By: Dan Rubin, BCEagles.com contributor
Carolyn Swords never expected to stand on the court for the 2020 WNBA season. She never expected to pull on a jersey emblazoned with her franchise, and she never thought she would bang in the post against some of the world’s best athletes. She didn’t think she had another run to the WNBA championship left in her career, and she thought it all ended last September when the Washington Mystics eliminated her Las Vegas Aces.
Yet there the former Boston College Eagle stood. She was at center court as part of arguably the most important season in the history of all sports. She was starting in the frontcourt for head coach Bill Laimbeer and readied herself for the grind ahead.
Carolyn Swords, the former college star who retired last season after an eight-year career, was back at it again in the empty arena as part of the Aces’ drive in the 2020 WNBA bubble.
“It felt great (to get on the court),” Swords said. “We came up short (in the opener) against Chicago, but it was awesome just to be back out on the court, even though circumstances are different. To be out there, even without our fans, is the most normal we’ve felt since everything started. It was just a fun time, to be out there with my teammates.”
It’s a turn she never saw coming when she ended her playing career after September’s playoff defeat. The Aces, in just their second season after relocating from San Antonio, lost to the Washington Mystics in the semifinal series of the WNBA Playoffs. Five months later, Swords formally announced her retirement, though she didn’t intend to leave the game. She instead joined the front office’s marketing staff, seamlessly transitioning from a role she knew on the court to one in which she could grow in a new arena.
“I had an internship with the business staff during the (2018-2019) offseason,” she said, “and I worked with our community relations staff around sales and marketing. I really enjoyed that opportunity to learn more about business operations and the problems that they solve throughout the year when players leave to go overseas or do their own thing. (The staff) ensures that the team is still very much at the top of the fans’ minds.
“It felt like the right time (to retire),” she reiterated, “and I was really fortunate to join the Aces’ staff. It’s a young franchise that did a great job launching in 2018. I loved the organization, and I was just really excited to step into a new role.”
The only problem is that she joined the staff right as COVID-19 crept into the heart of American life. Society and sports started their shutdown phase one month after she retired from the game, and the WNBA postponed the start of its season in early April. Two months later, the league announced a return to play, but Swords grew aware that her role, which concentrated on the in-game experience with fans, would need to take a back seat for the interim.
“It seemed to all happen very quickly,” she said. “When I started (in the front office), it was something on the horizon that we watched out for. The Olympics were still on, and there wasn’t much talk about suspending the season. We were planning for the upcoming draft and the start of training camps a couple of weeks after that. Then very quickly, it turned into the same thing that the country and world experienced, which was a complete halt and change of situation.
“It became clear that the season was going to be delayed,” she said, “and most of my responsibility dealt with the in-game. So if we weren’t playing games at home, there wasn’t a whole lot for me.”
The WNBA would eventually resolve its primary issue of playing the season by announcing a restart at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The 12 teams would play in a single location and shorten the season to 22 games with the two conferences merging into one table. The players and staff were summarily required to leave home for the long-term basis in order to live in a controlled environment bubble, isolated from the world.
The secluded setting challenged individual players to make the best decision for themselves and their families, some of which created a clear hole for the Aces. Center Park Ji-Su opted out of the season before the bubble announcement in order to remain in her native South Korea, and starter Liz Cambage, an all-world athlete, revealed her fight against an undisclosed, severe illness during her winter season in China. Though never diagnosed as coronavirus or COVID-19, the illness deeply impacted her play, and she was widely expected to opt-out of the season when Ji-Su announced her own intentions during the May down period.
That led Aces’ head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer to have a conversation with one of his old reliables in the front office. Rather than scour the globe for a player who could learn his system, he looked to someone who already knew his system and coaching style.
On May 24, Swords un-retired and returned to the court three months after formally leaving the game. Two months later, Cambage officially opted out, and the former Boston College Eagle instantly became the first string center on Laimbeer’s 2020 Aces.
“We joked a little that I would jump back if something happened but thought it would be fine,” Swords said. “Then we realized that the season would really be impacted. Ji-Su opted to stay in South Korea, and I got the call that asked me (to return). It was before the season was announced, so I tried to be ready for anything. In the end, I was happy to jump back on the court.
The return restarts the career of arguably the greatest basketball player in Boston College program history. Swords dominated opponents for four years in Chestnut Hill and remains the only player with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. She is one of two players to hit the scoring mark, along with Sarah Behn, next to whom she ranks as the only BC women’s basketball player with 800 field goals made.
Swords is still the only three-time All-America selection, to which she twice earned first-team honors. Over her four years, BC advanced to postseason play on three separate occasions, and in her senior year, she led the Eagles to a national ranking for the first time in four years.
It dropped her onto the national, professional radar, and the Chicago Sky made her the highest Boston College draft pick when they chose her with the 15th overall pick in 2011. She spent three years with the franchise before meeting up with Laimbeer in New York. During 2015, she played her only season both domestically and internationally after she played for both the Liberty and the Sydney Uni Flames of Australia’s National Basketball League.
She joined the Aces in 2018 after a one-year stint with the Seattle Storm. This season, her third with the club, is very obviously the most unusual year for any professional athlete.
“The bubble is definitely different,” Swords said, “and there are some challenges. In a normal season, we would have flexibility for available gym time or for a weight room, and we would really find routines to find a rhythm even with our travel schedule. The difference now is that we’re trying to maintain the integrity of a shared space. There’s a lot more organization, and we are finding more creative ways to get ready for a game. We have limited amounts of court time per day. So we’re becoming more efficient because of logistics.
“Testing is also part of our regular schedule,” she said, “but those safety protocols are there for a reason so we can keep this season rolling. We’re trying to get 22 games in per team before playoffs, so it’s an intense season. A lot of the West Coast teams are filling television schedules for West Coast air time, so we’re playing a lot of games at (late hours). That’s a new challenge to prepare and recover with sleep. It’s intense and competitive, but it’s very exciting for all of us and for the fans who are watching.”
It’s part of how basketball resides in a world under constant change. COVID-19 is a constant reminder of the structure required to play the sport, but the WNBA is an instant leader for the world’s social justice activism. While returning to play, the league became a leader within the country’s drive to fight both systemic racism and prejudice.
“There is no example to draw from, in how to do this,” Swords said. “Everyone is doing their best to make this the best possible situation and a very safe environment. And we can make a big impact on social justice. All of us in the league are here together to do some really cool things. Our opening weekend was really exciting, and our social justice council is ensuring our platform is powerful.
The WNBA honored the memory of Breonna Taylor before the first games of the season, and it continues to drive forward with respect to its social justice. It’s committed to playing games to use its platform, a devotion reinforced through the dedication to safety.
For Carolyn Swords, it’s an impact that will last long after her playing days end – again – and it’s one she never saw coming six months ago when she thought she hung up her sneakers for good.
“We’re going to continue that by playing high-level basketball,” she reiterated. “We’re going to bring it back to our fans with an entire platform in a very meaningful way.”
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The Las Vegas Aces defeated the Dallas Wings on Sunday, 79-70. Carolyn Swords had seven points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes of action. The team is now 3-2 and will play the Washington Mystics on Wednesday at 5 p.m. Fans can view the game on – NBA TV, NBC Sports Washington, MyLVTV. Aces Swords