Caleb Swanigan, a former first-round pick who spent three seasons with two teams in the NBA, has died at 25. His alma mater, Purdue University, announced his death on Tuesday morning.
Caleb Swanigan was just 13 years old when former Purdue football player Roosevelt Barnes, at the behest of Caleb’s older brother, took him under his wing, ultimately adopting him, and bringing him to live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Barnes understood what it took to excel both on the field and off and hoped to instill that drive in young Caleb. Unlike his adopted father though football was not the game for Swanigan. No, his game was basketball. Despite being 300+ pounds there was something to his game. Something that Barnes saw that he believed could change Swanigan’s life.
And so the work began. When you’re 6’2 and 360 pounds in the 8th grade you’re likely the biggest amongst your classmates in more ways than one. Hence the nickname, Biggie. For anyone out there who has tried to lose weight you know how hard it can be. It takes dedication to not just exercise but also eat right. The eating right is so important. And for someone who lived with food insecurity and an incomprehensible situation it can be extremely difficult. In a story posted to ESPN In January 2017 Swanigan himself pointed out the challenges of eating right:
“You think it’s something really small, but it just builds up,” he said. “One meal won’t kill you, but if it becomes three or four meals that are bad in a row, that’s when it starts to hurt your body.”
And so with the help of Harrison Barnes, Caleb ‘Biggie’ Swanigan began to get a little less, well, biggie. Swanigan worked his way into a high school basketball star and a highly sought after college recruit. After initialing committing to play for the Michigan State Spartans he flipped his commitment and chose to play for the Purdue Boilermakers. Swanigan would go on to be invited to the McDonald’s All-American game and be named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. Incredible achievements that would have seemed impossible to the Caleb Swanigan from just five years earlier.
The Portland Trail Blazers selected Swanigan with the No. 26 pick in the 2017 draft. He appeared in 75 NBA games, averaging 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds per game.
The Blazers traded him to the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 7, 2019 for Skal Labissiere, where he spent less than a year before being dealt back to Portland on Jan. 21, 2020 with Trevor Ariza and Wenyen Gabriel for Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver and two future second-round picks.
Swanigan was a star at Purdue, where he was a consensus All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year as a sophomore, averaging 18.5 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 3.1 apg in the 2016-17 season. He was also a finalist for the Wooden, Naismith and Oscar Robertson Player of the Year awards that season as well.
At Purdue Swanigan was an immediate impact player. His greatest skill was probably his rebounding. No one wanted the ball after it came off that rim more than him and if you thought you wanted it you were going to have to go through him. He was a proficient scorer as well but nothing compared to the rebounding. In his very first college game he finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds. He would go on to have 40 double digit rebound games out of a total of 69 games played in college. He would grab 20 or more rebounds four times during his sophomore season.
That sophomore season was even more special if we look at it by itself. Forget those 40 double digit rebound games I mentioned above. Instead, just look at his sophomore season and you realize he had 29 double digit rebound games that season out of just 35 games. That’s 6 times over an entire season that he didn’t have double digit rebounds. It’s unlike anything I’d ever seen or am likely to see again. He had a nose for the ball that was unparalleled. Rebounding at the collegiate level is all about effort. And for a guy who changed his entire body and his entire life effort was never in short supply.
Following this incredible season for Swanigan he was named a consensus All-American becoming the first Purdue player to do so in six seasons. The Purdue sports release on this achievement spells out just how incredible this sophomore season was:
Swanigan recorded one of the top statistical seasons in not only Purdue history, but NCAA history, en route to first-team honors. Swanigan averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the field, 44.7 percent from 3-point range and 78.1 percent from the free throw line.
He is the only major-college player (and one of two players total) to record 600 points, 400 rebounds and 100 assists in a season (Towson’s Jerrelle Benimon in 2013-14). He joins legendary Tim Duncan of Wake Forest (1996-97 season) as the only players in the last 25 years to average at least 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists in a season.
Swanigan is the only player in the last 31 years (since the 1985-86 season) with at least 640 points, 430 rebounds and 100 assists.
