Red also helped introduce Cliff to raequetball, albeit accidentally. One summer day in 1979 he took Cliff to watch Red play handball at South Boston's beachside L Street Bath House. A friend of an uncle of Cliff's was also there that afternoon, waiting for a raequetball partner who hadn't shown up. Cliff had never played raequetball, but the man knew that Cliff was gifted enough athletically to give him a decent game, and so he talked the 13-year-old into filling in. Despite the man's advantage in strength and experience, Cliff won the first match of his life. Next Cliff defeated one of the state's best junior raequetball players in an impromptu match, and by the following March, Cliff was officially Massachusetts' new junior champ. A year later, in March 1981, he repeated his win in the junior tournament and won the men's open, too.
Swain was still four years away from turning pro. There didn't seem to be much point, once he began picking up $500 and $1,000 checks for winning local tournaments. Anyway, his father didn't think he was ready to join the tour.
That changed at a tournament in New Hampshire in 1985. Cliff, then a few months shy of his 19th birthday, got angry with an opponent for being rude to another player. "So he destroyed him," says Red. "The guy was a state champ from some other state, a lefty like Cliff but bigger, stronger, older. Cliff beat him 15-0."
Won over by the performance in New Hampshire, Red let his son enter the 1985 Tulsa Pro Am that February, and Cliff beat four of the sport's top 10 players and became the only unseeded player in history to win a raequetball pro stop. That May in Los Angeles, Swain beat raequetball legend Marty Hogan in the quarterfinals, No. 1-seeded Dave Peck in the semis and Peck's brother, Gregg, in the final to win the biggest event of that season, the Ektelon Nationals. He dropped out of Providence College that fall to join the pro tour full-time, figuring he could always return to school later. (He's taking courses in business and Spanish this summer at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.) Except for the two years off to play tennis, Swain has ranked among racquetball's top five players ever since.
Swain's low-six-figure earnings include endorsement money from Head Sports and Leader Sport Products. And, like Jordan, Swain has dabbled in the restaurant business, though much less successfully—he has already pulled out of his partnership in a coffee shop down the block from his South Boston brownstone.
Swain shares Jordan's intense competitiveness and hatred of losing. Helping to keep him motivated at tournaments, he says, are the postvictory calls home on Sunday nights to his parents and his girlfriend, Lee Doyle, a nurse. But the routine has a potential downside, too. "Boy, do I dread my call home if I lose," he says. "I don't even make it sometimes. It's kind of cowardly of me, but I don't."
Few athletes take losing harder than Swain. "I don't sleep for two, three days when I lose," he says. "'I nod off here and there, but sleeping is very hard. I don't enjoy eating—I don't enjoy anything after a loss. Until another win."
Sleeping hasn't been much of a problem for Swain this year, and his on-court brilliance has been beneficial to the pro tour as well. But his off-the-court demeanor is also an asset to his largely neglected sport. Swain makes it a point to stick around for a day or two in the host city after each pro stop and writes thank-you notes to tournament sponsors.
Which brings up a final point of comparison with Jordan. Pro racquetball players are stronger and better than they've ever been—Swain's serve, for example, has been clocked at as fast as 192 mph—and if racquetball as a participatory sport seems to be on the wane, the reverse is true for the pro game. Next season's schedule, beginning the second week in August, nearly doubles the number of tournaments to 35. A superstar with a great attitude helps popularize pro racquetball—much the way Jordan and, before him, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird helped basketball prosper.
Not that Swain himself thinks he's doing anything that special off the court, mind you. "I just want to be the absolute, 100-percent best that I can be," he says, "so that when it's all said and done, I can say, 'This is what I was great at, and I did the best I could with it.' I mean, even if it wasn't sports, you get one shot at life, and you want to make the best of it."