A Bitter Courtship

Jumpin' Joe Caldwell's love affair with basketball ended long ago in pain. And he's still not over it.

Valley educator Jose Burruel, who helped recruit Caldwell to ASU in 1960, says: "There's no excuse for his being in the condition he's in. Joe paved the way for the Julius Ervings, the Michael Jordans. Black athletes then didn't have advocates like they do now. You take so many damned beatings, you start believing they're out to get you."

What Joe Caldwell had more than anything else was a remarkable aptitude for basketball.

"People just don't know how great a player Caldwell really was," says Hall of Famer Jerry West, now general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. "Believe me, he was incredible. He did things out on the court that only another player could appreciate."

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat noted in 1968, "Caldwell raced from one basket to the other with almost blinding speed--rebounding, jumping, shooting, passing. He is the most exciting player in pro basketball today."

Caldwell isn't a member of the NBA Hall of Fame. He didn't score enough points, wasn't in the league long enough and never played on a championship team. But his style--rare in his day--has become the norm.

He describes his game: "Twisting, turning sideways, backwards, lots of angles. Nobody was doing angles. Jumping. I could jump then."

The living room of Joe Caldwell's Tempe home lacks any reference to his basketball career. He lost to bankruptcy a prized blowup of himself guarding Jerry West. Now, Caldwell's main diversions are golf or a drink with pals. Divorced, he sees his two grown daughters only now and then.

But he's never lost his suitcase of scrapbooks, which detail his playing feats. And Caldwell does have two cars--a 1971 Mercedes, and a Lincoln Continental he bought new in 1964 with his first pro signing bonus.

"WHEN YOU'RE YOUNG, you don't think about not having anything," Caldwell says in the half-darkness of his living room. "When you're pushing fifty, you think about it a lot more."

He was born in Texas City, Texas, east of Houston, where his dad was a longshoreman and mechanic, and his mom raised eleven children.

"All I know is that we were eating," Caldwell says. "Black-eyed peas, okra, greens, all you had in the field. We had a big old Number Three tub we used to fill with hot water to take our baths in. Indoor plumbing? You're uptown. You learned to hang on, and you learned how to play sports."

When Caldwell was twelve, he moved to Watts in Los Angeles, where he lived with an older sister and her husband. To survive, he copped a stay-away-from-me attitude. He says he avoided dope and rarely had to fight.

By his senior year in high school, Caldwell was the most coveted basketball player in Southern California. In the summer of 1959, still undecided about which college he would attend, Caldwell was honing his game on the playgrounds. It was there that he first brushed against Wilt Chamberlain, who was everything Joe Caldwell wanted to be--a rich NBA star.

"We'd play three-on-three all day, every day," Caldwell says. "You had to win to keep the court. Get beat, get back in line. One day, I see this monster get out of this long Cadillac. The guys are whispering, `Wilt. It's Wilt.'

"Wilt says, `Come here, boy. You play ball?' He picks me and a little guy, and we play right through lunch, whip everybody. After we're done, he walks to his Caddy--seat's all the way back. He says, `Get in. I'll take you home. This neighborhood be too bad for you to walk home alone.'"

UCLA coach John Wooden, on the verge of a remarkable skein of national championships, recruited Caldwell hard. But the only way he could get into UCLA was to first attend summer school. ASU, which didn't have nearly the academic requirements of UCLA, also had pursued Caldwell. But Tempe's heat had dissuaded him.

"I was getting paid $350 a week for pulling weeds on the UCLA campus, a beautiful campus," Caldwell recalls. "They probably put the weeds there so I'd have something to do."

Then, two guys from ASU--Jose Burruel and assistant coach Fanny Markham--showed up.

"I said I'd listen to them," Caldwell says, "but that it was too hot out there in Arizona. We drove to my sister's house, and Fanny--the assistant coach at the time--he's playing all the right avenues on me, talkin' just like a brother. `You're too big for UCLA. You'll be a god in Tempe.' A few hours later, we all pile into a car. Next thing, I'm in Arizona."

Burruel remembers it vividly: "I lure him to my car. `Joe, let's go get a hamburger.' We're driving down the highway. I say, `Pal, you're going to Arizona.' He says, `I'm gonna jump out right now.' I say, `Go ahead. I'd rather have you jump out than go to UCLA.'"

Caldwell says he never told UCLA what he'd done. "I didn't understand a lot of things as a kid," he says. "I had never signed a letter of intent, and ASU didn't require much of anything, so off I went. Wooden was really pissed, but he won the national championship a few years later, so he had the last laugh."

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