By John Bauman
Photos by Todd Turner
Brian “B Daht” McLaughlin stands at center court, starting the call and response chant the Greensboro Swarm have embraced in their inaugural season in the NBA D-League.
Everyone is standing – all fans of the Swarm must do so, McLaughlin says, until they score their first basket. The fans oblige and finally take a seat when Mike Tobey opens up the scoring for the Swarm with 11:11 to go in the first quarter.
It’s Saturday, March 4th, and professional basketball is being played in Greensboro. The Grand Rapids Drive flew into town to play the Swarm, the NBA-D League affiliate of the Charlotte Hornets, at the Fieldhouse in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The Swarm come into the night with a record of 13-26. They know they won’t make the NBA D-League playoffs as the season winds down, but on this Friday night, they still play hard.
The starting five for Greensboro is guard Cat Barber, guard Rasheed Suliamon, forward Archie Goodwin, forward Cheick Diallo and Tobey, the center.
If some of these names look familiar, they should – Barber, Suliamon and Tobey once ruled the ACC. Although it feels like forever ago, Tobey and Suliamon faced off once in an ACC Championship game in Greensboro. Tobey’s Cavaliers beat Suliamon’s Blue Devils, 72-63, to win the 2014 ACC Championship. Tobey had eight points and four rebounds in 18 minutes of play, while Suliamon scored two points and grabbed five boards in 23 minutes.
All that, or the fact that Goodwin was a five-star and 15th rated recruit in the ESPN 100 for his class, 2012, or the fact that Diallo was a McDonald’s All-American too but played 7.5 minutes per game and averaged 3.0 points at Kansas before declaring for the NBA Draft… all that doesn’t matter right now. They are here tonight in the D-League and they are going to play hard because Swarm head coach Noel Gillespie insists upon it.
Gillespie stands during the game, wearing brown shoes, grey slacks, a blue shirt, a dark grey coat and a multicolored tie that brought the whole look together. He walks the sideline like a veteran, but he’s a rookie, developing in his first-year as a head coach just like the rest of his team.
He watches his team jump out to a 19-8 lead after a Diallo jump shot with 7:47 left in the first quarter. The lead keeps growing, all the way to 29-15 after Damien Wilkins’ hits a pull up jumper.
The Swarm are hustling, playing how Gillespie likes them to and maybe how they haven’t played enough this season. With 3:04 left, Barber, with his cat-like reflexes, steals a long Grand Rapid’s pass in a crazy transition sequence.
“Way to hustle,” someone shouts from the crowd.
At the end of the first quarter, the Swarm leads 33-22. Wilkins, off the bench, has nine points in almost six minutes of action. He led the team in points during the first quarter. Leading, on and off-the-court, is a role Wilkins has grown accustomed to this season.
At the Swarm’s season-opening media day on Tuesday, November 1st, by far the biggest crowd of reporters surrounded Damien Wilkins.
Wilkins played nine years in the NBA, including four years in Seattle before the team moved to Oklahoma City. Wilkins went undrafted but spent five years with the Supersonics/Thunder franchise. He never started more than 31 games in one season in his career. Three times – in the 2006-07, 07-08 and 09-10 seasons – Wilkins started that same number of games.
There were highlights and lowlights and everything in between. On November 17, 2007, Wilkins scored 41 points to help the Supersonics earn a 126-123 over the Atlanta Hawks. Some no-name rookie just 10 games into his first NBA season hit the game winning shot. Anybody know how Kevin Durant’s career turned out after that shot?
Wilkins last played in the league in the 2012-13 season for the Philadelphia 76ers. He bounced around professional basketball after that, playing overseas and with other D-League teams. He even earned a bronze medal at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am games playing for the US National team.
The Swarm signed Wilkins back in October as one of the building blocks of their new team. Remember, the Swarm didn’t exist last season. They’ve built a basketball team out of nothing, thanks in large part to Wilkins.
One of Gillespie’s priorities as a coach has been establishing a professional culture in season one.
“One player who I really attribute that to is Damien Wilkins, who’s been our leader and our veteran and been an NBA guy,” Gillespie said.
Wilkins is happy to share and be that veteran the younger guys in the locker room can look up to.
“A lot of guys gravitate towards my experience and leadership, and I’m always welcome, open to share that, because there’s probably some things I could learn from them as well,” he said
The Swarm have experienced a lot of roster turnover this season, a given due to the nature of the D-League. Aaron Harrison and Christian Wood were sent back and forth from the big-league club in Charlotte to Greensboro to get playing time. Mike Tobey was called up to Charlotte for two ten-day contracts. Xavier Munford was the team’s point guard the first half of the season but then signed another deal overseas.
The only constant, it seems, has been Wilkins. As of March 11th, he’s averaged 12.6 points, five rebounds and 3.5 assists in the 2016-17 season. He’s played in 39 games, started in 29 and been there through it all for some of his younger teammates.
