December 19, 1998
by Ken Kleppel
As the Pat Garrity era drew to a close on a Thursday afternoon last March after an NIT loss at Madison Square Garden, a new era in Notre Dame basketball began as the proverbial door opened for three heralded high school recruits including Harold Swanagan. Last year a high school senior at University Heights Academy in Hopkinsville, Ken., with seemingly boundless potential.
This year a 6-8 power forward struggling to adjust to life away from home, the rigors of Notre Dame academics, and learning his role in Coach John MacLeod's system. The song of Swanagan is unique. Swanagan's sophomore year of high school provides the rhythm. A top-10 national prospect for his age level, Swanagan assumed a role-player position on a University Heights Academy squad that claimed the Division "A" Kentucky state championship. With the graduation of teammates Lamont Barnes and Isaiah Victor, each playing Division I basketball today, UHA's mindset changed from repeating to rebuilding as Swanagan's nationwide rating fell with his school's victory totals. His junior year thus was more of a mental challenge than a physical one.
"I really didn't like being a loser," Swanagan says. "Losing my junior year made me want to win my senior year. We as a team had to pull together. That was the motivation."
Swanagan assumed the leadership position of team captain his junior season and the on-court accolades followed. In his final two high school campaigns, Swanagan was named most valuable player, and voted all-conference, all-city, and all-state. He averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds a game as a senior as he led the state of Kentucky with a 73 percent field-goal percentage. He was named MVP of the Class A state tournament as he broke the rim and backboard in the early minutes of the championship game where he finished with 25 points 18 rebounds and five blocked shots. He also earned most outstanding player honors at the Beach Ball classic and was invited to play in the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star game.
Although all of the accolades were nice for Swanagan, more importantly, he learned there is more to the game than just rebounding and scoring. He developed a work ethic. The great influence was not a coach, teacher, or friend but someone who meant all three to Swanagan, his aunt Marybeth. "She was the one behind me all the way," Swanagan says. "She taught me go to school, play and work as hard as you can. She was the pusher. She was the driving force. Whenever I did anything wrong she was there to show me the way."
With the first few stanzas of Swanagan's song complete, the refrain is unfolding.
Remarkably, a similar situation to his high school years awaits Swanagan at Notre Dame. The departure of Garrity has left Coach MacLeod's roster in a transition phase. Despite his freshman status, Swanagan has been a crucial role player off the bench for MacLeod steadily earning him more and more playing time with each contest. Through nine games, Swanagan is averaging 6.2 points and 4.2 boards in 16 minutes of action. He is fast becoming a fan favorite with the Joyce Center crowds who are in awe of his spectacular leaping ability and incredible dunks. "The biggest challenge for me is to know my role," Swanagan says. "I know I am a role player this season. The only thing I can do is play hard and try to get everything. I need to come in and play as hard as I can every day."
"Harold is so fun to watch," assistant coach Billy Taylor says. "He has so many moves and will make a big impact here." No one individual knows Swanagan better than freshman teammate and friend David Graves. Living just towns apart growing up in Kentucky, Graves and Swanagan played together on numerous all-star and tournament squads throughout their high school years.
"Harold's transition is harder than mine," Graves said. "Here is a 6-8 power forward that has to come in and fill the shoes of Pat Garrity? It's tougher for a big man to come in. He's got to learn how to create his shot. Yet from day one he's improved 100%. He will get a lot of playing time during his career."
The improvement Graves speaks of was displayed during Notre Dame's first-round loss to then top-ranked Duke in the Great Alaska Shootout. Leading the team with 17 points and four rebounds in just 19 minutes, Swanagan played toe-to-toe with Duke All-American Elton Brand and dominated an aspect of the college game for the first time in his career. The fruits of his efforts finally emerged.
Since that game against Duke, Swanagan has shown a new confidence as he has posted games of 4 points-10 rebounds against Southern Utah, 11 points and 9 rebounds versus Indiana and 13 points against BIG EAST foe Providence in helping the Irish rebound from a 1-4 start to a 3-1 record in their last four games with their only loss coming against 16th-ranked Indiana in overtime.
Off the court, Swanagan has smoothly adjusted to college life. A resident of Fisher Hall, he enjoys living in the dorms and hanging out with his friends.
"Harold is just a big clown," said roommate Mike Mazzeffi. "He is a normal college kid. He listens to lots of rap music, eats pizza and subs all day. The guy is amazing. Some girl even gave him a sign that says 'best gold tooth.'"
Stop. Hold the presses. Harold Swanagan is a normal guy. Yet, another dimension exists.
"He's real innocent," Mazzeffi says. "He's just a nice guy. In the beginning of the year Harold really surprised me a lot. We met with some priests in the dorm and they asked him why he chose to come to Notre Dame although he was heavily recruited by so many top schools. His response was, 'because it is the best school education-wise.' I learned he had character."
Swanagan's approach is simple. He takes basketball, as well as life, day-by-day, week-by-week as his philosophy echoes that of role model and coach, John MacLeod. Lofty expectations or tournament dreams, however, are not dismissed.
"Hopefully this year we can win the BIG EAST tournament, or go as far as possible," Swanagan says. "Then, down the road, we can win the NCAA tournament in a couple of years."
Hard work. Team work. Expectations. Mighty words spoken by a raw freshman who is becoming a seasoned collegiate athlete one day at a time. Judging not only by his ability to adjust to the college game but also his character, Harold Swanagan is just starting to sing.