Swen Nater

Do you know who he is? Guessing you don’t. Before Googling him listen up. We all have a Swen Nater on our team. Chances are you have more than one. More like four, five, or more depending on how large your squad is.


Nater was good. Better than average. Most likely a starter on any other team in the country. Thing is he played for a UCLA basketball team when they were setting all sorts of records and on top of the college basketball world. Nater’s problem was he played behind a guy named Bill Walton. He too was pretty good and already had established himself as the UCLA big man. Time-Out. Tangent.

I am a big fan of Nater’s story for many reasons but I am also sure that his story wouldn’t have been his story unless he had a coach like John Wooden. From the very beginning Wooden told Swen that his main job was to make Walton a better player. Therefore, Nater didn’t have a playing time problem, he had a purpose for the team and challenge everyday. Make Walton work and make him better. Wooden was smart enough to change Nater’s perspective about the situation.

More Facts:

Nader never started a game in his UCLA career. This didn’t stop him from getting better by competing against the game’s top center day-in and day-out. Of course his game was bound to improve by the competition it provided. So much so that he was actually drafted when his college career was over. This made him the only player in NCAA history to never start a game and be selected to play professionally. Time-out. Tangent.

Here’s where Nater exists in your program. You have plenty of players who will not get the playing time they think they deserve. They are always going to be back-ups on our teams. Second string players. The one thing Wooden did was to not give Nater a second string perception of himself. He was smart enough to use it as a challenge that paid off big. How you present things to individuals will shape their roles and responsibilities on your team. If you don’t they will decide for themselves and usually that doesn’t turn out well.

Swen Nater

More Facts:

Nater went on to lead the league in boards and spent many years in the ABA and NBA with a long career. Committing to the role of back-up paid off because Nater saw it through to the end. He believed in his value to the team and self-worth wasn’t wrapped up in playing time or being a starter. Time-Out. Tangent.

You cannot start everyone. You most likely won’t play everyone either. The great coaches will find ways to still make the bench players feel valued, allow them challenges to still improve, and be honest with them about their role on the team. Wooden never once lied to Nater. He told him before he came to UCLA that his role was to provide a formidable opponent for Walton at practice. There were no promises of playing time, starting, or the NBA. This is where the art of coaching lies. Making sure all players know their roles, except them, and are on-board for the betterment of the team. Not an easy task to tackle in the day and age we coach. You certainly won’t bat 100% in this area. Players will be frustrated with playing time: quit, go to another team, or become a cancer on your team. It is in your best interest to remember to stay attentive to the Nater’s on your team or it has a potential to create a negative climate and disrupt the forward progress of your group.

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