By Martin Cleary
Marty Swords was an active young man when he attended the now defunct University of Ottawa High School and the now thriving University of Ottawa, playing hockey, baseball, volleyball, basketball, well, you name it.
When asked about his basketball career, he modestly said he wasn’t the best player, but considered himself an “excellent shooter.” During his youth, basketball was simply a game to play with friends and teammates before moving on to the next athletic adventure in the 1950s and 1960s.
“It was always available to us,” Swords, 81, said in a phone interview this week. “It was more of a hobby. I didn’t look to play anywhere else.”
Swords’ greatest accomplishment in basketball may not be found in box scores or statistical columns, but rather how he impacted future generations of the family through his example, his conversations about the game and his willingness to share his court wisdom.
And it never hurts to attach a basketball hoop above your garage door.
That was the bait, along with his enthusiasm, that got Swords’ three young children interested in the game, thriving in the game and eventually seeing their surname become a fixture on the Canadian and international basketball scenes over the past five decades.
It all started with Janet and younger sister Carolyn, who were in Grade 13 and Grade 9 respectively but were instrumental as guards in Woodroffe High School’s undefeated season in 1984, which was capped with an OFSAA provincial high school championship.
Their university careers also had varying degrees of team and individual success.
Janet, whose married name is Sanderson, played two seasons at McGill University (1985-87) and two more at the University of Ottawa (1988-90), where she was an Ontario conference all-star in 1989.
Carolyn, whose married name was Sturgess, played five years at Laurentian University (1989-94), winning national titles in 1990 and 1991 with the Voyageurs and bronze medals in 1992 and 1993 as well as four Ontario championships. In 2009, she passed away from breast cancer.
Younger brother Shawn spent a good part of his youth playing hockey and other sports. But when Carolyn convinced him to give basketball a try, he was a natural and has become a lifer.
After playing as a 6-3 forward at Woodroffe more than 30 years ago, he had a well-decorated (four-time all-star), five-year term at Laurentian, played the pro game for a decade, represented Canada at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and then coached the Laurentian men’s team for 15 years (head coach) and is now in his second season with the NBA Brooklyn Nets’ G-League affiliate, the Long Island Nets.
When Shawn married Shelley Dewar, the basketball connection became even stronger in the family. Dewar was the Ontario conference rookie of the year in 1995, became a two-time East all-star at guard and helped Laurentian win two Ontario titles and a pair of bronze medals at the national Final 8.
Basketball had played a major role in the lives of Shawn and Shelley and would be there in their future. Daughters Syla and Savannah discovered the joy of basketball and have taken it to the top level, being named to Canadian teams this summer and competing at major international competitions against some of the world’s best.
“It (basketball) is something that brings our family together to this day,” Shawn said during a recent trip to Ottawa to visit his family. “I don’t ask the girls to work in the gym, it’s them asking me to take them to the gym.
“When we moved to New York (2022), they wanted to go to the gym before school started. I definitely didn’t want to do that (as a player), going at 6:30 a.m. to work out at the gym. But it’s a great thing that brings us together.”
The dedication and drive of Syla, 17, and Savannah, 15, have earned them new challenges, taught them new lessons and upgraded their games.
When Shawn stepped down as head coach of Laurentian in 2022 to join the Long Island coaching staff, Syla and Savannah enrolled at Long Island Lutheran Middle and High School. Their basketball talents helped Lutheran win the New York State class AA girls’ state championship in 2022.
They also played for different AAU age-group teams, but occasionally together, in the Kia Nurse Elite program, and participated in Nike Elite Youth Basketball League tournaments in Iowa, Illinois and Virginia. They won the U17 title this year on the final weekend.
But their biggest achievements have come this summer, playing for their various national teams.
Syla was selected to the Canadian senior team to play in the FIBA women’s AmeriCup tournament in Leon, Mexico. Competing against some of the best female players in the world, Syla held her own, averaging 3.9 points, 0.9 rebounds and 0.7 assists per game in seven games. Canada defeated Puerto Rico 80-73 in its final game to win the bronze medal.
The next stop for Syla was the 2023 FIBA U19 women’s World Cup in Madrid, which ended with another bronze medal. A leader on the court, she averaged almost 30 minutes a match as well as 15 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.1 assists a game. In the 80-73 overtime, bronze-medal win over France, Syla played a game-leading 42:23 minutes, connected for 26 points and added six rebounds, six assists and two steals.
“She was amazing,” said a proud Shawn, who travelled to Madrid and Leon to watch Syla represent Canada. “At 17, she was competing in the AmeriCup against older women players. The Canadian women supported her and realized her potential.
“When she had an open shot, she took it. She did a great job all around. You wouldn’t know she’s 17.”
Syla has had an “amazing” summer because of “so many great opportunities and people I have met.”
“I learned more how to read the (senior women’s) game and trust in what I do. At the U19 level, it was about leadership,” said Syla, who has committed to attend the University of Michigan on a basketball scholarship for 2024-25.
“I had expected to make the U19 team, but the senior team was up in the air. I did two training camps and it was positive. I didn’t know much, but I was invited back. I was surprised to be on the team, but I knew I worked hard.”
Syla also played for Canada at the 2022 FIBA U17 women’s World Cup and finished fourth, losing the bronze-medal game 84-82 to France. In seven games, she averaged 4.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists a game.
Savannah made her international debut for Canada at the 2023 FIBA Americas women’s U16 championship in Yucatan, Mexico. Canada finished second to the United States in the final standings. In the final, Savannah counted a team-high 22 points in 32:56 minutes as well as four rebounds and one steal. Overall, she averaged 13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists a game.
“I felt comfortable and confident and supported my players,” said Savannah, who enjoys attacking the basket and lifting the team with her determined play.
As Shawn watched his daughters play this summer, he was proud they took advantage of every situation.
“They didn’t shy away from the moment,” he added.
That competitiveness isn’t restricted just to the basketball court.
“It’s so amazing. Everything is a competition, right down to board games and cards,” Savannah emphasized.
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 email@example.com 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.