Photography courtesy of Drew Dummer

STOUGHTON, MA — On an August night at the Dana Barros Basketball Club — a shiny five-court facility that normally hums with AAU teams, parents and tournament referees — the parking lot was mostly empty. 

Azar Swain ’21 entered through the back door, picked a hoop and kicked off his slides. Sitting on the sidelines, he laced up a pair of white basketball shoes and acknowledged that certainties are rare in 2020.

“I’m still not sure — you know, nobody’s really sure — what’s going to happen in the winter,” he said, a mask hiding most of his face and a backwards hat with “Boston” above the brim covering his head.

The Yale men’s basketball guard and All-Ivy first team selection has not played a real game in more than five months — the last one occurred 40 minutes north of Stoughton at Harvard’s home court, Lavietes Pavilion. And with the Bulldogs’ nonconference basketball slate canceled this fall and any hope of Ivy League basketball this winter in jeopardy, Swain has no way to predict when he’ll take the floor again. 

Amid the uncertainty around college basketball, his final two semesters at Yale and life itself, Swain is focusing on the positives, finding the time to recuperate his body while training roughly six days a week. Quarantine has shifted Swain’s basketball routine “backwards,” he said, bringing him back to the outdoor court in his neighborhood, bodyweight exercises, a few dumbbells and a tall hill for sprints near home. His father, LaWan Swain, was with a younger Azar when he would shoot at the park back then and almost always accompanies him for workouts now. At Dana Barros, they take advantage of a night inside with polished floors, an indoor rim and no wind.

“Obviously, it’s been tough for a lot of people,” Azar said. “For me personally, I try to find the silver linings in a lot of things. For example, this summer, especially with the uncertainty of the Ivy League cancelling and all that, [has] given me a really long time to work on getting healthy and getting my knee better … When we got home [in] March to our next game is January hopefully, that’s a nine-month process. That’s been the biggest thing, trying to get healthy.”

Swain’s coronavirus-era workouts have brought his body and left knee back to his senior year of high school –– he said he has not felt this good since then. Of the 91 games Yale has played since Swain started with the Blue and White, the 6-foot guard has only missed one. Game adrenaline helped him through any pain that would follow a layup off his left leg, he said, and he underwent surgery on his left patellar tendon a few weeks after the end of his sophomore season in April 2019. Last summer, he crammed, trying to fully recover his knee while simultaneously working on drills to return him to “game shape” by the first day of class in August. But by the end of the season, soreness after practices and games became routine.

Few people could tell Swain was dealing with a knee issue when he played. He averaged a team-high 33.4 minutes a game last season and knocked down 93 three-pointers to capture Yale’s single-season record in the process. But summer under quarantine gave him the chance to resolve lingering pain, and he moved with fluidity during his evening workout at Dana Barros.

LaWan rebounded like he always does, and Azar began in a ring around the basket, taking light shots to warm up. He emphasized his form, getting his wrist into rhythm, before moving beyond the three-point line to attack the basket with layups on both sides. For someone who is 28 career three-pointers shy of Yale’s school record (he sits at 201), Swain very rarely practiced spot-up shooting in his workout. Instead, he incorporated movement into nearly every drill. He glided past imaginary defenders on the way to the basket. He jabbed and hesitated before making a break or stopping to launch a mid-range shot. Even towards the end of the night, when he walked paces beyond the three-point arc, he dribbled through his legs before launching deep triples. Everything was fluid, patient and deliberate.

“No matter if it’s running on a track, running on a hill, outdoor shooting, or I try to lift four or five times a week, [I’ve put a] lot more emphasis on skill work as far as basketball goes and less [on] game-conditioning workouts,” Swain said. “My mind is more focused on getting better individually — I know different things I need to get better at — so trying to focus on that and tighten up some of the fundamental things as opposed to thinking about an Alabama or something like that.”

