A Bitter Courtship
The long, lean black man takes a break from tinkering with a car beneath the South Phoenix sun. Drenched with sweat, he falls onto a tattered couch under a paloverde tree.
"I remember sitting under a shade tree as a kid watching my dad fix a car," the man says, rubbing his right knee. The joint still aches, nearly two decades after he tore it playing ball. "Here I am, forty years later, under a tree, trying to get it together."
At age 47, Joe Caldwell, one of the flashiest pro players of his day, is trying to decide for the umpteenth time what to do with his confused life. The only game he ever really learned was basketball. So he's helping his brother, Ed, fix cars at Jus-Us Auto until he starts work as a legal assistant for a Phoenix law firm.
Caldwell has fallen hard, the victim of an early 1970s sports labor war that cost him his basketball career and his money. He's also the victim of an internal war that continues to rage within him, denying him peace of mind.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
"I can take things apart, but I have trouble putting them back together," Caldwell says, unleashing a painfully slow smile. "When the world around you is going crazy, you have to hold onto something--to some God. This year has been the toughest of all."
NOT MANY PEOPLE recall that Jumpin' Joe Caldwell, a six-five star at Arizona State University and the 1964 Olympics, was one of the game's most innovative players. And few know of his ruinous legal skirmishes with the American Basketball Association--an upstart league that eventually merged with the National Basketball Association.
Caldwell's downfall began in the early 1970s, before pro basketball became a ballet for the masses and benchwarmers made millions. And it happened as black athletes were only beginning to earn as much money as whites.
After a salary dispute in 1970 with the management of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, Caldwell signed a multimillion-dollar contract--one of basketball's first--with the Carolina Cougars in the rival ABA.
But three seasons later, the ABA team suspended Caldwell, president of the league's players' union, for allegedly telling teammate Marvin Barnes to break his contract. Caldwell never played pro ball again.
In 1976, a North Carolina court placed Caldwell into involuntary bankruptcy. Authorities snatched his Greensboro home and most of his other assets. He's never recovered--financially or emotionally.
He's a casualty of his wars with the unholy fathers who ran the ABA. But you can't pin all his current woes on those wars. Even if Caldwell was wrongly tossed aside, he hasn't been able to cast off his demons.
"Joe is a fine human being who was really very good to his family, but he always was trusting to a fault," says Cleveland Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Famer and former teammate. "He always liked the glitter, the glamour. Sometimes, people take advantage of that. Had Joe been playing today, with all this exposure, he would have brought the crowds to their feet, he'd be a superstar. It's really unfortunate."
So articulate you wouldn't guess he never came close to graduating from ASU, Caldwell can be amiable when he's not wallowing in bitterness, self-deprecating when he's not consumed by a persecution complex.
Caldwell's is not a success story. He summarizes it like this:
"It's a pretty basic story. I believed in basketball. I enjoyed the game and I loved to play. Then I started learning some lessons."
Those lessons have left Caldwell so broke that a finance company is trying to take possession of one of his few remaining assets--the small Tempe home in which he lives with his aged mother, Georgia. He blames all his financial travails on his legal battles with the long-vanished ABA.
Some of Caldwell's autobiography sounds like the mutterings of a self-dramatizer. And long-time friends say he continues to be too easily swayed by the last person who bends his ear.
However, a court has ruled that he was wrongfully suspended in 1974 from the ABA--three seasons after he jumped from the NBA for a multimillion-dollar contract. Another court has said Caldwell has a $6,600 monthly pension coming to him starting in 1995.
That doesn't help now, when he can barely pay his monthly bills.
"I can't explain all this," he says of his troubles. "It was like I had nothing to do with it, but it was me all the way through. It's like I'm on a preordained trip. It's madness. I keep saying, `What is this madness all about?' Can you be totally blackballed from a sport in this country? Right away, if someone says something nasty to me, I think they're part of the whole thing--paranoia at its best."
Little in Caldwell's life since his 1974 suspension has satisfied him, largely because of that unfinished business about his exile from basketball.
"He's obsessed with it, but can you blame him?" says Richard Brandes, the Phoenix attorney who recently hired Caldwell. "What a waste. He's lost about everything, but he probably has a better chance of selling his story as a book or movie than collecting through the courts."
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."
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.
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."
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.
"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.
"It was 1984," he says, "and they brought the Olympic basketball team to Phoenix for an exhibition against the pros. They had these big festivities, and I'm the only guy from here to ever make the team. But they never called me. I had to pay to get in. I saw an old committee guy--`Joe, I didn't know you were around'--I saw [former NBA star] Bob Lanier. Same thing. I had great pride in being a gold-medal winner. It really hurt. It's like they just forgot who I was."
Caldwell strokes his bad knee and says, "No one remembers me? They have amnesia? I was just a hell of a basketball player who used to play with Jerry and Wilt and Oscar and all them? No one remembers me, huh?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.