Canzano: What more could have been done to help save Caleb Swanigan?
Trail Blazers player dead at 25.
It’s NBA Draft Day and we’ll get to the hopes and dreams of the Trail Blazers organization soon enough. But first, I need to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about Caleb Swanigan.
He died this week.
The former NBA player was 25.
When the Blazers drafted Swanigan late in the first round in 2017 a long-time league executive reached out to me and told me, “Portland fans are going to love this kid.”
Swanigan had endured a tough life. He was one of six children. His father battled a crack-cocaine addiction. Dad weighed more than 500 pounds and died of diabetes when Swanigan was just 14. His mother, Tanya, did her best, but the family moved between homeless shelters in a couple of different states for years.
He attended a dozen different elementary schools. When Swanigan arrived on the first day of the eighth grade, he stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 360 pounds.
Swanigan blossomed in his teen years, thriving under the structure of the basketball program at Homestead High in Fort Wayne, Ind. He became a McDonald’s All-American his senior season. The state of Indiana named him Mr. Basketball and Purdue gave him a scholarship.
His weight was under control. His mind seemed right. Nobody was surprised when Portland invested the No. 26 overall pick on Swanigan.
Now, I wonder if the franchise could have done more.
Swanigan didn’t thrive in Portland. He played a little in the first season, but was relegated to the G-League. In his second season, the Blazers traded him to Sacramento. A calendar year later, after playing in only 10 total games in Sacramento, the Kings traded him back to Portland. The Blazers desperately needed front-court depth after injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.
A former Trail Blazers’ basketball-operations staff member reached out to me in the wake of Swanigan’s death this week. He said there were some red flags on that second tour that shouldn’t have been ignored by the franchise.
Said the staffer: “No one cared about anyone’s well being. We should have done more to help the kid.”
The world was battling a pandemic in the spring of 2020. The league was desperate to play games and formed a summer bubble in Florida. Swanigan’s agent informed then-Blazers’ general manager Neil Olshey that his client intended to be there with the team.
Said the former Blazers employee, “I can recall a conversation I overheard where a front-office member said he hoped Caleb didn’t report because we would save money on his salary.”
Swanigan was supposed to test for Covid-19 and report to the bubble. He told teammates and friends he would be there. Instead, Swanigan opted out, fired his agent, and drove across the country with his girlfriend.
“No one knew where he was,” said the staff member.
On May 8, 2020 members of the basketball operations staff noted that he began posting cryptic things on social media. A day later, on May 9, Swanigan deleted most of the content of his accounts.
“Multiple people in the organization let higher ups know about it,” the staff member said. “They said they were going to do a safety check.”
The NBA organization has since changed coaching staffs and parted ways with Olshey. Many of the support staffers who were there during Swanigan’s last stint in Portland have also departed for other jobs. Several former Trail Blazers’ employees I contacted said there were concerns when Swanigan opted out of the season and began to behave erratically. The early part of the pandemic seemed to be filled with abnormal behavior, but I wonder now if Swanigan was crying out for help.
In December of 2020, a mugshot of Swanigan surfaced. He’d been arrested at 2 a.m. in Indiana after a traffic stop. He had 3.4 pounds of marijuana in the car and $3,415 in cash. The kid known affectionately as “Biggie” in his youth, looked like a guy again struggling with weight.
We’ll get more information in the coming days but Swanigan’s fall ends up a sad tale. His story could have been such an inspiring one. He’d risen above a childhood that was difficult and achieved a life-long dream. He was in the NBA for three seasons and played in 75 games. Then, it unraveled.
Now he’s dead.
Decide for yourself what anyone could have done to help save Caleb Swanigan. Maybe he needed the structure of basketball. Maybe he was teetering the whole time and fighting too many demons. The medical examiner determined Swanigan died of “natural causes.” But there’s nothing natural about the life of a 25-year old former NBA player ending so tragically.
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