Without a set date for the start of the season, there is no Stony Brook, California or Creighton — Yale’s season-opening opponents the last three years — circled on the calendar for preparation. Swain said he thought this fall’s nonconference schedule, which would have featured a game against Alabama in New Haven, would have been Yale’s strongest. The lack of distant matchups on the calendar has allowed Swain to invest his time into expanding his layup package, finishing off his right foot with his left hand and continuing to expand his seemingly limitless range.

He has barely played any five-on-five this summer, but said he made it to one summer scrimmage hosted by Boston-area coach and Penn State graduate assistant KJ Baptiste. Baptiste’s “Summer Runs” now boast their own Instagram account and an impressive list of New England-based participants, including many fellow alumni of the Mass Rivals grassroots basketball program. Among others, Swain said former high school teammate and current Villanova forward Jermaine Samuels, Villanova’s Cole Swider, former Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson and UConn graduate Jalen Adams also scrimmaged the day he played.

Zoom meetings and virtual work with Yale coaches throughout the summer have complemented his own training. Initially, the team gathered on the platform to chat and check in with each other. But as the summer went on, players took part in virtual scouts and studied game film via shared screens.

“I’m a single child, so I’m used to being alone,” Swain said. “I can be in the house not doing much, but I have some people in my family and close friends who have really gone through it with everything being shut down and not being able to see other people. I guess having that support group in a sense, being able to talk to them sometimes — I think that’s been good for our team.”

Teammates have come up with their own training solutions during quarantine, as many across the world, not only college basketball players, adapt their daily lives to take place outside or at home. Guard Matthue Cotton ’22 said he had to be more creative with his basketball-related work than in previous summers, and he turned a training project into a family activity.

Back in March, his father ordered the dimensions for the college game’s deeper three-point line in order to paint new lines around the Cottons’ outdoor hoop. By May, a hot day allowed Cotton, his parents and his older brother, who plays basketball at Division II Lincoln University, to place and paint down the permanent three-point line. Since then, Cotton said he has managed to gain access to a few indoor gyms but still uses the outdoor court to shoot and play one-on-one with his brother.

“Doing countless at-home workouts during the beginning of quarantine was extremely frustrating since I was so used to being able to go to a gym and lift weights,” Cotton said. “Researching various workouts, buying bands, buying a heavy basketball and utilizing equipment in my house that I’ve never used beforehand allowed me to make the best of quarantine. For me, working out without a game to look forward to has not had much of an effect.”

Back at the Dana Barros Basketball Club, Swain strolled to the free throw line. He had built a sweat, and he stood, hands on knees, collecting his breath. He picked up the ball and sized up the rim, shooting free throws before moving on to iterations of jump shots and free throws, jump shots and free throws. Azar and his father consulted throughout the sequence, talking briefly about where to shoot or mechanics to keep in mind.

Shots from deep — way deep — concluded the workout before one final run at the free throw line. “Watch his feet,” LaWan said when Azar was launching shots from the top of the key at one point. “If they’re both straight, it’s going to go in.”

LaWan said he shouts the same reminders from the stands sometimes at games when Azar finds himself in a cold streak. LaWan, who grew up in Boston and played high school basketball, attends nearly every Yale game, but no matter whom the Bulldogs face — whether Oklahoma State on the road or Harvard at home — he makes a point of sitting with the opposing team’s fans.

“When we’re there, I’m listening to what people are saying,” LaWan said. “I’ll take notes from the game, not from what I’ve seen that he did good, but what I hear people say that he did bad, and then we’ll go back and we’ll work on it. As a dad, as a fan, maybe I only see the good stuff. So they’re going to tell me what they think that the best way to attack him is.”

The next time LaWan can catch a game may remain an open question into 2021, even in the case that Yale plays its conference schedule this winter.

But for now, Azar is still shooting, fine-tuning his fundamentals and his body as he waits for his career to resume. 

“Everything kind of happens for a reason,” he said. “I just try to take that mindset and roll with the punches.”

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu