Xavier’s Swetye grew up like a Quaker
DARIEN, Conn. — As a teenager, 1978 Salem High School graduate John Swetye had legendary Quaker boys basketball coach John Cabas as his driver education teacher.
Cabas had stepped down from coaching by then, but spent hours riding around in the car recounting Salem’s rich basketball history to Swetye, in particular the 1959 state runner-up squad, which took down an Akron Central team led by future NBA Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond on their way to Columbus.
“I never got tired of hearing those old stories, especially about 1959. Basketball was such an integral part of the community back then,” Swetye said. “I learned so much about the game during the time I spent with Coach Cabas.”
After high school and college, Swetye’s career took him to Connecticut. Thirty-plus years later, he passed along that same passion that Cabas stirred in him to his son Zak, who beat the odds to become a Division I walk-on with the Xavier men’s basketball team and just finished his second year with the Musketeers.
“I heard so many stories about Salem’s rich basketball history growing up,” Zak Swetye said. “That fueled my love of the game for sure. I’m very competitive, and hearing about all those great players inspired me to try and be better.”
Zak got a chance to come face-to-face with one of the great players his dad told him about when he met Dave Hunter, who was a star guard on the 1959 state runner-up squad, while attending a basketball showcase in San Diego as a high school sophomore.
John had been in contact with Hunter, who had moved out to California, via email and set up the meeting.
“I had bought a copy of Dave’s book about the 1959 team and he sent me back a personalized thank you note with his email address, I kept up contact with him after that,” John Swetye said. “We spent four days with him out in San Diego when Zak was at his showcase. You could tell that they formed a connection.”
“It was a really cool experience meeting somebody my dad had talked so much about. He definitely helped propel me forward,” Zak Swetye said. “He was a guard like me. He offered me some feedback and gave me some tweaks to work on such as staying one step ahead of my opponent.”
That wasn’t the only thing Hunter passed along.
“He also taught me how to trash talk,” Zak Swetye laughed. “He was someone who loved getting inside his opponents’ head.”
John Swetye only played basketball as a freshman at Salem before he was forced to find a job due to his mother falling ill. But the knowledge he gained from his time spent with Cabas and from watching the great Quaker teams of the 1970s was passed directly along to his son as well as the players he later coached in AAU as well as fall and summer leagues in Connecticut.
“I repeated a lot of what I learned from Coach Cabas to Zak and the other players I coached. I would send them a PDF file with a lot of old sayings that he used to say,” John Swetye said. “Zak’s shooting form can be directly linked to what Coach Cabas used to teach. Those Salem teams were always such sound fundamental shooters and that can be directly attributed to him.”
Swetye utilized that coaching to become a standout player at Darien High School in Connecticut. When it came time to choose a college, he had several Division III offers, but had his heart set on trying to make Xavier’s team as a Division I walk-on.
“None of those other schools were that appealing to me outside of basketball,” Zak Swetye said. “Xavier was a place where I could see myself spending four great years even if basketball didn’t work out.”
Zak did not go in as a preferred walk-on, meaning he had no prior contact with the coaching staff prior to arriving on campus.
“I kind of went into it blind,” Zak Swetye said. “I emailed the coaches during the summer but got no response. “About a week-and-a-half before practice was supposed to start, I saw a flyer on campus about walk-on tryouts. I went and there were about 28 other kids there.”
With the odds against him making it, Swetye was one of three players selected for the team.
“It was very nerve-wracking because there were a lot of other very talented players,” Zak Swetye said. “After two weeks they called six of us back for a second tryout and from there, three of us got selected.”
Zak said his role on the team is primarily focused on getting the starters as prepared as possible for the next game.
“My job is to assist in making the players better however I can,” Zak Swetye said. “I help with drills and help run the scout teams. Even as a walk-on, it’s very demanding. We’re in the gym probably 4-6 hours a day.”
Sadly, Hunter did not get to see Zak make the Xavier team, as he passed away in 2017.
“He would have been thrilled,” John Swetye said. “I’m sure that Dave’s advice and encouragement helped Zak when he tried out for the team.”
Zak has seen brief action in a couple of games in his two seasons at Xavier. Regardless what he chooses to do next, he is prepared to pass along his love of the game just has his dad did to him.
“I’ve learned a ton in just these last couple of seasons,” Zak Swetye said. “I’m not sure exactly what I want to do going forward, but if I ever want to get into coaching, my time at Xavier has laid a great foundation for me. It’s been a great experience.”