This story originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The six Swanigan children were all substantial, and they were nicknamed accordingly. First came Fat Cat (Carl Jr.), then Ice Cream (Corey), Fat and Sug (twins Crystal and Candance), Applehead Cut The Bull (Courtland) and, finally, Biggie (Caleb), the largest of Tanya's babies at 24 inches, nine pounds and three ounces. He kept growing into his name, standing 6' 2" and weighing 360 pounds by age 13, and now Biggie was listening to his new guardian, Roosevelt (Rose) Barnes, tell him something preposterously grandiose as they worked out on an indoor court in Fort Wayne, Ind., during the summer of 2011.
"You're the best power forward in the world! Nobody can stop you!"
Biggie rolled his eyes. His vertical was a few inches, max, and if asked to run, all he could do was shuffle. But Barnes, a sports agent who played baseball, basketball and football at Purdue and then spent four seasons as a linebacker with the Lions, wanted Biggie to believe in his potential. So as they went through a progression of baby hooks, drop-steps and the like, Barnes instructed his protege, "Say it back to me: I'm the best power forward in the world.
"Come on. Say it."
Reluctantly, Biggie gave in. Two weeks earlier Carl Jr. had persuaded him to fly from Salt Lake City to Fort Wayne to live with Barnes. The family had met Barnes in Indiana in 2003, after they'd fled Utah on a bus with Tanya, who was seeking refuge from their father, Carl Sr., in a domestic violence shelter. "What I endured was horrific," Tanya says, "and I did my best to keep our heads above water." But theirs was a nomadic existence among apartments and shelters in Utah and Indiana. Carl Jr. wanted Barnes to adopt Biggie, to give him stability and a shot at the NBA.
Biggie had emerged from the Fort Wayne airport that June carrying all his possessions in a single duffel bag, waddling toward Barnes's car in his one good outfit: a shirt, tie and khakis. He was a full two inches shorter and 100 pounds heavier than Fat Cat had described over the phone. After Biggie quickly became exhausted in their first workout, Barnes took him to a cardiologist to check if he had heart problems. Biggie passed all the stress tests, and this gave Barnes the assurance he needed to proceed: "He's not going to die."
That was where Project Biggie began, and six years later Caleb Swanigan is 6' 9" and-after strict dieting and relentless training-250 pounds. He arrived at Purdue in the fall of 2015 as a McDonald's All-American after graduating from Fort Wayne's Homestead High in just three years, then averaged 10.2 points and 8.3 rebounds for a Boilermakers team that was upset by Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He has since made the leap from solid freshman starter to dominant sophomore force, with statistical production at a level not seen since Blake Griffin's sophomore season at Oklahoma, in 2008-09.
Averaging 19.0 points and 12.8 rebounds for the No. 16 Boilermakers, Biggie is a near-lock to be first-team All-America. He has 21 double doubles in 25 games (including four with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds); the highest defensive rebound percentage (33.2%) by a major-conference player in kenpom.com's database; and a chance to become the first since Griffin to average 13 boards in this millennium.
Biggie can now use brute force to score on the block and a soft touch to make threes, and he can pass deftly out of the post or in high-low situations. He is not yet the best power forward in the world, but he has become the best one in college basketball, where no one, this season, has been able to stop him.
Biggie has always been Biggie, but his story is a series of transformations, some as public as his shrinking waistline, some as private as what happened last September, when a guest speaker came to address the Boilermakers in their film room at Mackey Arena.
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...."