NCAA Tournament

Caleb Swanigan overcame homelessness, obesity in journey to Purdue

Purdue's Caleb Swanigan hit a dozen three-pointers in a row in practice

Purdue's Caleb Swanigan hit a dozen three-pointers in a row during practice at the Sprint Center on Wednesday.
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Purdue's Caleb Swanigan hit a dozen three-pointers in a row during practice at the Sprint Center on Wednesday.

They used to just call him Biggie.

Purdue sophomore Caleb Swanigan is a national player of the year candidate, an All-American and the next immediate threat to Kansas' Final Four aspirations.

Before that, the label was simply Biggie.

And it was appropriate. Swanigan weighed 360 pounds as an eighth grader. (There's video evidence of it circulating across social media.)

His unlikely journey to college basketball stardom at Purdue — documented by Bleacher Report, ESPN and several other outlets since — required overcoming his weight issues, homelessness and first-hand encounters with drug addicts.

"Just have to have a resilience about you — that's the biggest thing," Swanigan said Wednesday during media availability at the Sprint Center ahead of Purdue's matchup with Kansas on Thursday night. "Separate off-court stuff from the on-court stuff so that it doesn't translate, and make sure you just keep working toward getting better every day."

Swanigan, who has five siblings, moved back and forth between Utah and Indianapolis and estimated he lived at five different homeless shelters during his childhood during an ESPN interview earlier this season. He lived primarily with his mom, while his father — Carl — battled a crack cocaine addition.

Swanigan was legally adopted by Roosevelt Barnes, a sports agent in Indiana who played football and basketball at Purdue in the late 70s and early 80s.

"Biggie had a kind heart," Barnes told Bleacher Report for a 2015 story. "He didn't want to be a drug dealer. He didn't want to get into fights and end up in jail. He seemed determined to make something of himself. But the setting he was in ... he didn't have a chance."

The top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks will face the fourth-seeded Purdue Boilermakers in Thursday's Midwest Region semifinal at about 8:39 p.m. at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

The transformation in body shape took time, but on the basketball court, the adjustments seemed to come quickly. Swanigan was named Mr. Basketball in Indiana in 2015 and was the No. 19 recruit in the nation on Rivals during his senior year, with Kansas, Missouri and Duke among his nearly two dozen offers. Even the Purdue media guide refers to him as perhaps the most decorated recruit in program history.

On Thursday, he will be the likely focal point for Kansas' defense. He is averaging 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds per game and is a finalist for the Naismith Trophy, reserved for the top player in men's college hoops.

"There's no one else like him," Purdue junior guard P.J. Thompson said. "He's a really tough matchup for anyone."

If Swanigan seems like a load now — he's listed at 6-9, 250 pounds — he is actually more than 100 pounds lighter than he once was in middle school.

And yet the weight loss was the easy part, comparatively speaking. In his interviews with the national publications, Swanigan recalled stories in which he would watch people shoot heroin in the homeless shelters. "You get used to it," he said in the ESPN story.

His father was charged with murder in 1995 — before Caleb was born — but was found not guilty of the crime. Carl died when Caleb was 16.

Asked Wednesday how his route to Purdue affects him now, Swanigan shifted.

"I'm just really focused on Kansas and winning the game," he said. "Just gotta focus on your next objective."

Purdue's Caleb Swanigan and KU's Josh Jackson and Landen Lucas spoke during media availability on Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at Sprint Center in Kansas City. The Boilermakers and Jayhawks will play Thursday.

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