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In January 1975, Caldwell filed an antitrust lawsuit against the ABA, claiming he had been deprived of making a living. That case, fourteen long years later, still is pending in a New York court.
"At the start, I thought all these lawyers had these amazing minds," Caldwell says, "but they sought to entangle me more than to help me. Paranoia sets in--they're being paid and nothing's happening. They use words like `res judicata' and `statute of limitations,' but what they do is shaft people."
Caldwell, then 33 and in his twilight years, never played another game after St. Louis suspended him. He sank deeper and deeper into debt as he awaited the resolution of any of his court cases--the pension case, the wrongful suspension suit, the antitrust case.
A North Carolina bank to which Caldwell owed $120,000 forced the issue in 1976, and a judge declared Caldwell involuntarily bankrupt. Thirteen years later, that bankruptcy hasn't been resolved.
Only a few other players, such as fellow league-jumper Zelmo Beaty, knew what Caldwell was going through.
"We had come from a team, the Hawks, that had trouble with contracts," says Beaty, who now lives in a Seattle suburb. "We both had gone into the ABA and had hassles there. I'm sure he thought he had signed his lifetime security. Joe's honest, and what he tells you he went through, he did go through. At some point, though, you've got to let go. Joe's never let go."
In 1978, when the bankrupt ex-player was working in a warehouse for $3 an hour, CBS' 60 Minutes aired "Who Fouled Joe Caldwell?" The extremely sympathetic piece concludes with Caldwell moving out of his foreclosed Greensboro home.
Caldwell also found a surprising ally: the National Football League players' union, which asked antitrust lawyer Edward Glennon to take a look at the case. The pension had been focus of a 1972 lawsuit filed by team owner Munchak against Caldwell. Munchak claimed that the pension had a typographical mistake in it, that it was supposed to be $60 a month times years of service, not $600. It took years, but Caldwell eventually won that suit, though he won't see a penny until 1995. The football union also was sympathetic to Caldwell's claim that he had been blackballed.
"I had gone to the NBA [for legal help], and they told me I had jumped to the wrong league," Caldwell says. "The football people saw it as a labor problem."
In 1982, a court awarded Caldwell $351,467 in his breach of contract claim against Munchak. Legal fees, income taxes and the North Carolina bankruptcy court swallowed up the entire sum.
Caldwell became even more bitter after that victory, suspecting his attorney Glennon and everyone else of conspiring against him.
"Here is how I felt at the time, and here is probably how I still feel," Caldwell explains. "I was just a basketball player, and they had a master plan for me. I wasn't raping girls in hotels like athletes today, and I wasn't on drugs. I've tried to look at the big picture, but it's hard. I've made a few mistakes along the way, but my paranoia runs me sometimes."
Glennon naturally remembers the episode differently.
"I won that case in Atlanta," Glennon says from his Minneapolis office, "and I thought we had a bona fide claim in the New York antitrust case. Out of nowhere, Joe said he didn't want me to represent him anymore. I have no idea why, and I never found out why. Whoever had his ear certainly handled his case badly. I've sometimes wondered what happened to Joe Caldwell."
Caldwell's antitrust case against the ABA languished. He moved back to Phoenix almost a decade ago, and he's dabbled at this and that ever since. He sold water filters door-to-door, coached basketball for a year at South Mountain Junior College and, for a time, worked for old ASU teammate Tony Cerkvenik, who set him up in his own travel-agent business. Like just about everything else since Caldwell got booted out of basketball, this didn't pan out.
"He's a friend of mine, and I don't want to hurt him," Cerkvenik says, "but Joe thinks he has all the answers. He's not an astute businessman, and he gets taken advantage of, but he's very honest. I would help Joe if he was tossed out on the street or something, but only if he absolutely needed it. He was a pioneer in a lot of ways, and he paid for it. It's just too bad."
Caldwell has had to take out hard-money loans with finance companies to stay afloat. Those high-interest loans have haunted him, and in 1988 he was forced into another bankruptcy.
Most pressing now is a $45,000 loan that Caldwell hasn't repaid. He put up his Tempe home as collateral, and the moneylender wants cash or the house.
"They're not moving me and my mom out of that house--no way," Caldwell says. But Caldwell's latest attorney, Karen Schoenau, admits, "He's got a problem, and he needs to figure out what to do. It doesn't matter to the finance company that all of this stems from his basketball contract problems."
JOE CALDWELL STARES out the seventh-floor window of a central Phoenix high-rise, where he's recently started work as a legal assistant. Impeccably dressed in a pin-striped three-piece suit, he looks like a prosperous attorney. But, for a change, his mind's not on the law.
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