Professional Career Lays Foundation For UC Coach
Aaron Swinson

June 27, 2012

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By Katie Baran

Year in and year out, student-athletes from across the globe travel to the University of Cincinnati with aspirations of going pro in their respective sport. Many coaches are able to relate to the 20-something mindset, but few can actually say they've reached that seemingly unattainable level of competition - Aaron Swinson is one of them.

An assistant coach for Jamelle Elliott's women's basketball program for the past year, Swinson spent the early part of his career playing in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and internationally in Italy, Spain, France and Argentina. But, despite his 6-foot-5 stature, he wasn't always primed to be a professional athlete.

"It started when I was really young, probably about seven," Swinson said. "My uncles and oldest brother played pick-up basketball every Sunday at a local elementary school and they would never let me play. Anytime they would take a break to get water, they let me shoot, but it was nothing spectacular to them because I was such a young, short guy and didn't know the game like they did. I had no fundamentals whatsoever. I just wanted to shoot."

But the competitive fire started at a young age for Swinson, who grew up on a farm in Douglas, Georgia, where every day was a battle.

"Coming from a farm and working in a tobacco field, that's where the competition started because we wanted to out-do the other person who was in the field," Swinson said. "So I figured I could take that to the basketball floor and have the same mentality."

Just three years later, Swinson began using the same drive and determination playing recreation ball with the Boys Club.

"Everyone was so much bigger than I was, but I had a heart of a lion," Swinson said. "I remember after this guy had scored, it made me mad because he went down the court pumping his chest. I was like, `I can't do this; I'm going to have to find a way to make sure this doesn't happen again.' So, I started blocking shots.  I was maybe only 5-foot-1, 5-foot-2 going against guys who were 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2 at the time."

As time went on, Swinson developed more confidence and began to realize his full potential. Where he lacked in height, he made up for in hard work and perseverance.

"When I got to high school, my goal was to be on the varsity team my ninth-grade year," Swinson said. "The varsity team was so loaded with talent, so I had to play JV. JV was a joke - there was no competition for me. When I went to Varsity, I played limited minutes out of respect for the older guys. By the time I got into my sophomore year, I really understood the game of basketball. I was watching Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and I was thinking, `Man, they're doing this, they're doing that, maybe I need to learn how I can get to that level.'"

In the process of striving to reach that next level, Swinson began to enroll in different camps - the first of which was the Big Man Camp in Milledgville, Georgia. Despite being ridiculed for his height, he proved, once again, that his height would not be his Achilles' heel.

"When I walked into that camp and those guys saw me, they laughed," Swinson said. "But by the time my high school coach came back to pick me up, I was in the championship game against one of the best post players in the state of Georgia. I ended up beating him. I realized I could start kicking some people's butt. When I walked away with all these awards, that's when doors started opening up for colleges."

Having grown up in the South, Swinson always envisioned attending a local university. While he had offers from across the country, he went on official visits to Georgia, Florida, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Florida State. But, another school from the east coast also caught his attention.

"A lot of people thought I was going to play for John Thompson at Georgetown," Swinson said. "I really liked his style, but I just felt like I didn't know anyone in the city. I'm a country boy; I need to stay somewhere where I can see a cow, a horse, and grass. At Georgetown, they had concrete trees and I didn't want that."

Alas, Swinson returned home to his Southern roots and was won over by Auburn University coaches.

"The one thing I did like at Auburn was their consistency," Swinson said. "Not only did they recruit me, they recruited my parents, my brother, my high school coach, my best friend, my boss on the job - they recruited everyone in my inner circle. They knew more about me than I thought they did. I knew Auburn was a great fit for me."

After sitting out his freshman year, Swinson finally had his time to shine in the 1992 season.

"My sophomore year came and I really learned how to play in the SEC because night in and night out, there were no calls," Swinson said. "So you had to really play through fouls, through the referees, through the crowd. You had to really be a tough guy."

Swinson finished his career at Auburn as a three-year letterwinner and two-year team captain. He was a two-time all-Southeastern Conference selection and concluded his career with a .609 field goal percentage, just behind Charles Barkley's .626 on the school's all-time chart. He had a 16.9 scoring average and totaled 1,386 career points, which is No. 12 in the program's history.

"When I left (Auburn) in 1994, I was the No. 1 draft pick in the CBA - minor league basketball," Swinson said. "That night when my name wasn't called, Golden State, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks and the Utah Jazz called. The Suns' guy called and said, `Hey listen, Phoenix wants you to come in as a free agent and try to make the team.' I said no problem. So I got to Phoenix and I actually made the team."

After being selected by the Yakima Sun Kings, Swinson led the team to the CBA championship a year later and became the second rookie to ever win MVP honors in the league. While he started pursuing a career in the NBA, he began receiving calls from international teams. Given the opportunity and chance to support his family, he accepted a job in Italy.

"I was leery about going overseas. My family wasn't over there and I couldn't speak Italian, but I knew I had a family and I needed to make money to make sure they were surviving. I was the only American on the team. I had a great experience, but there were some times that I wanted to walk away because I didn't relate to anyone on the team because I couldn't speak their language."

When Swinson made his way back to America, he worked out with the Chicago Bulls, Seattle Super Sonics and New Jersey Nets. Before they had time to make a decision, Europe called again - this time, it was Spain with an offer too good to refuse.

"I spent seven years in Spain and I enjoyed it," Swinson said. "I remember when my wife came to visit me and I could open up my entire apartment sliding door and laundry room door. I could stand in the middle and see the Rock of Gibraltar on one side and Africa on the other. I had the best of both worlds. I don't regret any year that I played there."

His time abroad was not limited to just playing. In an effort to finish up his college degree, Swinson began coaching to satisfy Auburn's internship requirement. Once he got a taste of coaching, he decided to switch career paths and dedicate his life to it. But, he was in for a surprise at his first coaching job.

"When I came back (to America) and got my degree, I started coaching at a private school - Holland Hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma," Swinson said. "I had actually applied for the boys' basketball position thinking I had just come from playing pro ball on the men's side. When I came in for my interview, I walked through the door and my boss said, `You're hired.' I said, `I hadn't even sat down yet.' He said, `You're hired. I have to run to a meeting, but it was great meeting you. By the way, you got the girls basketball team.'"

After leading Holland Hall to a championship title, Swinson became the head coach the following year and advanced to the final round of the championship before transitioning to a coach in the NBA Developmental League. His professional experience would not go to waste, though.

"(My playing career) helped me be a little more patient in coaching. Some kids get it quickly, and some kids take more time. Anything that I learned from my coaching staff, I always carried it over. That's one thing I'm trying to make sure our players do - when they learn something new from us, we want them to carry it over to the next day, so we can move onto something totally different the next day."

Having coached collegiately for the last four seasons - one at UC and three at Tulsa - Swinson admits the long hours of work and travel are worth the reward.

"When they get it, it makes you feel good," Swinson said. "Every day, coming in and having your door open and having the players come talk to you about their life, school, or anything, it makes you feel good. When you go on that floor and they get it, understand the system, and win a game. You want them to learn from losses and not make the same mistakes again."