From operating in a bubble to regular coronavirus testing, the NBA has taken extreme measures to continue playing games amid a years-long pandemic. Along the way, the league has served some reminders that it is a business and with so much money on the line, the show must go on. But one positive byproduct has been the countless opportunities created, most notably by the hardship exemption contracts that opened the door in December and January for many players to reach the NBA for the first time.
As a result, the league has seen a record number of players suit up this season. The Wizards have set a franchise record for total players, surpassing their previous mark of 25, set back in 2018-19. They are already at 27 now and that is without trade deadline acquisition Kristaps Porzingis having made his debut. They also have an open roster spot, which could push the number to 29.
With so many extra spots to go around, it has led to players reaching the NBA via unusual paths. Craig Sword could be included in that mix, as on Dec. 28 in Miami, he made his NBA debut at the age of 27 (and 346 days). He was the third-oldest player in Wizards/Bullets history to make their debut for the franchise, behind only Andrew Gaze (28 years, 230 days) and Anthony Gill (28 years, 73 days).
Sword's journey after college at Mississippi State included time playing in Poland, Mexico (twice), for three G-League teams and also Omaha's Finest of The Basketball League (TBL). Somehow, through all of that, he made it to the NBA despite never once being given a chance to play in the NBA Summer League.
But not long after Christmas, Sword was at Walmart buying groceries with his family when the calls started coming in. His agent was desperately trying to tell him he had been offered a 10-day contract, but Sword didn't have a signal until he got out of the parking garage.
Once he returned to his apartment with his fiancée and kids, he heard the good news; first from his agent and then from Wizards team president Tommy Sheppard. The Wizards needed him in Miami as soon as possible to play against the Heat.
"It was beautiful. [My family] cried, I didn’t. It was a magic moment. I wouldn’t trade that for nothing. It was a great feeling," Sword told NBC Sports Washington.
At the time, Sword was playing for the Wizards' G-League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, where he has since returned. Though his goal is to return to the NBA, getting called up was a major accomplishment on its own.
It was the culmination of years of hard work, faith and perseverance. He overcame two back surgeries in college and thought about quitting several times. The offseasons were particularly tough, as he had to wait months in between opportunities.
"I just stayed the course, worked hard and prayed," he said. "I prayed about it all the time."
The wait was much longer in 2020 and 2021 thanks to the effects the coronavirus had on the G-League. The Grand Rapids Drive had his rights and didn't go to the G-League bubble last winter, which left him out of organized basketball for a year-and-a-half.
During that time, he started a cleaning business called 'Sword Xtreme Cleaning.' While the company, which does residential and commercial cleaning, paid the bills, Sword still felt like he had more basketball left in the tank.
Sword caught on with the Go-Go out of training camp and found a niche as a scrappy wing defender. At 6-foot-3, Sword averages 1.7 steals per game for the Go-Go while shooting 59.9% from the field.
From Dec. 28 to Jan. 5, Sword played four games for the Wizards before being sent back down. His best game was his first one when he recorded three steals against the Heat along with six points on 3-for-4 shooting.
"When I got a couple steals and I got a couple buckets, I looked down at the court and I was like ‘damn, I’m in Miami in the NBA,'" Sword said of that night
After his four-game stint, Sword said he is even more motivated to play in the NBA, now having a glimpse at what it is like. Go-Go head coach Mike Williams has seen a similar effect in the other players who made it up to debut with the Wizards including Jordan Goodwin, Jordan Schakel and Jaime Echenique.
"It’s made them hungrier, I think, honestly," Williams said. "They came back to us with a greater focus."
Williams described Sword as a leader for the Go-Go given his age and experience. He called his energy "contagious," adding that "he never takes a night off."
It has to be that way for Sword, who went undrafted in 2016 and traveled the globe to chase his basketball dream. He had to fight for years just to get an opportunity in the NBA and, with help from some unusual circumstances, it finally came.