His 28 double-doubles are the most for a player in Big Ten history and 13th most for a player in NCAA history, leading the country in that category. He set Purdue’s single-season rebounds record by almost 100 rebounds (436; Joe Barry Carroll is second with 352) and recorded 10 more double-doubles than any player in Purdue history.
Following this season he did the smart thing and declared for the NBA Draft. He was selected in the first round, 26th overall, by the Portland Trailblazers. He had done the unthinkable. The young man who weighed in at nearly 400 pounds had transformed his body and his mind and became a first round NBA Draft pick. It’s a fairytale. It’s something that you almost wouldn’t believe if you hadn’t seen it happen with your own eyes. Something that truly seemed too good to be true. I suppose now we know that in a way it was.
You and I weren’t there when it happened. We don’t know what led Caleb Swanigan down the dark path that he had seemingly escaped from. I won’t try to speculate but instead will only say that the Covid-19 pandemic caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. Swanigan seemed to thrive under the structure provided by Roosevelt Barnes, Purdue Basketball, and an NBA system. We first saw a change when the NBA Bubble happened. Despite the Trailblazers heading to the bubble Caleb Swanigan opted not to join them citing personal reasons.
From there you likely know the story. You heard about the arrest, you saw the mugshot that showed the tremendous weight gain and you wished it wasn’t true. Unfortunately though, it was all true. Caleb Swanigan, the young man who fought so hard and sacrificed so much in order to find stability away from a life of drugs and overeating had found himself in the position that many had long feared was his destiny.
With a father who weighed over 500 pounds, who used drugs, and had diabetes there must have been a dark shadow plaguing him his whole life. For a number of years he had outrun it. He’d risen above the challenges of his upbringing to become what most of us could only dream of. He was an NBA player, he was an All-American, he had his jersey retired at a major university. Sadly, it wasn’t enough.
Addiction has been the scourge of this country for many years. It’s taken many lives far too young with no end in sight. Invariably when these things happen questions come up about why someone would do this to themselves, what hurt were they trying to forget, what pain were they trying to numb. It’s apparent that in Caleb Swanigan’s life there was much to try and forget, much pain to numb, and a family history to try and outrun. History has shown us that even the fastest runners lose a step and even the best amongst us can struggle.
For Caleb Swanigan the race is over. News broke early this morning that he had passed away at age 25. Details are still emerging but initial reports show a death of natural causes. It’s tragic no matter the cause. His teammates from his time at Purdue began tweeting about it this morning. The young man who overcame so much and put it all out on the floor each and every night was gone.
Caleb Swanigan’s life was a great story with so many highs. Following his arrest I had hoped for Swanigan to do what he did best, to rebound once more. To see the next move and go up and grab it. That wasn’t to be. Now, the life that had all the hallmarks of an uplifting tale ends not with cheers but with tears.
💔 Devastated.— Purdue Mens Basketball (@BoilerBall) June 21, 2022
Our thoughts and prayers to Caleb Swanigan’s family and friends. The world lost a gentle soul last night.
Love you Biggie. pic.twitter.com/spU2hQtJdi
Caleb Swanigan Early life
Swanigan grew up in an unstable home due to his father, Carl Swanigan Sr., who had a crack cocaine addiction. Swanigan’s mother, Tanya, had six children. Swanigan moved between Utah and Indianapolis during his youth, spending time in homeless shelters.
Swanigan inherited two key features from his biological father—height and a tendency to obesity. The elder Swanigan, who died in 2014 from complications from diabetes, was 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m) and weighed nearly 500 pounds (230 kg) at his death. By the time Swanigan was entering eighth grade, he was 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) and 360 pounds (160 kg). His father had many brushes with the law, battled drug addiction for most of his adult life, and physically assaulted his wife.
According to a story in Bleacher Report, he was accidentally dropped by his mother as an infant, leaving a bruise on his face; this incident led her to move with her children to Salt Lake City. For the next decade, the family bounced between Indianapolis and Utah; he recalled that he lived in five different homeless shelters and attended 13 different schools by the time he was 13.
When his mother decided to move the family to Houston, his older brother Carl Jr., concerned that Caleb would keep gaining weight if he moved with his mother, called his former AAU basketball coach, Roosevelt Barnes, a former three-sport star at Purdue who played on the school’s 1980 Final Four team and now a successful sports agent.
