By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
No one in Tempe, including coach Ned Wulk, ever had seen the likes of a Joe Caldwell. He wasn't a great shooter, and it would take him years to learn how to play defense. But, man, could he run and jump.
Caldwell and his teammates once played at Indiana University--basketball's Mecca--when ASU was a member of the little-known Western Athletic Conference. Few fans in attendance had heard of "Pogo," as he was called in college.
"Joe was doing his pregame dunking thing," Wulk recalls. "At first, I heard a buzz, then everyone got quiet. Then the whole crowd went wild. I told Joe to stop it, and he did. Then they started booing. I never saw anything like it.
"Funny thing, he was a man before his time in his basketball. Our stands used to fill up way before the game just to watch his dunking show. He was the first of the wild dunkers. He did strange things on the court, where I'd sit back and say, `Did I really see that?'"
The Sun Devils did well during his tenure, missing the Final Four in 1963 by one game. "Pogo Joe" probably was the most recognized athlete in the Valley during those pre-Suns, pre-Cardinals years. Off the court, he tooled around Tempe in a 1937 Model T Ford he had bought for $50.
But it wasn't all cake.
"Arizona in the early 1960s had a little Mississippi in it," he says. "Remember that Nina Simone song, `Everybody's talkin' about Alabama, but Mississippi. Goddamn!'?
"Then there was Arizona."
To some, Caldwell's efforts to integrate the Valley went too far.
"I dated white girls," he says. "Coach calls me in one time and says, `I'm not here to tell you who to date, but Joe, you got to be careful.' Hell, we had 105 black athletes on campus at the time out of 11,000 in the student body, and I think three black women in the whole school. I'm just as human as the next man. All this was a quiet moment in ASU's history."
So was Caldwell's pitiful academic record. "I took something like 149 units at ASU, and I think I had 129 D's," he says. "I wasn't the best student; I didn't have that in mind. But I wasn't as dumb as some thought."
Tony Cerkvenik, an ASU teammate who now owns a Valley travel agency, speaks his mind: "Joe had the opportunities, but he was so far behind, they should have sent him back to seventh grade and taught him to read and write better. To this day, he has a very poor reading and math background."
®MDBO¯ ASU alum Jose Burruel--who holds a doctorate in education--blames the university: "We have a history at ASU of taking in the black athlete, but then not helping them worth a damn academically, which in the long run, means economically. He was the center of attention, but most of them never cared about him as a person or as a student. Isn't it a damned pity he didn't get his degree?"
After Caldwell's senior year in 1964, he made the U.S. Olympic team. (He's still the only player from an Arizona university ever to make it.) Shortly before he left for the Tokyo Olympics, he stood before the Phoenix City Council. The issue at hand was a proposed Public Accommodations Act, which said that local establishments couldn't deny someone service because of race.
"Racial troubles in the United States get plenty of play in the Russian press," Caldwell told the council in a speech written for him by friends.
"They are sure to question me--I am a Negro. I want to be able to point to Phoenix as an example of the true, the real America. I don't want to have to tell them that I am refused a hamburger in Phoenix, that I am asked to leave bowling lanes, because of the color of my skin. These things have happened to me here in Phoenix, a city where I plan to make my home."
The law passed, and Caldwell went to Tokyo, where he and his teammates won the gold, including the last U.S. win over the Soviet Union at the Games.
Coach Wulk recalls those great days: "There he was, late one night, knocking on my door, wearing the gold medal around his neck. He had that big smile of his on his face. He was so proud of himself."
Next stop: NBA.
PRO BASKETBALL TODAY is flying high. The NBA average salary is way into six figures, and relations between the players' union and the owners are the best in pro sports. And there's life outside the 26-team NBA. Top draft choices and aging journeymen can land big contracts overseas.
Pro basketball in 1964 was an iffy proposition for the aspiring player. There were only nine NBA teams, and the league was scrapping to get one game a week on TV. The Detroit Pistons drafted Caldwell in the first round and signed him to a contract for $11,500 a year. They also cut him a bonus check for $3,000. That was when he bought the Lincoln and put a down payment on the Tempe home in which he lives with his mother--the home he's now in danger of losing.