Caleb Swanigan's legacy will live as large as his massive presence
Some impressions are impossible to forget. Such as the first time you meet a 360-pound 8th-grader.
So Chris Johnson certainly remembers his first time meeting Caleb Swanigan.
Swanigan had recently moved to Fort Wayne with his adoptive father, former Purdue football standout Roosevelt Barnes. And Barnes informed Johnson, the coach at Homestead High School, that in a year Swanigan was going to be a “very good basketball player.”
Football, maybe, Johnson could fathom. But basketball?
“I wasn’t too excited that day,” Johnson recalled Tuesday. “Was he going to be able to get down the floor?”
Was he ever. And a whole lot more.
Swanigan had elite hands and footwork. And once that “baby fat” sculpted into something more mesomorphic, he became an unstoppable force.
Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. A state champion in the state where winning a high school basketball championship will always carry the most weight. A McDonald’s All-American.
From there, on to Purdue, where Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American honors followed in his sophomore season.
Swanigan wasn’t just good, he was great.
He averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game that season, becoming the first Division I player to maintain those averages since Tim Duncan.
But just 2 years after his 3-year NBA career abruptly ended, Swanigan is gone. He was found dead Monday night, only 25 years into an all-too-short lifetime.
“It’s a sad day. We lost a good one,” Johnson said. “He was a great basketball player and human being. It’s going to be tough for awhile to get through it. It will take a while to heal.”
‘He would have given anything to anybody’
The reminders of Swanigan’s legacy hang in gyms throughout Indiana.
At Homestead, there’s the 2015 state championship banner — the only such title in school history.
“Without him, we’re not winning the state championship,” Johnson said. “He wanted to win a state championship. By doing that, he won Mr. Basketball.”
Swanigan can’t be forgotten when you look up at Mackey Arena, either. His No. 50 will always hang from the rafters thanks to his consensus first-team All-American season in 2017.
But these are celebrations of accomplishments. They aren’t how those who knew Swanigan will remember him.
“Basketball you eventually forget,” Johnson said. “People always remember what type of person you are and how you carry yourself. That’s something he always did the right way.
“He brought a lot of joy to Homestead those last 2 years [that he played]. For me, the joy comes knowing what kind of person he was and what people say about him. They’re not talking about basketball on social media today.”
Swanigan grew up under circumstances that would have drained the capacity for joy out of most.
He was 1 of 6 children primarily raised by a single mother because his father was frequently battling the demons of crack addiction. The family frequently bounced between homeless shelters and once lived under a bridge in Utah. Swanigan didn’t experience stability until Barnes, a family friend, took him in and brought him to Fort Wayne as an 8th-grader.
But rather than be bitter, he seemed determined to never forget those facing similar circumstances.
“He would have given anything to anybody,” Johnson said. “He understood his roots. He would always help the homeless; he was very helpful. Any time, it seemed he was willing to give time, energy, and money once he had money.”
A massive loss
Real life too frequently provides us with stark reminders of why a triumphant story is labeled as a “Hollywood ending.” Sometimes, only fiction can provide that level of happiness.
For a long time, it looked like Swanigan would write a Hollywood ending into reality. Impossible odds were never enough to stop him.
But after he opted out of joining his team in the NBA’s COVID bubble in Orlando, things started to fall apart. After his release, he never resurfaced in basketball. Indeed, he rarely surfaced anywhere.
With the exception of a misdemeanor arrest, the man known as Biggie faded from public view. By the time most of us saw his name again, it was unfortunately too late.
“You just never think at age 25 you’ll lose someone like that,” Johnson said. “It’s a tragic day today.”
When someone dies as young as Swanigan, there is often an outpouring of regret mixed with the sadness. The only solace for Johnson is that he believes Swanigan knew he was loved.
“You hope they know how much you care for them before they passed,” Johnson said, “and you’re seeing the love all over social media today … he knew how much I cared.”