By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The rookie earned a reputation as his own man--off and on the court. He prompted snickers by wearing body-length long johns everywhere, no matter what the temperature. But Caldwell, who had grown a mean-looking Fu Manchu mustache, also became known for his on-court intensity.
"When I came in, eight points and six rebounds a game wouldn't cut it," he explains. "That would mean the Eastern League, the bush league. I was at a Suns game one time and I saw Walt Davis raising his hand to come out. I'd have been too scared to do something like that."
Early in his second year, Detroit traded Caldwell to St. Louis. The Hawks were then owned by Ben Kerner, a cigar-chomping hustler known as the cheapest of the NBA's cheapskate owners. After two successful years at St. Louis, Caldwell tried to negotiate a new contract with Kerner.
"It was Sunday morning and he came into the hotel lobby to talk with me," he remembers. "I wanted a two-year contract, the first year $27,000, the second year $30,000. I also needed $10,000 to get out of debt, and Ben promised me a loan with a handshake. `No problem, Joe. You'll be around for a long time.' He sounded like Jimmy Cagney. Then he reneged. `Joe, you always got to get it in writing.' A few years later, in the ABA, I got it in writing. I still got shafted. What can you do?"
By the time Kerner sold the Hawks in 1968, Caldwell had become a NBA standout. The team's new owners moved the franchise to Atlanta. After he averaged 21 points in the 1969-70 season, Hawks fans chose Caldwell as their favorite player.
Then the Hawks drafted Pistol Pete Maravich, a razzle-dazzle white kid from Louisiana State University who was college's all-time leading scorer. The Hawks signed him to a five-year contract totaling $2 million.
Maravich's contract maddened Caldwell, an all-star who had been trying to get the Hawks to raise his salary from $60,000 to $80,000. Caldwell now demanded his own $2 million contract.
The Hawks balked, but there was an alternative for Caldwell. The maverick American Basketball Association, a snazzy new product that used a red-white-and-blue basketball, was spreading money around and Caldwell went shopping. He joined the handful of other big-name NBA players who jumped leagues. It was probably the worst move of his life.
"The last time I was completely happy was that last year with the Hawks," Caldwell says. "After that, things went to hell."
At the time, though, Caldwell was satisfied. His contract with the Carolina Cougars called for $1.1 million for five years. But it was the life insurance-pension plan clause in that contract that had the sports world buzzing. Cougars owner Ted Munchak had agreed to pay Caldwell $600 monthly times each year of pro basketball Caldwell had played by the time he retired.
Munchak was a rich carpet salesman who didn't know hoot about pro ball--a typical ABA owner. Joe Caldwell was a marquee name, but the Atlanta Hawks didn't give him up without a fight. The NBA team filed suit to keep Caldwell from immediately playing in the ABA. But the ABA team prevailed.
Caldwell was a big hit in Greensboro. He scored 56 points one game, and he hosted a weekly television show. But trouble was stirring.
His fellow players elected him president of their union, and he was viewed by management as a pain in the neck. As long as he performed on the court, Caldwell could blab all he wanted. At the end of the 1970-71 season, however, he tore ligaments in his right knee when he tripped over another player's heel.
"I shouldn't have played on it as soon as I did," Caldwell says, "but I didn't want to be known as a quitter. I'd get a cortisone shot before each game the next year, and then I'd lay awake at night in bed really hurting."
The Carolina fans grew restless as Caldwell slowly rehabilitated the knee. Still, Caldwell made the ABA All-Star team in each of the three complete years he played in the league.
Then Marvin Barnes came along. Signing the gifted Barnes out of Providence College before the 1973-74 season was a coup for the ABA. Barnes inked a lucrative contract with the Carolina Cougars, who had by then become the Spirit of St. Louis.
Barnes was a talented kid whose nickname, "Bad News," told the story. During college, he once beat a teammate with a tire iron. What a drawing card for the ABA. When attendance in St. Louis didn't meet expectations, though, something had to give. In the end, it was Caldwell.
Early in the 1974-75 season, Barnes disappeared. He returned a few days later with demands for a fatter contract. The ABA team suspended Caldwell for allegedly putting Barnes up to it.
"I referred Marvin to some lawyers--that was it," Caldwell contends. "The ABA thought I'd settle my pension `problem' with them, then they'd let me back in. Here I was--president of the players' association, making good money, with that big pension plan. I was easy pickings. They were out to get me."