Swen Nater (UCLA): Train with the best

By | July 27, 2017

While reading Coach Wooden and Me (affiliate link), by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, I ran across the story of Swen Nater, who was a first round NBA/ABA draft pick even though he never started, and only play 2 minutes on average per game while at UCLA. Deliberate Practice.

Swen did not start out a natural. Apparently, Swen tried out for the high school team, but didn’t make the cut. Ouch – not a promising start.  Met a great coach in community college. Worked out, hustled, got better. So far, so good.

Scholarship to UCLA. Playing on John Wooden’s legend-in-the-making UCLA Bruins was a blessing with a pretty big caveat:

You won’t play much. This is an odd recruiting pitch, right? Who wants to practice, practice, practice, then sit on the bench during games? Not an encouraging way to start, right?

Swen would be #2. Bill Walton (one of the best centers in history) was getting recruited at the same time. John Wooden, a paragon of integrity, told Swen that he would not get a chance to play very much. In fact, he would spend most of the season on the bench.

I wanted young men who wanted to play for UCLA, and not one that I had to talk into playing for UCLA. I always believed the way to build a great team is to find the kind of people you want to work with and tell them the truth.” – John Wooden

Train with the best. However, Wooden did give him this upside:

“But you will have the opportunity to play against the best center in the nation in practice everyday. And I believe this is going to give you a better chance of becoming a professional basketball player than if you went to another school.”  – John Wooden

Deliberate practice. Swen joined UCLA and faced-off with Bill Walton every day. True to Wooden’s prediction, he didn’t play much – only 2 minutes per official game. Yikes.

Great results. He went on to play professional basketball for 12 seasons, even leading the league for rebounds one year. Only player to get picked 1st round in the NBA draft who never started in a NCAA game. As Steve Martin might remark, “so good they could not ignore him.” When someone asked Bill Walton who the best center he played against – Bill pointed out Swen Nater. Props.

  • This story reminds of me of Sheryl Sandberg joining Google, after Eric Schmidt told her to “get on the rocket ship.” Surround yourself with greatness.
  • This story reminds me of Anders Ericsson and his belief that you can be in the top 10% of world experts in most any field with deliberate practice.
  • This story reminds me to focus on the short-term and long-term. Swen focused on his craft, on doing the hard work to get better, for the long-term goal of playing in the NBA. Well-done.

Questions: Who are we practicing with every day?  Are we playing with Bill Walton-types who are pushing us to the pro-leagues?

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2 thoughts on “Swen Nater (UCLA): Train with the best

  1. Bob Ruprecht

    Great reminder John. Training is more than preparing for the next game or race – training is a commitment to having and living the dream.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Thanks – yes, John Wooden was all about practice. He thought the looking at the scoreboard was a bad habit. More important to train, and do the work. Focus on the inputs, not the outputs.

      Thanks for reading.

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