“I just try the best I can to share my experiences with guys on the team, just to keep guys encouraged and guys mentally and physically ready to play as best I can and share some of the knowledge that I’ve gained throughout my experience,” Wilkins said.
“And then, show and let them know not to take it all too seriously. Try to enjoy it as much as we can. Have as much fun as we can. I think that’s the biggest thing that they’ve taken away from me, and the biggest thing that I can share.”
The Swarm start the second quarter the way you usually don’t want to start a quarter.
The Drive’s Jordan Crawford drains a three-pointer 17 seconds into the second period, cutting the Swarm’s lead down to eight.
After Wilkins hits a free throw to extend the Swarm’s lead back to 13 with 9:26 left in the second quarter, Cat Barber subs in for Archie Goodwin. Extending a hand to help him up off the ground at midcourt as he checks in is his old N.C. State teammate, Lorenzo Brown, who is playing for Grand Rapids tonight.
Greensboro may be a professional basketball town now, but the team still has its ACC roots. In January, when Barber was playing for Delaware and the 87ers came to Greensboro, the Swarm sold over 300 group tickets, mostly Wolfpack fans wanting to see their old point guard. Then, the Swarm traded for Barber after Munford left. In the crowd Friday night was a homemade sign by a fan that read “Thank you Cat Barber.” The youngster, clad in Wolfpack attire, wasn’t thanking him for his time with the Swarm.
Shonn Miller’s turnaround hook shot extends the Swarm’s lead to 19 points with 6:42 left in the second quarter, the largest the lead would be all night.
While the lead dwindled as the quarter went along, Greensboro still found a way to end the quarter with a bang. With 5.9 seconds left, the Rapid’s Crawford misses a short jump shot. Archie Goodwin, showcasing a bit of that McDonalds All-American talent, grabs the rebound and drives the length of the court. He hit a driving layup with .9 seconds left in the half, and even earns an and-one and a trip to the foul line, which he converts.
The Swarm enter the locker room with a 65-50 lead. As the team jogs off the court, Cheick Diallo threw his big arm around Rasheed Suliamon.
Onto the court walks breast cancer survivors, all clad in pink.
Something unique to the NBA D-League is the opportunity to do themed jersey nights. A franchise can have a night where they design special jerseys and then auction them off after the game to raise money for a charity.
For example, on Friday, January 6th, the Delaware 87ers hosted the Erie Bayhawks on Star Wars night. The 87ers wore special R2-D2 themed jerseys that were auctioned off to benefit Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.
“One of the things that we know about this game of basketball is that it’s a connector,” Michele Wolfert, director of partnerships with the Swarm, said. “And one of the unique things about the D-League is the opportunity to have jersey partners, where through our team and our brand, we can connect a corporate partner to a non-profit through this special jersey night.”
On Friday, March 4th, the Swarm connected one of their corporate partners, Allegacy Federal Credit Union, with Susan G. Komen Northwest North Carolina.
The Swarm wore special pink jerseys against Grand Rapids. It wasn’t a straight pink jersey, but a pinkish camouflage blend that looked good.
They featured the team name “Swarm” across the top, the white team numbers in the middle and the Allegacy logo on the bottom. The NBA D-League logo was tucked into the top right hand corner of the front of the jersey. Greensboro even wore matching pink shorts, creating a pink on pink look for a good cause.
The jerseys were auctioned off during the game. The themed jersey nights are an example of the communion between the business and basketball operations of the Swarm. The benefit all went to a good cause, too.
In a halftime ceremony, the Swarm welcomed breast cancer survivors onto the court along with Cathy Pace, the chief executive officer at Allegacy, and Diana Parrish, the executive director of Susan G. Komen Northwest NC. Everyone loved the pink jerseys.
“I love the pink jerseys, love the pink jerseys,” Pace said. “I actually found out when Chrystal [Parnell], who is in charge of our PR, said, ‘You are going to be getting a pink jersey tonight out on center court.’ I said, ‘Do I get to put it on when I’m out there?’ She said no, it’s going to be framed. We’ll take it back to our organization and we will feature it very, very proudly.”
Grand Rapids jumps out on a quick 4-0 run to begin the second half, cutting the Swarm’s lead to 11.
Later in the third quarter, Damien Wilkins commits a charge and the Swarm take a full timeout. During the break, there is a dance contest between two young girls on center court. Players in both huddles can’t help but take a peek as the little one dances to “Juju on that Beat.”
The Drive cut the lead to nine five different times in the quarter. Each time, though, the Swarm push it back to double digits. Greensboro ends the quarter with a 4-0 run of their own. The buzzer sounds and the Swarm hold a 90-75 lead with the same 15-point lead that they had entering the half.
At this point, Greensboro has four players in double digits for scoring. Mike Tobey, the Charlotte call-up, leads the way with 18 points on 8-12 shooting from the field.
For a long time, Steve Swetoha was a one-man operation.
