By Martin Cleary
If one individual is synonymous with the Laurentian University men’s basketball program over the past three decades, it’s Shawn Swords.
Whether as an award-winning player from 1992-97 or as the dedicated head coach from 2007-2022, the Ottawa-born Swords was the rock-solid face of Voyageurs basketball.
But all good things must come to an end and it’s easier to cope with when it’s for something better.
Swords, 48, is climbing the basketball coaching ladder this season, which means his courtside presence at OUA men’s games will be missed during the 2022-23 season.
He has taken a leave of absence this season from the Laurentian program to become an assistant coach with the Long Island Nets of the G League. The Long Island team is the affiliate of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
“This summer, working with Brooklyn, was amazing; truly a great organization that exudes positivity throughout,” Swords was quoted in a recent Laurentian University athletics department press release. “Fortunately, they offered me a position this year that was too hard to turn down.
“Sudbury and Laurentian University have been a great place for me and my family over the years. I never thought I would try to coach at a different organization, but such is life.”
It’s almost 1,200 kilometres from Sudbury, ON., the home of the Voyageurs, to Uniondale, N.Y., the home of the Long Island Nets, but Swords’ transition to the G League is partly because of his close friendship with Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash.
Nash, the Brooklyn head coach since 2020, and Swords played three seasons (1999 through 2001) with the Canadian national men’s basketball team.
They trained a lot together to help make the national team one of the strongest in FIBA’s Americas Zone and eventually qualify for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
In 1999, Nash, who was playing for the Dallas Mavericks at the time after being drafted in 1996 by the Phoenix Suns, and Swords, who had finished his second pro season with Boncourt in Switzerland, were silver medallists for Canada at the AmeriCup. That result lifted Canada into the 2000 Olympics, which was the last time the country played in the Summer Games.
At the Sydney Olympics, Canada was impressive in the preliminary round, but lost in the quarterfinals and finished seventh overall.
In 2001, Nash and Swords, who were former national-team roommates, returned to the AmeriCup and earned a bronze medal.
During the past 21 years, their careers went in opposite, but still satisfying directions.
Nash, a Canadian basketball icon, signed as a free agent in 2004 with Phoenix. He was the NBA’s MVP in 2005 and 2006 and finished his pro career after 18 seasons, which included eight as a league all-star.
Swords returned to Europe, where he played six more years with another six teams in five countries.
This summer, Swords and Nash were reunited during the NBA’s Summer League season, where the Brooklyn Nets’ development team won three of five games. Swords was a guest coach for the Nets’ summer team, which included Harvard University grad Noah Kirkwood of Kanata, who averaged 10 minutes, 4.0 points and 1.5 rebounds a game in four matches.
Peter Hellstrom, the Laurentian athletic director, fully supported Swords in his coaching change. Former Voyageur player and assistant coach Georges Serresse will serve as the Laurentian interim men’s head coach.
“This is an amazing opportunity for Shawn to be offered the chance to work at one of the highest levels of basketball in the world, (and) with the players and staff at this level, is a dream come true,” he said in the release.
“Shawn has worked extremely hard as our coach, developing his coaching skills over the years and deserves this shot at the NBA G League.”
While Swords will focus on the development of the Nets’ players in the G League, he’ll keep an eye on how the Voyageurs progress under Serresse. Laurentian’s OUA season starts Nov. 4.
“The summer has gone by fast and a lot of Voyageurs spent most of their time up in Sudbury training,” Swords added. “They have done a great job improving and looking to build off the success from the latter part of last season. I’m looking forward to watching their progress throughout the season.”
Swords was the Voyageurs’ head coach for the past 15 years, which included the non-season of 2020-21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2007-08 through 2021-22, he posted an OUA league record of 130 wins against 163 losses and was 7-11 in 11 playoff years.
His record against U Sports teams was 167-223 and his overall university coaching mark was 178-237.
As a player, Swords had his best season in his 1996-97 senior year, when he led the Voyageurs to the CIAU national championship Final 8 semifinals and was a tournament all-star, a second-team All Canadian and an OUAA East first-team all-star.
In his five seasons at Laurentian, the Woodroffe High School graduate was a four-time OUAA East all-star – 1994-95, first team; 1993-94 and 1995-96, second team. He also appeared in the CIAU Final 8 in 1993-94 as the Voyageurs lost in the consolation semifinals.
“For the past 15 years, the name Shawn Swords has been synonymous with Laurentian basketball,” Serresse said in the release. “As a coach, he passed on his knowledge so that his players could be the best version of themselves in order to make gains on and off the court.
“As a husband and father of two, he set an example and gave his players someone to look up to. His work ethic and positive energy are only a couple of the things that will continue to resonate throughout the program this season.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.