The Best Swimmers Are In The NBA

by Casey Barrett

It’s true… Too bad the spoils will never lure them to the pool… 

Describe the physical gifts of your perfect swimmer. He’s gotta be tall. Huge hands and feet. Must possess both explosiveness and a light touch, or feel for the sport. Oh, and he must be hyper competitive. Sound like anyone you know? Maybe the stars of last night’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals?

Much has been made of Michael Phelps having the ideal swimmer’s physique. As Bob Costas intoned in this NBC feature from 2008, ‘if you were to build the perfect swimmer, the finished product would look just like this.’ Ok, fair enough. No arguing with the results. But what if his opponent was nine inches taller; had even bigger ‘dinner plate’ sized hands; size 16 feet; and a childhood of equal aquatic immersion.

Like, say Tim Duncan? You probably already know the story about how Spurs’ legend Tim Duncan was a swimmer first, growing up in St. Croix. If not, here’s a quick refresher. He was a very good one. A 200 and 400 freestyler who had serious Olympic potential. His sister, Tricia, was an Olympian in 1988. But then Hurricane Hugo destroyed his swim team’s pool, and the 14-year-old Duncan turned to hoops. Safe to say he made the right choice. Over the course of his 16-year NBA career, Duncan has amassed a net worth of around $200 million. Phelps is a rich man, but he will never get anywhere close to that figure. In fact, by NBA standards, he’s paid somewhere in the range of a bench-riding role player.

Is that just? Well, if swimmers could fill arenas 82 times a year, their earning potential might be a different story. But that’s not really the point. The point is that many NBA stars could very likely translate their physical gifts into world class performance in the swimming pool. And the few who spent much time on swim teams growing up have proven that conclusively.

Here’s another: Kris Humphries. Until last month, Humphries was the National Age Group record holder in the 10 & under boys 100 freestyle. That record was eclipsed by young Winn Aung of the Redding Swim Team back in May, and Aung again lowered it this week. But Humphries’ time of 1:02.39 stood for 18 years, since 1995. He was born the same year as Phelps, and he was a faster freestyler when they were both record-setting boys. Last year, the Brooklyn Nets power forward earned $12 million. Unlike his marriage, it appears Humphries made a wise choice in sport.

Like Duncan, Humphries also had a sister who went on to compete in the pool at a world class level. His sister Kaela was a standout swimmer at Texas during her college years. But alas, their brothers would be bound for bigger crowds and bigger salaries in the big time world of the NBA.

And just to round out the trend with a third example, does anyone remember sharpshooter Kiki Vandeweghe? Back in the 80s, he was a 20-point a night star with the Nuggets and Trail Blazers, even a few with the Knicks towards the end of his career. Vandeweghe was also recently the head coach and GM of the New Jersey Nets before their move to Brooklyn. But before that decorated NBA career, Vandeweghe was a NAG-record setting young swimmer. For many years, Vandeweghe was the National Age Group record holder in the 10 & under boys 50 butterfly. He went 31.70 in that event when he was 10 – back in 1968!

Unfortunately, swimming’s loss was basketball’s gain. He swam for the Santa Monica Swim Club and the Culver City Swim Club in L.A. through the late 60s and early 70s, and he was a stud in the pool right up until high school. In this long ago story from the Harvard Crimson, here’s what Vandeweghe had to say about his decision to switch sports: “I left swimming for several reasons. One of them was the limited number of scholarships available in the sport. I decided early it was my own responsibility to pay for college, and I thought a basketball scholarship might allow me to do that. My parents encouraged us to do our very best in our chosen sport, so rather than become just so-so at both. I decided to concentrate on basketball.”

Again, wise choice. But it is rather tragic to consider all the immense talent that has fled the pool over the years for more promising, or more lucrative futures in richer sports.

It’s a beautiful thing to watch Tim Duncan play basketball on the biggest stage of all. But how beautiful to consider what it might have been like to watch him win untold gold at some long ago Games… If only for Hurricane Hugo.