November 10, 2017


Jumpin' Joe (Robert Silverman, Victory Journal)

In December 1974, while playing for the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis, Caldwell was placed on indefinite suspension. According to the Spirits, he'd convinced star rookie Marvin "Bad News" Barnes to jump the team, an allegation Caldwell has always denied. For this, Caldwell says he was placed on a reserve list by the Spirits, sending him into basketball limbo. He then spent decades in courtrooms trying to prove that the ABA and his old team had conspired to keep him from playing pro basketball. The question of whether he was blackballed--and if the ABA violated U.S. antitrust laws--was litigated for over twenty years. It was finally decided in 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case.

"They made this one lie stand and it destroyed my career, my finances," he says.

It was far from Caldwell's only legal battle. He also spent nine years fighting Tedd Munchak, the one-time owner of the Carolina Cougars, who sued Caldwell in 1973 to avoid fulfilling the terms of a contract that would have paid Caldwell $6,600 per month pension--$600 for every season of his career--starting at age 55. According to Munchak, there was a typo in the deal and his intent actually was to pay Caldwell only $60 a month. He also spent an additional seven years enmeshed in a legal battle trying to recoup the $220,000 in salary the Spirits should have paid him, but had withheld, thanks to the 1974 suspension. And for an additional 14 years, he fought to extricate himself from a court-ordered bankruptcy that snatched away that last payment from the Spirits once he'd won it back.

Caldwell has a raconteur's ease, punctuated with a remarkable ability to recall specific dates and details. While he rarely waxes nostalgic about the games themselves, he'll recite chapter and verse about his post-basketball legal battles. He has kept all of the paperwork from the years winding through the legal system in his home outside Tempe. He originally bought the property for his mother but has lived there since 1978. Over the years, various members of his family have resided there too, including Caldwell's grandson and soon-to-be Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III, expected to be a top-3 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. 

Boxes filled to the brim with old and yellowing documents, all the contracts and supporting evidence, sit in Caldwell's bedroom. A letter sent by ESPN apologizing for its depiction of him in the 30 for 30 documentary High Spirits is framed and hung on on his wall with pride, as if the act of maintaining and cataloguing this personal legal library is a justification in and of itself.

But his stacks of files are important signifiers of another basketball era, when labor could be crushed by management, owners could casually sling racist epithets, and it was unclear if professional basketball would ever prove to be anything more than a fringe sport. And yet, on the court, "Pogo Joe" or "Jumpin' Joe,"--a long-limbed, athletic, defensive stopper--was the furthest thing from an anachronism. According to Curtis Harris, a doctoral student at American University focusing on basketball history, Caldwell is as good an avatar as you'll find of an athlete whose game foreshadowed the present.

"The way he jumped, the way he attacked, both on offense and defense," Harris explains, "You look at the court back then, like 1966, at a game with Joe Caldwell, after 30 seconds, you'd say, 'Yeah, Joe Caldwell's not just a guy that's not just existing out there; he's out there progressing what's going to happen in basketball.'"

His peers certainly agree. Walt Frazier cackles with joy when asked about Caldwell's game.

"Jumping Joe, Pogo Joe," he says, his high-wattage grin practically bursting through the phone, "This guy was a phenomenal leaper. He could run. He was like Westbrook on the court, man. Very athletic. From the half court, [he would] maybe take one dribble, go down, and dunk the ball ... His stupendous dunk shots, that was his trash talking symbol." Frazier likens that pose to the iconic silhouette of Michael Jordan, "Cause he would go up with one hand, just float through the air. Man, just a ferocious type of dunk."

Bob Costas, who served as play-by-play man for the Spirits at the ripe old age of 22, only got to see Caldwell play for a month, but he raves about his abilities.

"He could use his strength for positioning and he had leaping ability on top of it," Costas says. "He played bigger than 6-4, 6-5 the same way Charles Barkley did," a comparison that Caldwell echoed in a 1993 interview with The New York Times' Richard Sandomir, saying he played small forward like "Charles Barkley without the extra weight.

Costas recalls a game between the Spirits of St. Louis and Utah Stars in 1974 in which Caldwell faced off against 19-year-old Moses Malone. Caldwell shut Malone down, holding him to a four-point outing despite Moses' six-inch height advantage.

Harris says that Kawhi Leonard is the current player Caldwell reminds him of the most, even if Caldwell lacks Leonard's shooting and ball-handling skills. Caldwell rejected that idea outright. "If my hands were like [Leonard's] ... Man, I hate to think," he says, practically giggling at the thought. "I used to ask God all the time, 'God, why do you not give me long fingers?' And I'd hear a voice inside of my head say, 'Well, I can't give you everything.'"

If Caldwell's game has aged well, the series of events that prematurely ended his career have all but been forgotten. They shouldn't be. He not only fought for his own contractual rights; he worked tirelessly against the pending ABA-NBA merger, serving as a plaintiff in Oscar Robertson's class-action antitrust lawsuit that forced the NBA grant players the right to free agency. You can draw a straight line across time from his actions (and that of all the NBA's early labor pioneers) and the political and cultural agency wielded by the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Caldwell's story is one about a financially-strapped league trying to claw back a chunk of cash, or as Caldwell tells it, "They were trying to flim-flam me out of my money." But Caldwell's labor efforts were why a target had been placed on his back to begin with. Because he wanted players to be guaranteed a livable pension after their careers were over; because he wasn't willing to remain silent when allegations of rigged games arose; and because wouldn't continue play for an owner who threw around racial slurs, he was labeled a "troublemaker" and "clubhouse lawyer." He had to be punished, lest others follow his lead.

Because of that, Caldwell says, "They destroyed everything."

Posted by at November 10, 2017 8:17 AM


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