Carolyn Swords wasn’t supposed to be playing 18.2 minutes per night for one of the WNBA’s best teams this year. The 31-year-old center wasn’t supposed to be playing any minutes for anyone.
That’s because Swords retired in February, accepting a position in the Las Vegas front office to work in the team’s marketing department. But then, things changed. COVID-19 caused the postponement of the WNBA season and led to a rash of opt-outs from international players. One of those players was Ji-Su Park, who announced in early May that she’d be staying in South Korea this year instead of playing in the WNBA. With Park gone, the Aces suddenly had an open roster spot and the need for a player who knew head coach Bill Laimbeer’s system.
Enter, or rather re-enter, Carolyn Swords.
On May 19th, Swords chose to unretire from the league, signing a contract with the Aces to restart her basketball career.
So, how did that journey transpire?
Swords said that it really began in the offseason before the 2019 season, when she had the opportunity to work as a business operations intern for the Aces.
“I did a lot of work with our community relations manager in developing programs [and]in making sure we were reaching out to the community,” Swords said. She added that because the internship came the first offseason after the franchise moved from San Antonio to Las Vegas, it was “a really great opportunity to continue to grow [our]presence.”
Swords did a variety of work behind the scenes during that time, from working on ticket sales to marketing, getting, she said, a “taste for a little bit of everything that goes into pulling off a season.”
When asked about the decision to retire and take a full-time position for the team, Swords said she had an “awesome opportunity and just felt that was a thing [she]could see herself doing.”
But in a world full of so much uncertainty, Swords decision to move into a non-basketball position was short-lived.
“I was on staff working as a marketing specialist,” Swords said, “and a lot of my responsibilities were going to be in games.”
Swords was anticipating a role in which she helped ensure a seamless game-day experience, but the 2020 WNBA season wasn’t going to be one in which she was able to serve in that role.
That was where the decision to return to the basketball court came in. Around the time that Swords says her “responsibilities definitely decreased” due to the delay of the season and the eventual move to IMG Academy, Park chose to stay in Korea, putting the Aces roster in a “short-handed situation.”
“The team reached out, I was available, and so I just jumped back in,” Swords said.
But while Swords retirement itself was short-lived, it wasn’t easy for her to jump back onto the court.
“I was training for a road race I was expecting to be running in July,” Swords said. “I wasn’t getting into a gym. I was doing what I could in my apartment. I think I had a good baseline, but that’s very different from being a post player and having to play defense and box people out and sprint down the floor. I hadn’t picked up a ball in a while.”
While adjusting to being back on the floor is tough, Swords has been a steady contributor to this year’s Aces team. As of August 16th, she’s averaging more minutes per game than she’s ever played. She’s averaging more rebounds per game than she’s ever averaged. And while her 3.3 points per game aren’t going to put her among the league’s elite scorers, she’s played a key role on one of the WNBA’s best teams.
In fact, she’s been an important part of one of the best lineups. Among the 11 five-player lineups in the WNBA to play at least 50 minutes together this year, the Aces starting five — Swords, A’ja Wilson, Angel McCoughtry, Kayla McBride, and Lindsay Allen — have the third-best net rating in the league at +24.2. Swords has helped that lineup rank first among the sample size in rebounding rate, and Vegas has an overall net rating that’s 1.9 points per 100 possessions better when Carolyn Swords is on the floor versus when she’s sitting.
Swords isn’t a huge threat when the ball is in her hands, but she continues to do all the little things when she’s on the floor, making the Aces a better team and proving why Bill Laimbeer turned to the veteran to re-join the team this season.
When asked about how it feels to have gone from retirement to playing such a key role on this team, Swords said, “It’s really fun. This is a really great group. We have a blast, both in practice and on the court.”
That “fun” quality is apparent up and down this Aces team, from the on-court product to the way the team presents itself on social media, and it’s no surprise that it’s a quality that Swords pinpoints as important.
But it’s also about more than that. Swords concluded by zooming out to think about things in a more big picture way.
“In these really uncertain times, basketball — which has really been a through-line through my whole life and something that I’ve been able to rely on. I’m really thankful that I’m able to get back on the court, back to something that feels as normal as normal can be, and just helping this team in whatever way I can. It’s a lot of fun.”
And so, retirement and a future in the team’s marketing department waits for now. There’s more basketball to play.