Profile: Hoopin’ for heavenPublished 3:00pm Wednesday, March 5, 2014
By AMY JONES
Photos by JON GOERING
Unlike many of those who make spreading the gospel their lives’ work, Rick Swing’s path to the ministry took the shape of a basketball court.
Rick, now the executive pastor at Westwood Baptist Church in Alabaster, was born in Shreveport, La., but thanks to a father in the Air Force, his family moved regularly when he was young. He was primarily raised in Francesville, Ind. — Hoosier country — and fell in love with the game of basketball, as his father loved it before him.
“When you grow up in Indiana, you don’t really have a choice. There’s a basketball hoop on every garage,” Rick said. “It was part of me for as long as I can remember.”
Rick, who eventually grew to be a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, spent some of his high school years in Dayton, Ohio. However, a fateful encounter with his high school coach changed his path.
FROM HOOSIER COUNTRY TO SOUTH CAROLINA
When Rick reached his junior year of high school in Dayton, his basketball skills had improved to the point that he believed he could get a free college education for playing the game he loved. He went to his basketball coach and asked for help getting a scholarship. He’ll never forget the man’s reply.
“His response back to me was, ‘Well, that’s not my job. That’s your job,’” Rick said. “That broke my heart, because other than my faith in God and my family, basketball was my passion.”
Because of the coach’s attitude, Rick’s family decided to move to Frankfort, Ind. for one year so Rick could attend Frankfort High School and hopefully follow his dream of playing college basketball.
Like most Indiana towns, Frankfort loved basketball.
“My high school gym sat 6,000-7,000,” Rick said. “You couldn’t buy a ticket to the games.”
Relocating to Frankfort turned out to be a shrewd move — all the starters from that year’s team received college scholarship offers.
One of Rick’s friends, who played for a cross-town rival school, was considering The Citadel in South Carolina. Citadel’s coach began to recruit Rick too, and he and his friend went down to Charleston, S.C., to see the school.
“I fell in love with the head coach and the college,” Rick said.
Even though he had offers from larger schools, he wanted to go somewhere he felt at home.
“I just wanted to play college ball. I didn’t care where it was,” he said.
Rick’s career at The Citadel was outstanding — at one point, he was the second all-time leading scorer.
“I was kind of a big fish in a small pond. I got to play right away and started all four years,” he said.
In his senior year there, 1979, the team set the all-time record for wins in a single season with 20 victories. The college created an “Animal House”-like atmosphere, with fans coming to games in toga outfits and other costumes. The Citadel beat Clemson at home and almost beat the Tigers on the road, and Citadel finished second that year in shooting percentage, Rick said.
“It became this place where no (opponents) wanted to come play,” he said. “It was one of those magical years.”
THE NEXT LEVEL
Rick’s career at The Citadel and performance in a seniors-only tournament put him on the NBA radar, and the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him in the fourth round of the 1979 NBA draft.
He stayed with the team through the exhibition season, but at the time, professional teams only carried 11 players on the active roster. Cleveland already had a shooting guard, Butch Lee, who had been the collegiate Player of the Year in 1977 and had spent time on Cleveland’s injured reserve list. He returned to the active roster before the season started, and the Cavs cut Rick.
After Rick left the Cavaliers, he got a call from Athletes in Action, an evangelistic arm of Campus Crusade, a Christian organization promoting discipleship around the world.
As part of Athletes in Action, Rick would be on a team that would play exhibition games against college teams and then, at halftime, would share the story of Jesus Christ with the crowd. It didn’t take him long to make up his mind, even though European professional teams were courting him, and he might have still had NBA opportunities.
“Playing basketball wasn’t about money. The desire to play professional basketball wasn’t as great as the desire to play,” he said. “I probably could have had an NBA career sitting on the bench, but I didn’t want to sit on the bench.”
Rick also didn’t enjoy the atmosphere he found in professional sports, which he found encouraged athletes to focus on pleasure, fame and fortune. The idea of sharing his faith through the game he loved was vastly more appealing.
“People think it was a hard decision to make, but it wasn’t a hard decision at all,” he said.
Rick’s Athletes in Action team was based in Memphis, Tenn., but toured the country. He played with the team for three years, until the Athletes in Action organization announced plans to move the team to Canada. The team’s manager, who did not want to move, founded Spirit Express, a team that functioned in the same way as the Athletes in Action team. Rick played for Spirit Express for another few years.
“I was a missionary,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience we had, and some of the most valuable years of my life spiritually.”