“I was going to America to be a cowboy,” [Nater] recalled. “I wanted to be just like Roy Rogers. I thought everybody in the U.S. was a cowboy. I went from an orphanage to a Beverly Hills hotel in 22 hours. I had room service. I didn’t see any cowboys, though.”
Years Active: 1974 – 1984
Career Stats: 12.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, 0.6 bpg, 0.5 spg,, 53.5% FG, 74.8% FT
Accolades: 1974 ABA Rookie of the Year, 2x All-ABA 2nd Team (1974-75), 1974 ABA Rookie 1st Team, 2x ABA All-Star (1974-75); 1975 ABA RPG Leader, 1980 NBA RPG Leader, 3rd All-Time in RB%
The journey of center Swen Nater to professional basketball is unlike any other. Born in the Netherlands, his mother departed Holland for the United States when he was 3-years old with Swen’s stepfather and one son. Swen, along with a sister, was left behind at an orphanage, waiting for the day their parents saved enough money to send for them. 6 years passed until finally an American television show, It Could Be You, organized the reunion of the Nater family.
Despite no knowledge of English when he arrived in the U.S. and not picking up basketball until his teens, Nater made his way onto the UCLA Bruins basketball team. Again, though, he had to wait. His two years at UCLA were spent backing up All-American Bill Walton. “Back up” is used as loosely as Nater was used sparingly. He averaged 2 minutes a game. However, Bill Walton acknowledged the value of battling Nater in practice to UCLA winning its titles:
“Swen is the best center I’ve played against all year.”
The praise heaped on Nater by Walton and Coach John Wooden encouraged the Milwaukee Bucks to select Nater 14th overall in the 1973 NBA draft making him the first player ever taken in the 1st round who’d never started a college basketball game. Except there was one problem for Nater. Milwaukee had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and would undoubtedly use Nater as a backup or trade bait. Swen, while appreciative and happy with his time as Walton’s backup, was ready to showcase what he could do and wasn’t excited about being dangled about for a trade, either. Instead of signing with Milwaukee, he opted for the Virginia Squires who held his ABA rights.
His tenure in Virginia lasted only 17 games before the cash-strapped Squires sold him to the San Antonio Spurs. Finally finding stability and a healthy amount of playing time, Swen blossomed into a rebounding terror and one of the finest ABA centers. By season’s end he averaged 14 points and 12.5 rebounds while leading the ABA in field goal percentage (55%). The ultimate showcase for Nater that season was the All-Star game in Norfolk where he uncorked 29 points and 22 rebounds.
Surprisingly, Artis Gilmore (18 pts, 14 rebs) took home the MVP award for the game. Nater however ran away with the Rookie of the Year award for 1973-74 while also making the All-Rookie 1st Team and All-ABA 2nd Team. For Swen, the whirlwind of success and recognition was refreshing, “like taking a chain off.”
Nater gave an encore performance in 1974-75. His scoring inched up to 15 while his rebounding surged to a career high 16.4, good enough to lead the ABA, and his FG% held at .540. Again he made the All-Star team and All-ABA 2nd Team. Curiously, the Spurs were about to send Nater back into the wilderness.
Suffering early playoff exits in both of Swen’s seasons, the Spurs in the summer of 1975 traded Nater to the New York Nets for Billy Paultz. Battling nagging injuries, Nater struggled with the Nets and midway through the 1975-76 season he was traded back to the Virginia Squires. His stay there lasted only through the end of that season as the Squires folded and the ABA merged with the NBA. Feeling back at full-strength, Nater finally signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, but would have to battle Elmore Smith for minutes. A battle he initially lost.
However, Smith went down with injury temporarily during the early part of the ’76-77 season and Nater made the most of it, delivering one of the more astounding single game performances of the 70s. In mid-December, the Bucks took on the Hawks and demolished them 129-106 behind a breathtaking 30 point-33 rebound effort by Swen. Since Swen, only Moses Malone (2x), Robert Parish, Kevin Love and Kareem have achieved 30 points and 30 rebounds in a single game. Nater was unperturbed during the Bucks subsequent match against the Nets where he had 17 points and 17 rebounds:
“Rebounding is what I’m supposed to do and this was just one of those nights.”
The upper-hand had been gained by Swen and Elmore Smith would be traded later in the season, but Nater himself lasted in Milwaukee barely into the summer of ’77. Having secured the 1st overall pick in the draft, the Bucks were thrilled to select center Kent Benson and had no need, so they thought, for Nater. The veteran center was traded to the Buffalo Braves. for a 1st round pick. Luckily for the Bucks, the Braves’ first rounder turned out to be Marques Johnson, otherwise it would have been a complete disaster. Benson was lackluster and gone in 1.5 seasons.
Nater meanwhile completely regained his San Antonio form with the Buffalo Braves/San Diego Clippers franchise during the next four seasons, culminating, somewhat ironically, in 1979-80. Ironically because the Clippers had signed Nater’s old Bruin teammate Bill Walton. It appeared that Swen would either be traded to Portland as compensation or a repeat of the UCLA days was in order with Nater as Walton’s backup. Swen didn’t sound too excited about these prospects:
“I’ll probably get depressed for over a month… This compensation stuff is a lot worse than being traded,” he said. “What they’re saying, really, is ‘Here’s Bill Walton and you’re one-fourth of him. You’re one of the four players to go for him.’ I think it’s degrading.”
His worries were for naught. He wasn’t shipped to Portland and Walton’s notorious foot problems limited him to only 14 games that year and forced him out entirely for the 1980-81 and ’81-82 seasons. Had Walton been around Swen surely wouldn’t have produced his 13.5 point and 15 rebound averages that year. His rebounds were good enough to lead the NBA and he again topped off at 55% shooting.
Sadly, like Walton, Swent Nater’s body betrayed him. Injuring his kneecap in the early part of the 1981-82 season, Swen played a grand total of 28 games that season and 1982-83 combined. In his final season, 1984, Nater fulfilled the role he was apparently destined for… being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s backup.
The Clippers traded Swen and draft-pick Byron Scott to the Lakers for Norm Nixon. The 34-year old Nater finally made the playoffs for the first time since 1975 and was within one game of a championship ring, but the Lakers fell short to Boston. His participation and production with the Lakers may have been minimal, but my goodness was he a wonder to behold in his younger days.
In the post-Wilt Chamberlain era of professional basketball (1974 and beyond), Nater has the 3rd-highest rebounding percentage with 21.4%. That means when he was on the court, Nater grabbed a little better than 1 out of every 5 rebounds available. Only Kevin Love (22.2%) and Dennis Rodman (23.4%) have been better. When it comes to just defensive rebounds, no one has done it better. His 30.7% is just ahead of Rodman and Bill Walton. He was the first foreign-born player to take home a major award (the 1974 ABA Rookie of the Year) and is the only player to lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounding average for a single season. And his bevy of well-aimed hook shots resulted in a 53.5% shooting for his career.
He may never have been a cowboy, but he still had a good shot.