Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Greater Atlanta Christian's Collin Swinton will play his final high school basketball game today as the Spartans chase the state Class AA basketball title.
NORCROSS -- It won't be the familiar seat, but it will still be empty.
Collin Swinton knows precisely the seat his father preferred in Greater Atlanta Christian's Long Forum. In four years on the varsity team he knew where to look when things went wrong. In that seat he found coaching, support, a reprimand or two, but always comfort.
"I know exactly where he sat every game," Collin said. "I still (look up there)."
John Swinton passed away Jan. 7.
Collin will play his final high school game this evening at the Macon Centreplex as one of two seniors on GAC's basketball team fighting for his third state championship. It won't be his first game in this arena, but his first since his sophomore season.
It won't be the familiar seat, but one will be empty.
"Not having him there has been really hard," Swinton said. "I have teammates and coaches and everybody that has gathered around me. The school gave me support. Plus, that competitive nature keeps me going."
Collin's mother, Valerie, calls the competitiveness "fierce."
Collin started playing basketball because of his father. As a baby John bought him his first pair of Jordan basketball shoes and the family keeps them to this day. There was a Fisher Price goal in the living room. The two played together and, eventually, Collin played for many of his father's AAU teams.
"My dad really loved basketball so that is the reason I really started playing," Swinton said. "Just to have that connection with my father."
John stopped playing basketball after high school when kidney failure forced him away from the game and his scholarship offers.
But he stayed involved, playing as often as he could, and eventually began coaching in 2003, about the time Collin picked up a full-sized basketball. Eventually Collin had new coaches, leaving John a spectator of his son's success. Valerie sat through every game with dad playing coach in her ear.
"I know the first time I went back to see him play after my husband's home going, it was weird," she said. "John was always a coach, even in the stands. I miss sitting beside him and doing the sidebar coaching. It's strange with him not being there."
Stranger still for Collin, who always looked toward that seat.
"They had that eye-to-eye contact," Valerie said. "He knew looking at his dad what he was supposed to do. That strong relationship and bond. They were best friends. They were buds."
Before the season, John predicted the GAC's success. He knew a good basketball team when he saw one.
The Spartans aren't a team with one, or even two, driving forces. It's been a state playoff run with a swath of players rising when needed.
But when things turned rough, Swinton steadied the Spartans.
"He has a calming effect on our team," GAC head coach Eddie Martin said. "Collin is not a loud, boisterous person in any way. He just has a calm, goes about his business and he kind of brings that attitude to the rest of them out there. When they could get all jittery and nervous, he has a calming effect on them out there. He has adapted to that role really well and does a good job being a leader out there."
As a starter, this run belongs more to Swinton than two seasons ago. The responsibility falls on him this time and he welcomes its weight.
"If the pressure is on me, I am a big factor if we win or if we lose. I like being a big contributor," Swinton said. "We are so close, so every game is fun to play with them."
And since his father's passing, he's learned how close. The entire team came to the funeral. Coaches and trainers and teachers from the school showed as well. The day the team found out about his father, it went out and beat Hapeville Charter 86-41.
"They were in shock," Martin said. "I called them together and said, 'This is one of those situations where Collin is more important than this ballgame tonight. If you don't want to go play I'll call and we'll forfeit the ballgame. We won't even go play them.' Somebody spoke up and said, 'Collin wouldn't want us to do that, he'd want us to go play.' We went and played and played unbelievably well that night, on the road. It was all in dedication to Collin and his dad."
He got texts and phone calls, but mostly, he had teammates and basketball, his beloved sport.
"The thing that they did such a great job is they were just there," Martin said of Swinton's Spartan teammates. "Who knows what to say? I don't know what to say. They were there for him and, I think, as things go, that was probably one of those situations that brought us together and made us closer as a team."
Collin still glances toward the stands, toward his father's seat. The emptiness isn't easy, but he knows there are other places to look.
"When I get on the court, you know how it is with your father, when you are having a bad game or things are going good and you need that extra comfort I'd always look at him, he'd tell me, 'Do this, do that,'" Collin said. "It's tough, but the team is helping me get through it."