his off-leg,” says Wootten. “That’s the kind of thing Skeeter Swift would do. What a guy.”
But basketball was where Swift’s heart was, and where his legend was sturdiest. He says his home life as a kid was ruined by alcoholism and abusive family relationships. He wasn’t a good student, either. But the hardwood always provided a refuge. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound guard was named to All-Met teams by all the area’s major publications in both his junior and senior years at GW, despite what he recalls as having “two strikes against” him: “I was white and from Virginia,” he says. None of the other players on D.C.’s 1964 or 1965 all-star teams met those criteria.
Swift worked hard to overcome those handicaps. The boys clubs of Alexandria where he first learned to play had some talent but no one who could challenge him. So he went to where the best players hung out. “When I was in 11th grade, I started riding my bike into D.C. to find the best games,” he says. “I didn’t go to camps. I learned how to play basketball on the best playgrounds.”
He ended up at Kelly Miller playground, a hangout in Northeast where future NBA Hall of Famers and local playground gods Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing once roamed. Swift remembers being immediately awed by the talent level and charisma of the all-black clique of Kelly Miller regulars. He was particularly taken by Wil “Little Willie” Jones.
“I’d never seen anybody like Willie Jones,” Swift says. “He was this little guy who could do it all, and he played like nobody I’d ever seen before, just talking the whole time, talking trash at people while he whipped ’em. I remember the first time I saw him play, he’s running at the hoop and scoring while yelling at the guy guarding him, ‘In your eyes, where beauty lies!’ I said to myself, ‘That guy’s full of shit, but he’s great!’ I’ll never forget him, and I’m so thankful for all those guys at the playground who taught me about the game.”
Jones, now living in Virginia Beach, remembers Swift could talk a good game, too.
“On the playground, whoever had called ‘Next!’ got to pick who he played with,” says Jones. “And here comes Skeeter on his bike, showing up. Nobody at Kelly Miller was going to pick a white boy. Skeeter was the only white boy, and so he sat. Then he started driving over to Kelly Miller with a whole crew of white boys. Just for a second, imagine the magnitude of that, what it took for a [white] guy, in those times, to say, ‘You won’t pick me? I’m coming anyway!’”
And once Swift brought his paleface posse and got on the Kelly Miller court, he showed he belonged, Jones says.
“If you win, you stay on; you lose, you’re gone,” says Jones, who adds that Swift wouldn’t let any black kids join his team, because of how he’d been snubbed himself, but he kept winning anyway. “And as soon as they’d win five in a row,” Jones says, “Skeeter and his crew would all just quit and jump back in the car. Wild-ass Skeeter would moon all of us and call us names driving off. I can see his ass sticking out the window right now! Just so much charisma, a magnetic guy. I love Skeeter Swift.”
Swift didn’t make every squad he wanted to. While at George Washington, he tried out for a traveling all-star squad coached by Wootten. “But Morgan cut me. He said I wasn’t good enough,” Swift says.
Wootten later hired Swift to work at his basketball camps during high school and college. “But he never admitted he made a mistake cutting me,” Swift says, chuckling. “I ended up being a dear friend of Morgan Wootten, and he’s a special individual and a treasure for basketball and for things outside of basketball.…But Morgan could have told me he was wrong.”
Wootten doesn’t feel sorry for Swift.
“Kermit Washington didn’t make that team either, so Skeeter was in great company,” says Wootten. (Washington, from Coolidge High School, went on to average 20 points and 20 rebounds over his career at American University, becoming the last NCAA D-1 player to put up those numbers.)
After his NCAA tourney triumph, Swift was drafted by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks but opted to take an offer from the ABA’s expansion New Orleans Buccaneers. He bounced around to four more teams in as many seasons, and his career ended with the original San Antonio Spurs. When his hoops career ended, Swift transferred his competitive energies to industrial chemical sales. He’s currently battling lymphoma, which he was diagnosed with last summer. He’s been through a round of chemotherapy and is scheduled to start radiation treatments just after his Hall of Fame induction.
“I never got hurt playing ball. So the way I look at it, all in all, my body has been good to me,” he says. “So don’t feel sorry for me.”
Just remember him.