Tag Archive: Azar Swain

  1. MEN’S BASKETBALL: At least seven of 12 returners taking fall-term leaves

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    With classes online, the nonconference basketball slate canceled this fall and not all students invited back to campus, at least seven of the 12 returning players on the Yale men’s basketball team have decided to take leaves of absence this semester, they told the News.

    Before the Ivy League canceled athletic competition until at least Jan. 1, players had already begun weighing options for the fall and this full year. When the time came for final decisions, non-basketball factors related to careers and job opportunities also significantly influenced their individual plans. 

    Nearly half of the returners are still in New Haven, either enrolled or working virtual internships. A slight majority of the team is taking the chance to pursue other opportunities away from the Elm City.

    “We as a team were pretty aware before [the Ivy League’s July announcement] just based off what was happening in the world that there was going to be at least no fall,” said captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22, who is taking a leave of absence this semester. “We knew that was not going to happen [and] it was pretty evident to us … so people kind of had plans in action.”

    In addition to Gabbidon, who told the News he is not currently planning to enroll this spring either, classmate and forward Jameel Alausa ’22 is planning to take a full gap year. Nearly all of last year’s sophomore players are taking leaves this fall, each of them told the News: forward Isaiah Kelly ’23, forward Jake Lanford ’23, guard Matthue Cotton ’23 and guard Michael Feinberg ’23, who intends to take a full-year leave of absence like Alausa. Would-be sophomore and guard August Mahoney ’24 said he is also taking a leave this fall.

    On the other hand, forward EJ Jarvis ’23 is enrolling remotely since sophomores are not welcome back in New Haven this fall semester. Junior guard Eze Dike ’22 told the News he is enrolled this fall, but unsure about his status for the spring. Finally, returning senior forwards Wyatt Yess ’21 and Paul Atkinson ’21 are both enrolled in residence this fall.

    Forward Paul Atkinson ’21, center, said he intends to enroll for the full year. (Photo: muscosportsphotos.com)

    Atkinson, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, said he intends to enroll in the spring as well. The 6-foot-10 forward, whom Mid-Major Madness named to their list of five mid-major players with potential for national stardom last month, briefly declared for the NBA Draft in the spring before removing his name and preserving his final season of collegiate eligibility. In the event the Ancient Eight has no season this year and the NCAA extends Ivy basketball players an extra season of eligibility, Atkinson would likely generate interest from several high-major programs searching for a graduate transfer if he does not immediately pursue a professional basketball career. 

    “It just came down to me wanting to enroll in school rather than take the year off,” Atkinson said. “I’m still hoping for the best for the spring season but if not, I’m looking forward to the future after I graduate, which I know will hold options for me.”

    Would-be senior and guard Azar Swain could not comment on his final fall-term status in time for publication, but said he plans to announce his decision soon. Yess and other players said that three of the five first years initially in Yale’s class of 2024 ultimately decided to enroll, while two — guards Yassine Gharram and Emir Buyukhanli — are taking a gap year.

    Gabbidon said head coach James Jones and the rest of the Yale coaching staff helped players consider the real possibility of no basketball season this year and did not want anyone to be “thrown off guard.” Still, for many, decisions about their ultimate fall statuses required serious thinking and exploration into potential job and internship opportunities.

    Graphic: Christie Yu

    Many players spent the summer going back-and-forth. Gabbidon, originally against the idea of a leave of absence, said he wanted to make sure his enrollment decision was not only about basketball. A computer science major who has worked at Google for the past two summers, the 6-foot-5 captain thought there would be little benefit to taking time off once he removed basketball from his thought process. But then, when he found the perfect opportunity, it suddenly became a no-brainer. “It was an instant yes,” he said.

