INDIANAPOLIS – People are crying for Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan in West Lafayette today. People are crying at Purdue. People are crying on the south side of Indianapolis, which is where I live. A man is crying in the living room here. I’m alone.
We are emotional because Biggie was wonderful and because this isn’t the natural order of life. We don’t bury our children. No, Biggie wasn’t my child, or yours. But he was ours, you know? And he was so young. Too young, just 25, when news of his death was announced Tuesday morning.
We are crying here, and we are crying there. Just spoke with Chris Forman, Purdue’s associate athletics director for communications and the Boilermakers’ basketball spokesman. He’s a stats guy, Forman, always coming up with nuggets of information about Purdue basketball, but he’s like you and me right now. He’s devastated.
More:How the late Caleb ‘Biggie’ Swanigan fared at Purdue, in high school, NBA
More:Former Purdue basketball All-American Caleb Swanigan dies at 25
“You think about where he came from,” Forman said. “You think about what he overcame to get here. That’s the thing that hurts the most. ”
Don’t say Biggie grew up “poor.” Poor would’ve been better. He grew up penniless, homeless, living for a time under a bridge in Utah. None of his five siblings graduated high school. Three ended up facing criminal charges. In time, Biggie would become the fourth.
Caleb Swanigan battled his weight his whole life
He was a huge kid, tall and unhealthy and overweight, weighing 360 pounds before eighth grade when he moved from Utah to Fort Wayne to live with a longtime family friend and sports agent, Roosevelt Barnes. This wasn’t a recruiting thing for Barnes, not an investment in the future as people tried to make it over the years, seeing how Barnes had played football at Purdue and Swanigan ended up at Purdue and then in the NBA and isn’t that convenient?
Their relationship was never about convenience. On Biggie’s first morning in his new home, Barnes told him to grab some cereal before they went to the gym. Biggie grabbed a box of Kellogg’s Special K, a big one, and emptied it with a gallon of milk. Our high school insider Kyle Neddenriep told that story in 2015, when Biggie earned the IndyStar Mr. Basketball award. He was a future Purdue All-American and NBA first-round pick by the Portland Trail Blazers.
But in 2010 he was an obese kid being given a shot at a better life by Barnes.
He always did battle his weight. Some people are genetically predisposed, and that was the case with Biggie. One of the final times I saw him, a practice day at the 2017 NCAA tournament in Kansas City,
Biggie was riding a stationary bike. He was wearing a sweatsuit, the kind wrestlers wear to cut weight before weigh-in. Even then, a college athlete, just 20, Biggie was fighting off his body’s natural inclinations.
Five years later his body won, and we have lost. He died of natural causes.
Biggie’s final two years on this planet were much like his first 13 – they were hard. He was arrested by Columbia City police, just west of Fort Wayne, in May 2021 for possession of marijuana. By then he’d been out of the NBA for nearly a year, after opting out of the bubble when the league restarted during the coronavirus pandemic in July 2020. He was later released by Portland.
Biggie stayed out of the public eye after that, other than that arrest – he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession, and was given a 180-day suspended sentence – but you heard things. He was gaining weight, reportedly 400 pounds at the time of his arrest. He wasn’t close anymore with Barnes, his adoptive father. He was self-destructing.
‘Biggie’ was so much his father’s son
He was one of six children raised by a single mother, with Biggie’s father, Carl Swanigan Sr., fighting an addiction to crack cocaine. They lived in homeless shelters in Utah, or under a bridge, before Carl Sr. – himself a basketball player, tutored for a time by Barnes – connected Biggie with Barnes in 2010.
Carl Swanigan Sr., big like his boys, died in 2013 from complications related to diabetes. He was 50. According to an ESPN.com story in 2017, Carl Sr. was 6-8 and nearly 500 pounds at the time of his death.
Those were Biggie’s genetics. That was his story. He was gifted so much, the height and athletic ability of an NBA player, but he was saddled with so much. For years he wasn’t just a success story, but a fairy tale. From a homeless, obese seventh-grader in Utah to Mr. Basketball in Indiana to Purdue All-American? That’s a movie, and it’s beautiful.
And for a time, it got even better. Biggie returned to Purdue to finish his degree. Did you know? He’d spent two years in school before entering the 2017 NBA Draft, going 26th overall to Portland, but he earned his degree just one year later.
“Him finishing his degree, that was incredible,” Forman said. “He finished after his rookie year in Portland. Just a great kid. ”
The last time I saw Biggie was before the 2017 NBA Draft. He was working out for the Indiana Pacers, in the best shape of his life. “Svelte, almost entirely fat-free” I called him in the story, adding, “he looked almost shrink-wrapped.”
Biggie had entered the 2016 NBA Draft as well, going to the combine, getting that body-fat test with those calipers.
“The pinch test really doesn’t benefit me well,” he told me that day. “I used to be 350 pounds so I have a lot of extra skin, so a lot of what they pull is skin (and not fat).”
He’d backed out of the 2016 draft after NBA executives told him he needed to lose weight and add shooting range. He did both, and showed off his triumphant new body and skill set that day.
But there has been a loss along the way. Biggie returned to Utah in 2013, shortly before his dad died, to visit him in a nursing home. Biggie saw what one future could look like. He knew.
When Biggie was one of the top recruits in the country at Homestead High School, Barnes would tell college coaches they needed a plan for Biggie, that he was different from other recruits. He couldn’t stay in a dorm, for example. Too many poor food choices. Biggie wanted monitoring, because he knew what could happen otherwise. He’d lived it in Utah, and seen it with his dad.
Biggie found a home at Purdue, where he was cared for by Matt Painter’s basketball program and loved by the fanbase. He was so good, and so big, and so gentle.
In recent years he has been part of Purdue’s pregame hype video, with a short speaking part on camera, and after watching that video dozens of times I still have no idea what he says. The crowd is cheering loudly and he’s speaking softly, and if that’s how I’m going to remember Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan, well, there are worse ways.
Follow IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar