Jahmani Swanson grew up in New York City. His father, who is not a dwarf, remembers his son being obsessed with basketball as a toddler. His mother Sabrina is a dwarf, and she’s been a great inspiration to him.
“Going out with my mother, you know, going shopping, as a kid, it didn’t bother her when people stared at her,” Swanson said. “People loved her just for her being her. And she told us, ‘Don’t make an excuse, you’re not different, you know, you’re just short. You’re just short.’”
Swanson grew up shooting hoops on New York City playgrounds with kids who were much taller, and from a very early age, it was clear he had a gift. In high school he made the varsity basketball team his sophomore year, and he turned down offers to play for several Division II colleges in New York. Swanson weighs 100 pounds, but he is very strong. He is described as ferocious on defense.
“I can guard anybody who’s putting the ball down on the floor,” Swanson said. “That’s the thing. You don’t want to put the ball down on the floor. And if you are going to put the ball down on the floor, you should protect that ball. Otherwise it’s my cookie.”
The 27-year-old Swanson is also a confident ball handler who likes to take it to the rim.
“People feel that because of my size, I can’t take it in. You know, they’re expecting me to shoot, but they be amazed by it because I like to drive,” he said.
“He has a knack for going to the basket and not being afraid of anyone who’s coming at him,” said Swanson’s coach Patrick Fava, who has a brother who is a dwarf and plays on the New York Towers, a basketball team comprised of little people.
“He can have four or five hands in his face swatting at the ball and he’ll still go right back in there,” Fava said. “He will take you to the hole, and he will make sure he finishes every single play. And the tenacity he plays with, the way he gets after the ball are second to none.”
Even Swanson’s teammates are in awe at his abilities. Steve Catoia is a four-foot tall member of the Towers who works at a software company in New Jersey. During warmups he wore a t-shirt that said, “I’m used to the staring.”
“Every time I see him play he amazes me,” Catoia said. “Today we were just on a layup line, and he’s going down the layup line and he jumped up in the air, went through the legs and put the layup up. And I just stood back and I was, like, ‘Jahmani, every time I see you it’s something new.’”
The youngest member of the New York Towers is 4-foot-2 Teddy Tilkin, who says Swanson is like a father figure to him.
“He’s a role model,” Tilkin said. “Not only is he athletic, he’s extremely smart when it comes to the basketball game as well. I would definitely say that he is a leader on the court.”
Tilkin is a senior at Commack High School on Long Island. Every year the Towers come to Commack High to play a team of much taller students.
In games against average height competitors like a recent one at Commack High, the Towers’ opponents can’t go for a rebound until the ball has hit the floor once. And opponents are only allowed to make bounce passes, something that makes scoring more difficult. But the rim is regulation height and the basketball is regulation size. The bleachers inside Commack High’s gymnasium were nearly full when the Towers’ general manager Clinton Brown announced the lineup. Brown is a little over three feet tall and stood on a chair so he could be seen.
“You might have seen him on YouTube,” Brown announced. “He is a fan spectacular favorite, No. 15 from New York, NY, Jahmani Swanson.”
Commack High, which includes one girl, easily won the tipoff but it was clear that many on the team were reluctant to use their height advantage to block the Towers’ shots.
“I was nervous to block one but eventually blocked one,” Commack senior Greg Dauber said. “I felt bad, but it’s the game.”
Swanson was exciting to watch, clearly a crowd favorite as he sank three-pointers and drove repeatedly for the basket.
The Towers were down two points late in the fourth quarter when Coach Fava called a time out. He squatted to address the team.
“This is the fourth quarter,” Fava said. “This is the game time right here. Make it happen here and take it home.”
With a little more than a minute left in the game and the score tied at 38, Jahmani Swanson stole the ball then raced down court and layed the ball in to put the Towers ahead, 40-38.
Swanson’s game winning play left many in the gymnasium shaking their heads at his clutch performance. Jahmani Swanson scored 20 points, nearly half of his team’s total, and made a lasting impression on the high school kids who had tried to guard him. Senior Greg Dauber said it wasn’t easy.
“He’s a lot better than I thought,” Dauber said. “He’s quick, he can shoot and he goes right through us. I tried blocking him and he actually went right around me. It was crazy.”
Swanson’s basketball abilities are now on display from coast to coast. When he’s not in New York playing with the Towers, he’s in Southern California playing in the Venice Basketball League with teammates who are all much taller than he is. A YouTube video of his handiwork on the asphalt in Venice has close to two million views. Swanson has wrestled professionally, appeared in television and movie productions and aspires to star in his own reality TV show.
“You can’t let the things you have be a disadvantage because that’s what people expect,” Swanson says. “You have to use what you have as a motivation and as your energy booster. I tell anyone on this earth, ‘You can do what you want to do.’”
Swanson and his teammates on the New York Towers will be going for their fourth consecutive basketball championship at the Dwarf Athletic Association of America’s national games this summer in East Lansing, Mich., where they will also compete in the 2013 World Games, known as the Dwarf Olympics.