Cliff Swain and Michael Jordan have a lot in common, though perhaps not at first glance. Swain is, after all, a South Boston Yankee with a full head of black hair; at 5'11" he's a good seven inches shorter than Jordan; and he's virtually unknown outside racquetball circles. But Swain dominates professional racquetball as much as Jordan ever did basketball, and there are plenty of other parallels to suggest that Swain goes further than merely wanting to "be like Mike."
Swain, 28, is his sport's best player and arguably its greatest ever. Certainly no one has achieved a record like the one Swain amassed in the recently concluded 1993-94 pro racquetball season, winning 13 of the 19 International Racquetball lour stops, with two streaks of five tournament victories in a row. Swain was especially daunting over two weekends in December. First he took the Coca-Cola Pro Am in Denver by winning four matches without a loss. (Pro matches consist of the best three of live 11-point games.) It was only the second time in the sport's history that a player had won a pro stop without losing a single game; Swain himself was the first to do it, in 1989. The next week Swain went 15-0 over live matches to win the VCI Pro Am Championships in Dallas. And with a win in Anaheim in March, he clinched the season No. 1 ranking for the third time in his career, equaling Jordan as a three-time pro champion.
But don't expect Swain to jump to another sport now that he's won a third title. He has already taken a couple of years off from racquetball to sample another sport. After sealing his first No. 1 ranking, in 1989-90, he sat out two racquetball seasons for a go at pro tennis.
Moving from racquetball to tennis may not seem as quixotic a stretch as switching from basketball to baseball, but remember that most tennis pros begin training at a young age. Swain had barely played the game when he turned pro at 24, yet he achieved surprising success. In his second year of competition he was ranked 11th and co-ranked ninth in New England in singles and doubles, respectively.
What made Swain quit racquetball for a shot at tennis? Partly it was the lure of so many more spectators, and partly it was the unusual encouragement he received at his local club in 1990. Boris Becker and his coach at the time, Ion Tiriac, showed up at the Boston Athletic Club one day with Tiriac's teenage son in tow. Swain obliged the kid with a game of tennis, and soon Tiriac and Becker had stopped hitting to watch Swain. "Tiriac asked me how long I'd been playing," says Swain. "I told him I didn't know—maybe 15, 20 times. He said I would get good fast and that I should give it a try. I figured while I was young enough, I would give it a try."
Swain returned to racquetball for the 1992-93 season, having decided it was more fulfilling to be the absolute best at one sport than to be a late-starting non-champion at another. He finished the season with his second No. 1 ranking. But he didn't give up other sports entirely. Every chance he gets, Swain still plays hockey with a passion rivaling Jordan's for golf.
Swain plays most of his hockey in American Amateur Hockey Association "noncontact" games around Boston. In May he showed up for a tournament in Acton, Mass., having forgotten his shoulder pads; he played anyway and scored two goals in his team's 8-0 win. He even got into a brief altercation in the goal crease with an opposing defenseman who forgot he was in a noncontact league and fattened Cliff's lip with a cross-check.
News of the bruise did not sit well with Cliff's father, Red Swain. "I hate it," says Red, a bindery supervisor at a Boston printing company. "I say, 'Cliff, I like you to enjoy yourself, but you're playing with your rent.' "
Cliff understands his dad's logic but plays hockey anyway. "Sometimes," he says, "it's not fun to do the smart thing."
Fun has always meant sports to Swain. Red bought Cliff his first Whiffle bat when he was three, and neighbors used to gather to watch the little boy take his cuts. Red believes to this day that baseball could have been Cliff's best sport, but that was not all that Cliff was good at. At four he was beating kids twice his age at swim meets near the family's apartment in San Jose. When he was six, his family moved to Braintree, Mass., near Boston, and hockey was Cliff's sport from then until he took up raequetball at 13.