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.

"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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin