Three Takeaways from SI’s Caleb Swanigan Profile

Three Takeaways from SI’s Caleb Swanigan Profile

First, go read this Caleb Swanigan profile in SI by Luke Winn. Then, go read everything Winn has ever written because he’s brilliant.

"Project Biggie: How Swanigan became the nation's top power forward", by Luke Winn, Sports Illustrated

Feature image from Purdue Sports

There were two passages that really stuck with me:

Chris Herren was a 1990s phenom at Fresno State whose story of drug addiction and recovery was the subject of a 2011 ESPN documentary. Herren has spoken to hundreds of teams since, and while he encourages his audiences to engage, he says it’s rare for college players to show much vulnerability. But at Purdue, as Herren talked about putting his alcoholic father in rehab and repairing his relationship with his high-school-age son—how he is trying to do the right things but knows there were many ways he failed—it hit Biggie right in the heart.

“Your son definitely does appreciate you,” Biggie told Herren. “I lost my father to addiction; I know what it’s like to see someone never make it back from that side. For you to make it back for him....”

From there, something opened up inside Biggie, who’d been named one of the team’s four captains in the off-season. “When he was done talking, there were guys in tears,” says junior point guard and co-captain P.J. Thompson. “Most of them had no idea.” Vince Edwards, another junior co-captain, says, “There were times last year when we felt like we couldn’t reach Biggie; he’d get so angry that he just couldn’t hear us. After that, it was like, O.K., I understand where it’s coming from.” Says Herren, “It was a breakthrough moment for all of us.”

You could see that Swanigan was a little distant from his teammates last year, and over the summer that completely changed. From the Instagram profiles of teammates, to the on-court body language, to the bench celebrations, it really seems like this breakthrough made a chemistry impact.

The second:

After his biggest games as a freshman on Homestead’s varsity, he’d text his stats to Purdue assistant coach Jack Owens, and when Biggie returned to the same showcase the following summer he—according to Barnes’s unofficial record-keeping—averaged 37 points and 24 rebounds. The Purdue coaches told Barnes they still wanted to wait, and when Biggie heard that, he said, “I’m done. I’m never going to Purdue.”

After he told Barnes that Cal was his final decision, Barnes protested (because of basketball fit reasons, he’d be entrenched as an undersized center), they butted heads, and compromised on Michigan State. Then:

The problem was that the Spartans didn’t fit the criteria either. They already had several players who profiled as power forwards. They wanted Biggie to live in a general-population dorm; Barnes insisted on an apartment and strict training-table supervision. “If a kid has a drug problem, would you put him in a crackhouse?” Barnes says. “Biggie had an eating problem that he was overcoming. So it was a dealbreaker if he lives in a dorm. You know how college kids are; they’re eating pizza, drinking beer, not thinking about nutrition. If he’s around that stuff, it’s easier to eat that stuff.”

A few takeaways:

  1. If we’re all being honest with ourselves, Purdue “accidentally” got Biggie. To his credit, Coach Painter made it into Swanigan’s final five schools, but personal preference left Purdue behind both Cal and Michigan State. It was Roosevelt Barnes who insisted that Biggie go to a school where he never had to play center, and catered to his fitness/diet needs. Purdue was third on their list, with two solid centers (Hammons and Haas) but no solidified power forward. The basketball fit was perfect (as we all knew at the time), but the desire to play for Purdue wasn’t immediately there. Biggie, furious that his father made his college decision for him, made Barnes call Painter with the news that the #9 overall recruit was coming to Purdue.

    As we’ve all come to realize, Matt Painter’s recruiting pitch appeals really well to parents but not as well to the actual recruits. Purdue made the most basketball (and lifestyle) sense for Swanigan, but Painter/Purdue wasn’t enticing enough to win the recruitment on its own.

    For once, Purdue was in a “right place, right time” situation. But it puts an even greater spotlight on the post-Swanigan burning question: How likely is it that Painter repeats this recruiting victory?
  2. Roosevelt Barnes is a hardass drill sergeant, and Biggie Swanigan is an authentic maniacal gym rat. it’s no wonder Biggie a) butted heads with his equally-stubborn adoptive father, and b) had his work ethic mesh perfectly with Barnes’ dedication, and somehow turned into a star.
  3. The Swanigan story is truly incredible, not just on a Purdue-level but as a singular story in college sports.

    Caleb, a 400lb middle school kid, in a family torn apart by drug addiction, was living in the devastating food desert that too often defines poverty stricken neighborhoods and shelters. His brother Carl Jr, a supremely gifted basketball player, played on an AAU team coached by a former all-star collegiate athlete (and current professional agent). After himself flaming out, Carl Jr persuaded his former coach to adopt his morbidly obese little brother.

    That obese poverty-stricken kid, presented with a simple opportunity in a stable and wealthy household, turned into the best player in college basketball. And he’ll be forever known as a Boilermaker. Don’t ever take Caleb Swanigan for granted, because I’m not sure Purdue will ever see another athlete like this.
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