Heading into his third season as a member of the Boston Celtics, Brandon Bass is in top physical shape. At 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, he is nothing but muscle and can shoot, block, rebound, and steal the ball with the best of them.
But there’s one thing that 6-year-old Brandon Bass Jr. can beat his daddy at: swimming.
“My son’s the first one in the family to learn how to swim,” says Bass, a 28-year-old Celtics forward. “If you threw me out in the ocean, I would drown.”
But Bass is getting ready to change that. On Friday, he will get into the Boston Sports Club swimming pool in Waltham, the shallow end, with 10 children from the Boys & Girls Club of Boston. Together, Bass and the children will take their first swimming lesson. He will continue lessons with them for as long as his Celtics schedule permits, and when it does not, he says he will take private lessons until he learns to swim.
Though he is volunteering his time to help children conquer their fear of swimming, Bass has fears of his own. “I’m nervous, because I don’t know how to float,” he says. “I can’t tread water.”
Bass grew up in Baton Rouge, La., with no real place to swim and with friends, a brother, and parents who did not swim either. When he was a child, a neighbor his age drowned, and the memory has stayed with him.
It was a child’s drowning death in summer 2011 that got the Boys & Girls Club thinking about a swimming program for the inner-city youth, mostly black and Hispanic, which it serves.
“You always hear horrendous stories in summertime about kids drowning,” says Jerry Steimel, the club’s executive director of operations. “In 2011, a boy drowned in a pond in Maine, and the director of the Portland Boys & Girls Club called me and asked what we were doing about water safety.”
The answer: not enough. Steimel and his staff spoke to several Boys & Girls Club alumni who had participated in club programs for 12 years and did not know how to swim. “We felt like we weren’t doing our best job if we weren’t teaching this basic life skill,” says Steimel.
In fall 2011, staff began to swim-test members. Of the 2,344 children between ages 6 and 18 tested, almost 70 percent failed.
It is not just a local problem. According to the nonprofit USA Swimming Foundation, 70 percent of black children and 60 percent of Hispanic children do not know how to swim, compared with 40 percent of white children. Drowning is the second leading cause of death for children under the age of 14.
The Boys & Girls Club hired several swim instructors for the six pools it uses. “It’s an essential skill,” says Josh Kraft, president and chief executive of the Boys & Girls Club of Boston. “You could be walking on a river bank and slip and fall into 5 feet of water and drown.”
Something like that happened to Celtics forward Jeff Green when he was a boy.
“I slipped on wet pavement on the outside edge of a pool and fell in, panicked, and almost drowned,” says Green, 27. “I want to learn to swim before I have kids, and I want them to learn. I think it’s just a skill that kids and people in general should have. Whether a family vacation, or just with friends, a lot of activities take place near water.”
Bass’s dual motivations are his kids, Brandon Jr. and 20-month-old Bella. “Brandon was jumping into the water at 2 years old,” he says. “I had to get him little floaties for his arms.”
He put his son in swim lessons and now “he swims like a bass fish,” Bass says. Bella recently started swim lessons. “She’s not really a big fan, but she knows how to float,” he says.
There’s added motivation: In 2009, Bass bought a house with a pool on a lake in Orlando, where the family spends the offseason. He also bought a Jet Ski, which he and his son use together.
“I can tell he’s having the time of his life, and he doesn’t have a worry in the world,” says Bass. “But I’m a little worried.”
His son senses it and says: “Dad, you can’t swim!” Says Bass: “I just feel as the man of the house, I need to learn to swim.”
But many parents who did not grow up with access to pools or lessons are afraid to let their children near the water. Some have balked at the Boys & Girls Club’s initiative. One mother told staff: “I’m afraid to sign up my kid for swim lessons. I’m afraid he might drown.”
Steimel says the club has worked closely with parents to emphasize the importance of swim lessons and “to get past the fear that a lot of the parents have passed on to their kids.”
Cullen Jones, who nearly drowned at age 5 and went on to win gold medals in swimming in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, is the first African-American male to hold a world swimming record. He is part of the swimming foundation’s Make A Splash campaign to educate parents and teach children how to swim.
“I tell parents they wouldn’t allow their child to drive without a safety belt or play football without pads, so don’t allow your child to be near any body of water without knowing the proper [swim] techniques,” he says in an interview on the foundation’s website.
Rich Gotham, the Celtics team president, says that regardless of their physical prowess, if professional athletes did not grow up with access to pools, they do not swim.
“It’s like anything,” says Gotham. “It’s access to facilities.”
Gotham believes that Bass’s participation with the swimming initiative will motivate children to get involved.
“It brings this super athlete to their level, and it’s a great way to show the kids that he’s going through the same thing that they’re going through,” Gotham says. “They’re learning how to swim, and he’s learning how to swim.”
Dana Barros, a former Celtics guard, grew up in Mattapan and says he feels lucky that he had access to a public pool and a father who was a lifeguard at the YMCA. He and his wife taught their two sons, now teenagers, how to swim.
“My wife is a beach person,” Barros says, “and I wouldn’t let them go to the beach unless they could swim, because that’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Danny Ainge, president of basketball operations for the Celtics, spent 14 years playing in the NBA and went on to coach the Phoenix Suns. He grew up in Eugene, Ore., swimming at the local pool from age 4.
“My family was so poor that all we could afford [for recreation] was a $30 swim pass,” he says. Ainge would tag along to the pool with his two older brothers.
“I remember when I was 4, I had to prove to the lifeguard that I could swim before they would let me dive off the diving board or swim in the deep end,” Ainge says.
While at Brigham Young University, Ainge was a star basketball player and played baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays.
At the end of each baseball season, he would begin training for the basketball season. “My knees would be inflamed, so I would go into the swimming pool and train,” he says.
As coach of the Suns, he thought he would try the same thing with his players.
“After a hard morning of practice, we were going to do some conditioning in the pool,” he recalls. Of the 15 players, only three could swim. Ainge quickly abandoned the idea.
Brandon Bass is looking forward to his first swimming lesson and says other parents should learn, too, and encourage their children.
“Even if you don’t want to swim,” he says, “it’s important to learn in case you need to.”