Marisa Peryer (in-line photos by McCormack)

Back in February 2016, Yale men’s basketball guard Azar Swain ’21 announced his commitment to Yale and head coach James Jones. Then a junior at The Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts, he scored 29 points in a win to end the regular season that day, leading the school to the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) Class B championship game a week later.

By early April, when club play on the Adidas Gauntlet circuit began, Swain simply couldn’t lose.

His Boston-based AAU program, the Adidas-sponsored Mass Rivals, ascended to a No. 1 national ranking after going undefeated on the shoe circuit during the live July period in 2016, winning 21 straight games on a journey that led Swain to Atlanta, South Carolina and Las Vegas. There, the 16- and 17-year-olds from New England earned a comfortable 15-point championship win at the 17-and-under Adidas Summer Championships in front of an ESPNU audience, with NBA star James Harden sitting courtside and a long line of laptops on press row.

For Swain — along with his old friends, Rivals teammates and former opponents in the Boston-area Independent School League (ISL): junior Brown forward Tamenang Choh and sophomore Brown guard David Mitchell — the journey continued to the Ivy League and resumes Friday in New Haven when the Bears and Bulldogs launch into league play. Rivals head coach Vin Pastore is making a journey of his own from Boston to the Elm City for the occasion.

“It was a great run,” Pastore said. “I was fortunate to have a real good group of guys on that team. They were three of them — Azar’s an incredible basketball player. Of all the kids I’ve ever coached, if I had to give somebody the basketball to go make a bucket to win a game, it would be him … He’s not the most athletic kid in the gym, he’s surely not the tallest kid in the gym, but he’s always had the biggest heart in the gym.”

 

With the praise, Pastore put the six-foot guard in elite company. Forwards Noah Vonleh with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Wenyen Gabriel with the Sacramento Kings represent active Rivals alumni in the NBA, while NCAA Division I destinations in the last five years include Kentucky, Providence, Purdue, South Carolina and UConn.

Swain received offers from both Brown and Yale on the same day in July 2015, and he and Choh were the first from the program’s undefeated 2016 squad to commit. The Eli, now a junior, finished with 16 points in the Rivals’ championship win, sporting a subtle mohawk as he did for much of high school, while Choh offered 12.

Junior Penn forward Jarrod Simmons is the fourth and final Ivy League hooper who played with the Rivals that summer.

After his sophomore year at the Rivers School, Swain spent half the summer playing up with the 17-under team in 2015, but didn’t always enjoy the higher stakes — recruitment, media and pressure — that accompanied it. He grew close with Choh when he spent time on the 16-under team, he said, having “true fun with the game.” A year younger than his Rivals teammates in the Ancient Eight, Mitchell played up as a 16-year-old on the undefeated 17-under team in 2016, coming off the bench. He knew Swain long before. The two played on a nine-under No Books No Ball team in elementary school before Swain’s father, LaWan Swain, coached them for two years, first on a 10-under team with Bay State Magic and then for the Merritting Attention Basketball Club’s 11-under squad.

“For all the critiques of grassroots basketball, the one thing that’s done incredibly well is the kids are friends regardless of where they play,” Pastore said. “If you watch those guys in action, they’ll all hug each other at half court, then they’ll compete like it’s a war, and then they’ll hug each other after the game.”

Swain joined the Mass Rivals as a sophomore, while Choh and Mitchell both started with the program as freshmen, Pastore said. Relationships built and skills improved on the spring and summer AAU circuit set the scene for tense winter battles in the ISL. Choh’s Brooks team, Mitchell’s Belmont Hill and Swain’s Rivers were all annual contenders in the conference, though Brooks ultimately captured the ISL championship from 2015 to 2018.

Belmont Hill and Rivers met each season in early December, and Swain — who started attending Rivers in the seventh grade, made the varsity basketball team in ninth and entered the starting lineup in tenth — turned in big performances every time. In 2015, with co-star classmate and current Villanova forward Jermaine Samuels out with an injury, Swain scored almost 75 percent of the Red Wings’ points against Mitchell and Belmont Hill as a junior. Mitchell and a cast of fellow sophomores helped Belmont Hill overcome 46 from Swain for a 66–63 win.

“[He was hitting] all types of contested shots,” Mitchell said. “Obviously he had some open ones, but that’s when you pretty much knew he was a tough shot maker. It didn’t really matter what he did or how you defended it. Even if you were closely contesting, that day he was hitting everything.”

 

Games between Rivers and Brooks were “battles,” Rivers head coach Keith Zalaski said. In Swain’s four years with the program, Rivers captured only one of seven contests, a one-point home win during his freshman year.

Matchups with Brooks warranted circles on his calendar, Swain said. He estimated he knew about 75 percent of the school’s roster, which included now-redshirt junior Bryant guard Ikenna Ndugba — whom Yale beat last season — and Pat Freiermuth, now a tight end and NFL prospect for Penn State football.

“They just had a complete team,” Swain said. “They’re probably the best defensive team I’ve even faced. They used to give us problems with the pack-line defense.”

After finishing his AAU career with a 21–0 run, Choh and Brooks went undefeated during the forward’s senior season in 2016–17, rolling to a third consecutive ISL title and a second straight NEPSAC Class B crown. Two of their three slimmest victories came in back-to-back games with Rivers and Belmont Hill. Brooks handed Swain and Rivers School a loss in the final game of his high school career.

Head coach for Swain’s final two seasons at Rivers, Zalaski, saw the guard expand his game inside the three-point arc and improve his play driving to the basket. Still, he benefited from a comfort with the three ball in big scoring games. The Yale economics major scored 48 points at the Hoop Dreams Mag Prep Classic during his junior year.

“He’s a mechanic in some ways,” Zalaski said. “If he feels something off with his shot, he can fix it … as soon he goes to get into his shot, the entire bench stands up because everyone thinks he’s going to make it, especially when he gets into those games where he’s really feeling it.”

Yale fans wouldn’t mind a 40-point performance from Swain, whose career high of 25 points came in a triple-overtime win against Siena this season, during Friday night’s Yale–Brown contest. Brown head coach Mike Martin sometimes calls the matchup the “Rivals game,” Mitchell said, and all three Rivals alumni play significant roles for their respective sides. Swain averages 15 points a game this year and enters the contest ranked seventh in the Ancient Eight in scoring, while Choh contributes 12.9 points, eight rebounds and 3.3 assists for the Bears. Mitchell averages 19.2 minutes and 4.8 rebounds as the Bears’ sixth man.

Pastore said he still loves watching the trio play. He traveled to games in the ISL, and he’s still spectating in the Ivy League. Last season, he attended Yale’s 70–67 win over Brown in Providence, only about 40 minutes from Swain’s home in Brockton, Massachusetts.

The gyms are larger. The lights are a little brighter. The drive is longer. Seeing Choh, Mitchell and Swain succeed is nothing new.

“Those guys are all friends with each other, they talk with each other, they root for each other,” Pastore said. “They’re all gonna come out with Ivy League degrees. Incredible. That’s really what it’s all about … it’s good I don’t have to root for a team. I just have to root for the kids.”

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu