Keeping the ball rolling
Despite adversity, siblings triumph on - and off - the court
Carolyn Swords tried out for her middle school basketball team but didn’t make the cut.
How far has she come?
In her senior year at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High, Swords was the centerpiece - very much so, at 6 feet 6 inches - as the Warriors captured the Division 2 state championship. Now a junior at Boston College, Swords leads the Eagles in scoring and rebounding, and has either been first or second in the country in field-goal percentage all season.
Her younger brother, John, decided to play hockey. Then he shot up to 6 feet 10 inches. Last year, as a sophomore at Lincoln-Sudbury, he switched to basketball, but spent all but six minutes on the junior varsity.
How has he done since then?
“He couldn’t dunk last year,’’ said Lincoln-Sudbury’s coach, Patrick Callahan. “Now we’ve got alley-oop plays for him.’’
As of last week, John Swords was averaging 13 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks per game this season, and was named to the Dual County League All-Star team. “And it’s just his second year playing basketball,’’ Callahan pointed out.
Those who know Carolyn and John Swords see them as special people, and it has little or nothing to do with their prowess on the basketball court. Not by a long shot.
They are givers, even though so much has been taken from them. Both of their parents have died: Cindy 11 years ago, at 37, of cancer; Brian three years ago of a heart attack, at 55.
It doesn’t stop there. “The week Brian died, my dad died,’’ said Susan Halliday, Cindy’s sister, who has played the mother role to Carolyn, John, and their 13-year-old sister, Marybeth. And in 2008, the children’s grandmother passed away.
Their closeness helped them all cope. “There have been a lot of life changes for us,’’ said Halliday. “More than ever before, we feel like a family. We just try to move forward and not think how life was.’’
The siblings live with Halliday in Sudbury. “She’s wonderful,’’ said Carolyn. “She has us five kids, I’m just thankful I have her.’’
Halliday, who is divorced, has two sons - Rob, who works in Washington, D.C., after graduating from Bowdoin College last May, and Russ, a junior at Bowdoin who plays attack on the men’s lacrosse team.
John Swords said his aunt “stepped up after my mother died. My dad had to go off to work. My aunt took care of us. We were her kids. After my father died, we had a rough few months of being sad.’’
For Carolyn and John, the gym, the practices, and the games became a refuge. Liza Feldman took over as the girls’ basketball coach at Lincoln-Sudbury when Carolyn was a sophomore, when she had the height but not much else. Feldman thinks perhaps her size worked against her. Her nature was to be quiet and helpful to others. She didn’t want to shine in the light. She wasn’t ready for that.
But Carolyn definitely had to accept it, and she did; it just had to come with the assurance that she could help her team by playing at her highest level. And if people noticed how good she was, so be it. In that sophomore year, Feldman remembers thinking: “Carolyn had no idea how good, how powerful, she could be. She didn’t want to be in the spotlight. It was all about making her confident, not to be afraid to take over a game.’’
By her senior year, Carolyn was doing just that, and it resulted in a state title for Lincoln-Sudbury. “She was ready for the next level,’’ recalled Feldman, who has season tickets to the BC women’s games. “She keeps getting better and better. She’s stronger, smarter, more dynamic.’’
Last season was Sylvia Crawley’s first as the coach at Boston College. All she knew about Swords is what she saw on film from her freshman year. “From what I could see, she got off to a slow start,’’ said Crawley, “then got progressively better. But I didn’t have a good handle on what she could do.’’
Until she got to coach Swords. “She had a great year last season,’’ said Crawley.
This season, Swords is even better, averaging 14.4 points and 9.5 rebounds. She’s come to expect double- and sometimes triple-teams defensively.
“Everybody’s trying to figure out how to stop her,’’ said Crawley. “She demands so much attention that she makes her teammates better. She’s flourished under my new system. She’s become a dominant center.
“Carolyn has great hands, and loves to learn. It’s a pleasure when your leading scorer and rebounder is your hardest worker.’’
Swords says that she’d “like to be a more consistent shooter from 15 feet.’’
She’ll get there, just as she did at the free-throw line, where she shot only 62 percent last season. Now she’s at 79. Swords went 10-for-10 from the line in a 61-57 upset of sixth-ranked Duke.
Crawley knows her back story. “It’s made her mentally tougher. I don’t think too many people can walk a mile in her shoes.’’
Swords blushes at the mention of the high regard in which she is held, how people say that she’s kind, generous, and selfless. “I’m thankful people say that about me,’’ she said. Clearly, though, she wants to change the subject.
But it’s true. Lincoln-Sudbury coach Callahan recalled the memorial service for Carolyn and John’s father. “Carolyn was at the head of the receiving line, and even before you could ask how she was holding up, she’d smile and say ‘How are you doing?’ ’’ It was her way of putting the mourners at ease. It was quintessential Carolyn. “Amazing,’’ Callahan said, “for an 18-year-old.’’
Strange, but Carolyn and John never went one-on-one on the outdoor courts at Maynard High, which is close to their house. John was playing hockey instead. His father - who was 6-foot-9 - had played the sport, and was on the US rugby team.
“It hasn’t been one of my priorities to beat Carolyn one-on-one,’’ said John, “but it’d be fun playing her.’’
“John and I have the same personality,’’ said Carolyn, “but he’s his own person.’’
“John’s very religious,’’ said Callahan. “It’s a big part of his life. When we practice, I have to be aware of his going to services.’’
“John is cerebral. He really enjoys his schoolwork,’’ Halliday said, and has a 3.8 grade-point average. “He’d study more if you let him. I’m the one that has to say ‘Go out and play!’ Of all my children, he’s the giver. He takes out the dog every day, even when it’s freezing. He adores that dog.’’
“John is quiet,’’ said Callahan. “He sounds like Johnny Cash in his lowest voice. He’s got a sense of humor, but he’s not much for getting crazy and going to parties. He wants to go to a good college.’’
According to Callahan, doctors have said Swords may grow to 7 feet. He weighs about 225. “He’s still lean. By his senior year, he’ll be dominant.’’
His height helped Lincoln-Sudbury win the state volleyball championship last year. He’ll play again this spring, but suddenly basketball is his meal ticket.
“I was never the fastest hockey player, but I’ve always been the tallest boy, by a long shot,’’ he said.
He played a year of JV hockey: “I wasn’t enjoying it that much.’’ He began hanging around the Maynard courts with a few of his school’s basketball players. “They taught me some stuff. I was pretty excited. I figured I was already the tallest kid, and if I didn’t trip over myself I could at least play JV.’’ Which he did last season, while practicing with the varsity a couple times a week.
“I felt I could help with my defense more than my offense, just by putting my hands up. It took me a while to get my sea legs.’’ After playing a season of AAU ball, he said, “I definitely felt I learned a lot.’’
He started this season slowly, the defense far ahead of his offense. Then it began kicking in. He was scoring, and staying out of foul trouble. “I had more tools in my arsenal. I had a better idea what to do with the ball.’’
Swords will never be mistaken for the typical teenager. “I despise wasting time on the computer or on Facebook. I don’t text. I’d rather call a person.’’
This is a family that has had tragedy come knocking too often, and much too soon for the children. Susan Halliday says now that “it didn’t become apparent to me until Brian died how much we had to be together. Now we feel like a family.’’ They live under the same roof, but with the ceilings raised, said Halliday, because “John was bumping into them.’’
This is a family that has moved on, even though it’s a useless exercise trying to weigh a heavy heart. Whenever the losses seemed too much to bear, they had one another. Like Carolyn and John, together they kept growing. It became a beautiful thing to see.
Lenny Megliola can be reached at email@example.com.