By Trey Williams
Aptly named bipolar basketball junkie Harley “Skeeter” Swift was often buzzing in your ear and hogging the spotlight.
But the 70-year-old Swift, who died on Thursday after a brief illness, helped East Tennessee State’s basketball team to unprecedented heights before averaging 11.6 points per game during a five-year ABA career cut short by a knee injury.
He was an exceptional player and didn’t mind telling you. Ironically, Swift’s penchant for touting his exploits seems to have clouded his excellence as a player.
A challenging childhood and bipolar disorder helped mold a fascinating character. Swift could come off as the most confident person you’d ever met and one of the most vulnerable – often in a 20-minute window. He could be charmingly offensive.
He’d talk on the phone to Earl Lloyd, the first African-American NBA player, and NBA Hall of Famer George Gervin the way you’d talk to your best friend. Swift was completely without pretense.
Five wives were a testament to his trying ways. So were six coaching jobs in seven years, including a year working for Jerry Falwell at Liberty. But he’d been with his final wife, Demetria Harr, some 23 years since being diagnosed with the chemical imbalance.
“I guess being bipolar helped cause me to do and say some awful stuff,” Swift said one night while Cleveland and Golden State were battling for a title. “But maybe being bipolar was what made me work so hard at basketball.”
He didn’t say it as if it was a worthwhile trade, though some might’ve thought he sold his soul for the ability to shoot and handle a basketball the way he did in an era when many pro players didn’t dribble aggressively with their “off” hand.
Don Eddy, an assistant coach on ETSU’s 1968 Sweet 16 team, repeatedly stressed how hard Swift worked during the summer prior to that historic season when he was interviewed in 2011 for Swift’s biography – “Skeeter: Harley Swift’s Buzzer-Beating, Trash-Talking March through Madness.”
Swift was a legendary character in Alexandria, Virginia, where as a child he regularly visited African-American homes in the 1950s when it was unthinkable to most. And yet he mooned a playground full of African-Americans after not being picked to play during his first visit to the Washington, D.C., blacktops.
“Skeeter mooned everybody and he was cussing us,” said a chuckling Willie Jones, who went on to score 1,982 points at American University. “But what was so surprising was he came back the next week. That’s what I loved about him. He was just a tough monkey.”
He became an instant legend at George Washington High School, where he also started at quarterback. During his senior season Swift drop-kicked what proved to be a game-winning 20-yard field goal on the final play of the first half after a bad snap.
No one could recall seeing such a kick. There hadn’t been a drop-kicked field goal in the NFL since 1937. Coaches and opposing players talked about Swift’s drop-kicked field goal 48 years later like it’d happened an hour earlier.
The drop-kick came on Friday the 13th in September of ’63. Three months later, Swift made a length-of-the-court buzzer-beater in basketball on Friday the 13th.
“Skeeter was a larger-than-life character,” said Bob Mason, who was Swift’s high school teammate in football and basketball and played on ETSU’s freshman team with Swift.
But he was too large for ETSU assistant Jack Maxey’s taste. So after leading George Washington to back-to-back state tournaments, Swift dropped some 40 pounds to receive a scholarship to ETSU, where, 48 years later, he had a street named in his honor.
Swift was first team All-Ohio Valley Conference all three varsity seasons during an era when the OVC was heavily integrated and the ACC and SEC were almost entirely white. That’s an important reason why ETSU beat the likes of Duke and Dave Cowens-led Florida State, which the Bucs beat in the 1968 NCAA Tournament.
ETSU’s freshmen also beat Tennessee in Knoxville when Swift played. George Pitts was Swift’s teammate and Gary Scheuerman was their coach.
Swift talked trash and scored a game-high 26 points against A.W. Davis’ Vols, which included Bill Justus and Billy Hann. Justus and Hann averaged 11.2 and 4.9 points, respectively, the following year on an SEC championship team.
Tennessee coach Ray Mears wanted Swift to transfer to UT, which would’ve been fine with the intense Scheuerman. The challenging Swift got on his last nerve when he made a hard foul at Brevard Junior College (Swift always contended it was retaliation). The following day Scheuerman said he went to varsity coach Madison Brooks and said, in so many words, “either Skeeter goes or I go.” Scheuerman said Brooks made it clear Skeeter wasn’t going.
So the incident essentially ended Scheuerman’s college coaching career as a graduate assistant. He went on to coach at the high school level, and took Melissa McCray-led Science Hill to two state tournaments in the mid-80s.
But Scheuerman and Skeeter grew close. In fact, the three of us went to watch Pitts’ King University host Lees-McRae on Senior Night in late February. After a touch foul was whistled at one point, Scheuerman said it reminded him of the soft contact Skeeter had gotten so worked up about 51 years earlier against Brevard.
Skeeter took the bait for a moment, his intense eyes opened as wide as his mouth. And Scheuerman laughed and patted him on the back while Skeeter began talking about the Brevard player that ran him into the wall for umpteenth time.
That night turned out to be the last time I hung out with Skeeter, who I’d talked to and visited countless hours. As unwitting good-bye scenes go, nothing better could’ve been expected.
Pitts’ team won, we laughed and shared memories and Skeeter was happy that I’d found him a Buccaneer yearbook from his senior year (1968-69). It was part of what, in hindsight, feels like a full-circle kind of year.
Skeeter went to watch the Spurs last spring in San Antonio, where he concluded his pro career. Last summer we celebrated his 70th birthday. And we went to visit Rogersville, where he’d begun his coaching career, and to Mountain City to catch up with 95-year-old Ralph Stout, who officiated many of Skeeter’s games and recommended Swift to ABA coach Babe McCarthy.
Stout’s wife told Skeeter they’d recently celebrated their 75th anniversary. Skeeter quickly countered with the fact that he’d been married five times.
This winter Skeeter went with his son Scott to watch Duke host Appalachian State in Cameron Indoor Stadium, where he’d scored a team-high 20 points in ETSU’s 71-63 win at No. 9 Duke during his senior season. Skeeter also got to see a couple of 3-pointers from Appalachian State’s Patrick Good, who he’d watched play several games in high school.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski had even heard of Skeeter, and visited with him and Scott some 30 minutes after the game. And Coach K sent emailed Scott condolences when Skeeter died.
Skeeter would’ve described this a grand finale: pastor Calvin Duncan is coming to Johnson City to do his funeral on Saturday in Brooks Gym. Duncan helped Skeeter go 61-1 at Oak Hill Academy before scoring more than 1,800 points at VCU and getting drafted 30th overall by the Chicago Bulls.
But he bypassed the NBA to become a preacher, and Skeeter invariably cried when telling Duncan’s rags-to-spiritual-riches tale.
The final score from when ETSU beat Austin Peay in overtime will be lit on the scoreboard. Skeeter hit a buzzer-beater from beyond halfcourt in that one.