A veteran of the professional sports universe, Swetoha was hired in October of 2015 to lead the Swarm as team president. The team didn’t start playing until a year later and was a start-up. Swetoha had to oversee the whole operation from the ground up.
For a while, he spent time in Charlotte, working with the Hornets organization to get everything up and running. The Hornets were instrumental in the smooth transition that has occurred the past two years from idea to fully functioning D-League franchise.
“It takes people to be successful,” Swetoha said. “We really took our time and deliberately made sure that each hire was going to make a huge impact on our culture and driving results.”
Under Swetoha’s leadership, the Swarm hired staff on both the business and basketball side and even did the simple stuff like finding office space and getting wi-fi. The facility was one of the major challenges for the Swarm, because it came down to the wire whether the building would be ready on opening night or not. But the building, a fieldhouse next to the Greensboro Coliseum, was ready and everything went off smoothly that first night.
In each step of the process of building a basketball franchise, Swetoha emphasized embracing the Greensboro community. The basketball players and staff in Greensboro do community outreach events.
“It’s in everyone’s DNA to give back,” Swetoha said.
Greensboro has returned the favor, offering friendly and growing crowds and embracing their new professional sports franchise. One of the challenges for the Swarm in year one is explaining and introducing their product to the basketball-crazed yet new market in Greensboro.
“The positive response [from] those that supported us in season one and wanting to come back in season two has been overwhelming,” Wolfert, the Swarm’s director of partnerships, said. “I think that’s just a credit to the entire team, front office and basketball ops in that people want to be a part of this season two.”
In that second season, the Swarm hope to do more work with corporate sponsors and nonprofits to create more themed jersey nights. They also want to stay affordable and as a family-friendly experience. But an emphasis in reaching out with the Greensboro community is still a priority that won’t go away.
“There’s still more to do, but [after] the first year, I’m pleasantly surprised with the results and the interactions and the involvement and the impact in the community,” Swetoha said.
After two Perry Ellis free throws with 10:01 left in the fourth quarter that pushed Greensboro’s lead to 94-77, it looks like the Swarm were on their way to an easy home victory. But then Jordan Crawford took over.
Two nights later, on March 6th, Crawford will be in Utah playing for the New Orleans Pelicans on a 10-day NBA contract. He’ll score 19 points on 8-15 shooting from the field in his first game back in the NBA. But none of that matters on March 4 in Greensboro — tonight, he’s just getting buckets.
He leads the Drive on a 14-2 run. In the blink of an eye, the Swarm saw their lead dwindle to five with 7:15 left in the fourth quarter. If Greensboro wanted a win this night, they were going to have to fight for it.
Greensboro pushes back with a 7-0 run of its own. Grand Rapids punches back to cut the lead to six, then four, then two after Crawford hit a pull-up jumper with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter. Crawford looked tired as the game came to a close, but he just kept finding a way to score.
The Swarm call a 20 second timeout with 59 seconds left in the game and with a five-point lead. On the ensuing possession, Greensboro commits an eight-second backcourt violation, giving the ball back to the Drive.
Jordon Crawford had the ball at the top of the key, the clock ticking underneath a minute to go. He accepts a screen and got Cheick Diallo to switch onto him on defense. Crawford fiddles with Diallo and fires, missing his three-point attempt. The Drive’s Chris Anderson got the rebound, though, and kicks it back to Crawford for another three-point attempt. It just misses but Anderson got another offensive rebound. Lorenzo Brown reset his team’s offense as the clock hit 30 seconds.
Brown made a spin move and got fouls with 26 seconds to go. He misses his first attempt but makes his second. The Drive were forced to foul, and the Swarm executed to secure the victory, their 14th of the season.
After the game, the Fieldhouse was still alive with energy.
At center court, Swarm players presented their game-worn pink jerseys to the fans that bought them. The fans and player were brought out to center court for a photo op and as a thank-you for supporting the fight against breast cancer.
Team president Steve Swetoha is all smiles. He’s pleased that 2,137 came out to watch tonight’s game. More importantly, he’s pleased his team raised $4,029 for Susan G. Komen Northwest North Carolina thanks to sales from the jersey auction.
Coach Noel Gillespie sits in his office in the back of the Fieldhouse, content with tonight’s victory. The defensive toughness he’s been craving was there tonight, and he loves how that toughness manifested itself in the Drive shooting just 41.3 percent from the field.
All the Swarm’s players made a lap around the court, taking time to sign autographs with fans that stayed for the post-game session. It’s as if this sort of thing is in their DNA.
Cat Barber took pictures with every kid, especially those wearing red, that wanted one. Veteran Damien Wilkins cheerily led the way around the court.
There were children with UNC, N.C. State, Duke shirts on, representing the varied allegiances for other teams throughout the state. But, as seen in the smiles of the little kids as they interacted with the big professional basketball players, some new Greensboro Swarm fans were made this Friday night.
This is Swarm.