Barnes, living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, agreed to take Caleb in if he could adopt him and raise him as his own son. Barnes adopted Swanigan prior to his 8th grade year. Barnes addressed Swanigan’s eating habits and, after receiving clearance from a cardiologist, began putting him through workouts similar to those Barnes himself went through in college. By the time Swanigan finished high school, he had slimmed down to 260 pounds (120 kg).
Caleb Swanigan High school career
In the fall of 2011, Swanigan attended a basketball camp led by NBA former coach John Lucas after Barnes convinced Lucas to let him into the invite-only camp in Louisville. When it came to selecting his high school, Swanigan’s guardian Barnes said, “When he chose his high school, his high school had never really done much in the tournament, and his goal was to win a state championship at a school where that had never been done before. Swanigan attended Homestead High School and wore the same number as Barnes, number 44.
As a senior, he was named Indiana Mr. Basketball and led Homestead to a first-ever state title. He was ranked as a top-20 national prospect in his class. He was named a McDonald’s All-American. Swanigan averaged 22.6 points and 13.7 rebounds as a senior. Academically, Swanigan maintained a 3.1 GPA and graduated in three years instead of the usual four.
Swanigan finished his career at Homestead with records for career points (1,649) and rebounds (1,048), as well as the single season points (704) and rebounding records (424). He was also second all time for career blocks (106) and assists (204).
Swanigan had several teams recruit him and offer scholarships; Arizona, Kentucky, Cal, and Duke were among the schools that gave Swanigan an offer. Caleb Swanigan verbally committed to Michigan State on April 10, 2015, but decommitted on May 7.
He said, “I just felt like it was better basketball-wise for me.” Similar to his high school decision, Barnes said, “He wants to win a national championship and said he wants to do it in the state of Indiana and wanted to do it at a place he’s never done it before. Some people believe Barnes had ulterior motives in adopting Swanigan, to which Barnes said, “Maybe if I wanted to develop the next hot-dog-eating champion, the next Joey Chestnut, people would have a legitimate gripe.
” Swanigan had not consulted Barnes before he committed to Michigan State, and some believe that since Barnes played sports at Purdue he was a major influence in Swanigan decommitting from Michigan State. Barnes said that was not the reason Swanigan switched, and the primary reason for Swanigan choosing Purdue was the presence of two centers that were taller than 7′, Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons, which allowed Swanigan to play the 4 spot.
He decided to stay in-state and chose Purdue on May 19. Swanigan announced his decision by tweeting “#BoilerUp”. Swanigan was Purdue’s first Indiana’s Mr. Basketball recruit since Glenn Robinson in 1991, and was the first McDonald’s All-American for Purdue since 1996. Swanigan joined Ryan Cline and Grant Weatherford in Purdue’s 2015 recruiting class.
National team career
Swanigan qualified for the 2014 U17 World Championship Team by beating out twenty other players vying for a spot to make the 12-man squad. Swanigan played in the U17 World Championship Game. The team finished with a 7–0 record and earned a gold medal in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, extending the USA’s total record at the U17 World Championship Game to 23–0. He finished the series with 8.0 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game, and was the most efficient player on the U17 team, with a 69.6 shooting percentage.
Before starting his freshman season at Purdue, on June 18, 2015, Swanigan was announced as a member of the 12-man 2015 USA Basketball Men’s U19 World Championship Team for the 2015 FIBA Under-19 World Championship that won a gold medal in Heraklion, Crete. On making the team, Swanigan said, “I always set goals for myself. I set goals for this spring. One of my goals is to make this team to end my high school career.
To prepare for the games, Swanigan played in the Nike Hoop Summit, the McDonald’s All American Game, and the Jordan Brand Classic. Swanigan did not take part in the Indiana-Kentucky All Star Game so he could attend the U19 training camp. He was one of five players returning from the gold medal-winning U17 squad. Swanigan’s teammate Vince Edwards was also in the running to make the team, but was cut at the round of 16. The team finished 7–0, and Swanigan averaged 6.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.