    Jones and assistant coaches Matthew Kingsley and Justin Simon ’04 invited some alumni of the program to speak at team Zoom calls this summer, and when Gabbidon approached his head coach about the possibility of working at a startup, Jones helped connect his captain with former forward Jason Abromaitis ’07. Gabbidon now works in Denver with Abromaitis and one other partner on an unpublicized stealth startup that blends artificial intelligence and athletic training. To him, the work is so exciting that he said he would have considered the opportunity in a regular year.

    “For people who want to take leaves of absence, coach Jones has been really amazing, connecting people with different alumni and unique opportunities,” Gabbidon said. “I know some pretty awesome opportunities that guys are excited to pursue. We don’t have these opportunities traditionally. We’re a two-semester sport, we have to play both semesters, so this is honestly the best way to leverage our Yale education and the network that comes from being a Yale student, and I think that’s what’s really driven everyone to decide this is actually something that can really help us long-term. It’s not like we’re doing this for basketball. We’re doing this because it’s going to help our futures.”

    Alausa is home in Chicago after spending the summer working at a lab in New Haven studying COVID-19 and conducting nephrology research. Although he thought about continuing at the lab this fall, he decided to return home instead, where he is studying for the MCAT and taking online classes through Washington University in St. Louis.

    A new tutoring organization he founded called VTS (Virtual Tutoring Sessions) also occupies his time. Alausa said he and friends sought to fill a need for academic help in their communities, and he received mentorship on the project from Arne Duncan, the former United States Secretary of Education under Barack Obama. The organization consists of 20 Black college students from across the country who are collectively helping to virtually tutor a group of 20 students this fall, and Alausa said there are plans to take in 10 more students as the months progress.

    Forward Jameel Alausa ’22 plans on taking a full gap year. This fall, he is tutoring with VTS, studying for the MCAT and taking online classes through the Washington University in St. Louis. (Photo: Ryan Chiao)

    Alausa, who is pre-med, thinks a season this year is unlikely.

    “Realistically, looking at the numbers and things like that, I don’t really see it,” he said. “But obviously it can happen. That’d be exciting and good for the people on campus. Personally, I’m not sure how it’s going to happen.”

    Others, though not necessarily optimistic, are still hopeful. Yess, who is enrolled this fall, pointed out that Yale’s testing program and low student case numbers to start the year have been encouraging, especially in light of dramatic spikes some other schools have experienced after reopening campuses.

    After a summer at home, he said it was nice to be back at Yale, but the decision to enroll was not an easy one.

    “It was one of those things that went back-and-forth for me all the time,” Yess said. “I wanted to enroll, I wanted to get my degree and finish out my time at Yale. I really enjoyed it, but I have one year left. And then the other side was I love basketball and want to keep playing as long as I can, especially at Yale. So at the end of the day, just for me personally with one year left and all the uncertainty going on, I just liked the idea of finishing up at Yale, getting my degree and having that aspect of certainty in my mind, and then assessing my options after the fact, whether that be basketball or a job or anything along those lines.”

    After going “back-and-forth” this summer, forward Wyatt Yess ’21 decided to enroll in classes. (Photo: Lukas Flippo)

    After finding parks to work out at back home in St. Louis, Yess has not played much basketball since returning to the Elm City — hoops are still without rims on many outdoor courts in New Haven — but has managed to lift weights at his off-campus residence. He said strictly phased workouts for those enrolled in residence are set to begin soon and will at first only include strength and conditioning.

    In a normal year, players would be preparing for the preseason together, tackling a timed mile, helping first years through shopping period and gearing up for real workouts back in the John J. Lee Amphitheater. But with everyone on a different wavelength this fall and the Bulldogs’ three first years only just emerging from their campus quarantines, group chats and the occasional Zoom call are tying everyone together. Only time will tell what the spring might hold.

    “[COVID-19] has been crazy, and it has demonstrated that opportunities can be taken away from you in an instant,” Dike summed up. “That being said, not having basketball for the moment allows me to put more time and energy into my studies. As for next semester, I really have to wait and see.”

    William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

  2. MEN’S BASKETBALL: Before year of uncertainty, a summer workout with Azar Swain

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    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