Carolyn Swords is in Portland, Oregon right now, adjusting to her new job. Nike. This is where her basketball journey took her. Nike. Basketball. The shoe – okay, sneaker – suits the 32-year-old just right.
The trip? When Swords was in eighth grade, her friend Sarah Wetmore played AAU basketball. She convinced Swords to come on board. They had played together in the youth league. Not far down the road, they were teammates on a 2007 roster at Lincoln-Sudbury State Regional High School.
At Swords, the ball rolled back and forth. She followed. Distinguished career at Boston College (recently inducted into the Eagles Hall of Fame); nine years in the WNBA after being the 15th pick in the 2011 draft by Chicago Sky; Six Seasons in Europe. She played for the New York Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces. Her coach was Bill Laimbeer at both stops.
Of course, Laimbeer was a dirty word in Boston, linked to his roughhouse style. When his Detroit Pistons faced the Celtics in their high-profile playoff bouts in the ’80s, it wasn’t pretty.
Laimbeer was a bad man. Nowadays that means a good player. Anyway, Swords saw the other side. Laimbeer was a godsend. Sure, she’d heard of his reputation from family members who’d watched those occasionally gory clashes between Celtics and Pistons. The Laimbeer swords encountered another guy. “I learned a lot from him,” she said. “He increased my knowledge of the game.” Laimbeer is six foot 11, Swords six foot 6. You could relate.
On campus: A cut above:A look at Carolyn Swords
Swords retired after the 2019 season, but when Las Vegas center Ji-Su Park went home at 6’1″ tall as the pandemic raged, Swords’ phone rang. It was lamberry. The Aces needed a center. Would she… yes, Swords replied. “I was excited and started basketball practice again.”
It was bubble season in Florida. “We had a short practice time and it was a compressed (regular) season,” Swords said. “We played every other day and tested (for COVID) every day.” The Aces made it to the finals, losing to the Seattle Storm, who Swords played for in 2017.
Looking back, Swords said with a laugh, “I’ve retired (with the Aces) twice.” In between, she worked in the Aces’ front office, basically marketing the team. She visited schools and met with local organizations. “It was relationship building,” she said. “I loved it.”
Building relationships, words that people who knew the teenage swords would immediately subscribe to. It defined her spirit and character. Liza Feldman, Swords Coach at Lincoln-Sudbury, describes her way of going through life as “giving back to the world.”
From the archives:Lincoln Sudbury Star designed by Chicago Sky of the WNBA
“Carolyn has always strived to do the right thing,” Feldman said. “On and off the hardwood.”
Sarah Greeley, Feldman’s assistant, put it that way. “In Carolyn’s freshman year, she was quiet, kind, and conscientious.” Greeley also coached Swords in field hockey. “I would pick her up before school because I had to drive past her house.” The coach had a good read of the boy.
“Carolyn was very humble. With her it was the first team,” recalled then LS sporting director Nancy O’Neil. “She never wanted any attention to herself,” but a six-foot-tall newcomer had little room to hide.
When Swords joined LS, John Ollquist was the head coach. Feldman succeeded him a year later. Ollquist had a firm rule: no freshmen at the university. He placed Swords on the JV team. Ollquist had a strong – and large – team this year. “Carolyn wouldn’t have played much in college. She was kind of raw,” Ollquist said recently. “On the JVs she could play every game, every minute. And she got a lot better.”
Ollquist acknowledged that some parents got into “What are you, crazy?” mode when he didn’t waive his non-freshmen on the varsity rule. “I stuck to my guns,” he explained.
For her part, Swords didn’t feel offended at all. “It didn’t bother me one bit. I had no expectations of going to college. JV was exactly what I needed at the time.”
Greeley led the JV team. “We had some big players (at varsity) that Carolyn could learn from. She practiced against them. She was an incredibly hard worker.”
Plans to retire the Swords number:Eagles step down from Carolyn Swords #30 jersey
Feldman also felt that the JV team was the right place to start for Swords. “I think she needed to get confidence and not have the varsity pressure.”
At the Boston College Swords, he broke records for rebounds and blocked shots and scored 2,029 points, only the second player to surpass the 2,000 mark. Her number, 30, was supposed to be lifted onto the rafters of the Conte Forum during the Eagles game against Louisville on Jan. 16, but the pandemic erased the ceremony. Typically, Swords argued, “It didn’t bother me. I prefer to celebrate when everyone is safe.”
Former Foxborough High star Sarah Behn is the only other BC woman to have had her number retired. Behn coached Framingham State’s women’s team from 1997-2000.
BC trainer Cathy Inglese, who died in the summer of 2019, had recruited Swords. “I was still pretty raw,” Swords said, “but Cathy saw a lot of potential. In high school, I was the biggest player. In the ACC I had to adapt to the pace of the game.”
Swords is already reveling in the new gig with Nike. “It’s exciting. Portland is beautiful. And green.” The job involves working with retired WNBA players and helping them place themselves in Nike positions.
As for work in her busy life: “I’ve always enjoyed getting out and exploring. I like reading on the beach,” Swords said.
You and Laimbeer keep in touch. They both had remarkable careers, tires being the common denominator. He helped her study; she helped him win. Perfect.
“Carolyn,” said Liza Feldman, “is one of a kind.” Many tend to share that notion.
Lenny Megliola can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @lennymegs.