Power Player: Caleb Swanigan

Lisa Bauso
Swanigan at the Trail Blazers' practice gym in Tualatin

After a rough road to the NBA, Caleb Swanigan enjoys the fruits of his success.

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Caleb Swanigan takes stress in stride. The 20-year-old fought his way out of homelessness and obesity to land a spot on the Portland Trail Blazers as the No. 26 draft pick this year.

Playing in the NBA, he says, is the easiest part of his life so far. 

“It’s not too crazy or too hard,” says the soft-spoken 6 foot 8 power forward, speaking after practice from the Blazers’ training gym in Tualatin. “You just have to make sure you’re managing your time ‘cause you have a lot of it.”

Compared to superstars like Damian Lillard, Swanigan keeps a low profile. One month into this season, he has played between zero and 14 minutes per game — less than a quarter. More experienced players in the NBA get substantially more playing time. 

IMG 9782Swanigan after practice in the Trail Blazers training gym 

Swanigan is eager to ramp up his time on the floor. But for the moment, he’s also content to stay under the radar.

“[Media and fans] don’t really ask too much about me right now,” he says, “so I don’t have too much pressure.”  

Fleeing an abusive husband, Swanigan’s mother moved with her kids from Indiana to Utah when Swanigan was still a baby.

The family moved frequently between homeless shelters, a lifestyle that took a toll. Swanigan’s two brothers and sister did time for robbery, assault and theft. Swanigan himself turned to junk food, and his weight spiraled out of control.  In eighth grade, he clocked in at 360 pounds. 

Life started looking up when he turned 14 and told his older brother Carl about his dream of becoming a basketball player. Carl in turn convinced his mentor Roosevelt Barnes, a prominent sports agent whom he knew through a mutual friend  to take Swanigan under his wing. 

IMG 9825
Swanigan reflects on his rough road to the NBA

The agent, who eventually adopted Swanigan,  coached the budding player personally: cardio sessions in the mornings, ball handling and shooting in the evenings. Barnes  also replaced Swanigan’s burrito and ice cream diet with a strict regime of fruits and vegetables. 

“Changing the way I ate, making sure I worked out, that’s how I did it,” says Swanigan, who now weighs 247 pounds. “It took a long time, and it still is taking time just to get to the point where I finally want to be.”  The Blazers’ two square meals per day and workout routine — shoot, condition, lift, stretch — help keep him on track.


The average tenure for an NBA player is three years, Swanigan notes — 15 if you’re lucky. While he enjoys the free time that comes with being a lower-tier player, he’s eager to make the most of his rare opportunity.

“You only get a short window,” he says. “So while you’re playing, you’ve gotta make sure you focus on this first and foremost.”

“You only get a short window,” he says. “So while you’re playing, you’ve gotta make sure you focus on this first and foremost.”

But even NBA players need work/life balance. Not yet old enough to order a drink, Swanigan in his downtime plays video games or watches Netflix.  “It helps take my mind away from the court, ‘cause it’s a lot when you’re always playing.” 

Filling his day with leisure activities helps him avoid trouble, Swanigan adds, a strategy that has been successful —  except for the time he was ejected from an early- season game after a scuffle with Phoenix Suns center Alex Len.

Minor fracases notwithstanding, Swanigan, who made nearly $1.5 million this year (still a far cry from Lillard’s $26 million contract), is enjoying the life of a power player. “Every time I step on the floor, that’s how I feel,” he says. 

And everyday he works toward his goal  — getting that floor time — by leaning on a work ethic he developed in his toughest years. “It comes from wanting to get out of the situation I was in,” he says, “then finally getting success and getting used to it, and making it a lifestyle.

A version of this article appears in the January 2018 issue of Oregon Business magazine.

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