Banned from basketball
It is said that there are two sides to every story – and then there is the truth. Joe Caldwell’s story involves lawsuits and disputes about contracts. All that drama makes it too easy to forget just how good of a player he was.
Caldwell played for Arizona State from 1961-64, setting the Sun Devils career scoring record with 1515 points; he still ranks seventh on the school’s scoring list and second in career scoring average (18.2 ppg). His tremendous leaping ability earned him the nickname “Pogo Joe” and enabled the 6-5 swingman to grab 929 rebounds, which is still the second best total in school history. He led Arizona State to the NCAA Tournament in each of his three varsity seasons and a 65-18 overall record. In 1975 he became a charter member of the school’s Hall of Fame and in 2004-05 Caldwell joined the Pac-10 Hall of Fame, a special honor since ASU was not a member of the Pac-10 (or, to be precise, the Athletic Association of Western Universities, as it was then known) during Caldwell’s college career. Caldwell is very proud that the Pac-10 chose to remember his contributions even though ASU was a Western Athletic Conference member during his career; he contrasts this with how the NBA ignores ABA history and statistics.
"Pogo Joe" Caldwell was the fourth leading scorer on the 1964 U.S. Olympic basketball team that went 9-0. Caldwell scored 14 points in the 73-59 gold medal game win over the Soviet Union.
"It was such an honor when I was chosen to be one of the 100 players to go to Kentucky to train and to be chosen out of those 100 players to be one of the 12 members of the Olympic team,” Caldwell says. “When we got together we trained and we learned from each other. To this day my fondest memory is standing on that podium and saying that I am the best in the world.”
The Detroit Pistons selected Caldwell with the second overall pick in the 1964 NBA draft. Caldwell earned a place on the 1964-65 All-Rookie Team by averaging 10.7 ppg and 6.7 rpg. Midway through his second season, the Pistons traded Caldwell to the St. Louis Hawks. Caldwell’s numbers steadily improved and the Hawks’ record soared as well. In 1967-68, he averaged 16.4 ppg and St. Louis finished first in the Western Division with a 56-26 record.
In 1968-69, Caldwell averaged 15.8 ppg and made the All-Star team for the first time. The Hawks moved to Atlanta prior to the season but were still located in the Western Conference. They knocked off Elvin Hayes and the San Diego Rockets in the first round of the playoffs before falling 4-1 to the powerful Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor L.A. Lakers. In 1969-70 Caldwell made the All-Star team again, ranking 18th in the league in scoring at 21.1 ppg. The Hawks won the Western Division with a 48-34 record. Atlanta defeated Chicago 4-1 but in the Western Division Finals the Hawks were no match for the Lakers, who swept them. Caldwell averaged a team-high 25.0 ppg in the playoffs, the sixth highest postseason scoring average in the NBA in 1970.
Defense was always one of Caldwell’s strong suits and in 1969-70 he earned All-Defensive 2nd Team honors. He believes that superior conditioning is an essential part of being a great defensive player.
“When I was playing I thought that I was in the best shape possible,” Caldwell explains. “I thought that I could run all night long.”
Caldwell honed his defensive skills in part by practicing against Hawks player-coach Richie Guerin, a former All-Star, and Lenny Wilkens, who later was selected as a member of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List.
"That's where I trained my mind for speed and size,” Caldwell says. “Richie Guerin was an extremely good right-handed player and he was an excellent coach. I would play in practice against him. Then I would play in practice one-on-one against Lenny Wilkens. Then I would switch up the next day and play Paul Silas and Jim Davis, the big guys who were fast. That's why I was able to guard Dr. J (a few years later), because I had trained myself against different sized players and where they were going to go. When you train yourself like that and then you get involved in it, it becomes a part of you."
Caldwell’s best NBA season also turned out to be his last one. He felt that the Hawks were not paying him his true market value. His agent Marshall Boyer negotiated a better deal with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, so Caldwell signed with them. A few years earlier when Rick Barry jumped leagues, a court ordered him to sit out one season because of the option clause that was then a standard part of every NBA contract. But in Caldwell’s case, a court ruled that he did not have to sit out because the Hawks’ offer was less than 75 percent of the value of his previous deal with the team; thus, Caldwell was a free agent and the Hawks had no right to invoke the option clause. Caldwell fervently believes that the NBA never forgave him for this ruling.
Caldwell averaged 23.3 ppg for the Cougars in 1970-71, ranking seventh in the ABA. He made the All-Star team and the All-ABA 2nd Team but Carolina did not qualify for the playoffs. A knee injury forced Caldwell to miss 23 games in 1971-72 but he returned to form the next season, making the All-Star team and the All-Defensive Team. The Cougars were now coached by Larry Brown, who was in his first season as a professional coach. Brown won the first of his three ABA Coach of the Year awards after leading Carolina to a 57-25 record, the best mark in the Eastern Division. The Cougars lost 4-3 in the Eastern Division Finals to the Kentucky Colonels.
While coaching Carolina, Brown employed a lot of the principles that later became his trademarks. On offense he emphasized team play and quick ball movement, while on defense he utilized the jump-and-switch defense that his mentor Dean Smith used at North Carolina; this system had previously been developed by Ben Carnevale at the Naval Academy and Bob Spear later used it at Air Force, where Smith got his first job as an assistant coach. The jump-and-switch tactics worked perfectly for the Cougars, who had several quick guards and forwards. Caldwell ranked fourth in the ABA in steals in 1972-73, the first year that totals were kept in that category in either league. He had 10 steals in one game, setting an ABA record in that category.
Caldwell also ranked fourth in the ABA in steals in 1973-74, as the Cougars placed three players in the top ten. Carolina’s record slipped a bit, though, and the Cougars met the Colonels a round earlier. Carolina’s one weakness was at center, while Kentucky had the best center in the league, Artis Gilmore, who dominated play as Kentucky swept Carolina.
Prior to the 1974-75 season, the Carolina franchise fell apart due to financial problems. A new ownership group bought the team and relocated what was left of it to St. Louis, renaming the franchise the Spirits of St. Louis after Charles Lindbergh’s famous plane. Several of the team’s top players departed and Brown left to coach the Denver Nuggets. St. Louis’ roster was filled with young, talented and outlandish players, with rookie Marvin Barnes by far the most talented and outlandish of the bunch.
Barnes averaged 24.0 ppg and 15.6 rpg in 1974-75 but not without going through some controversy that ultimately ended Caldwell’s career. Barnes was constantly feuding with the coaching staff and management due to his undisciplined habits on and off the court. At one point during the season he disappeared entirely. The team’s management claimed that Caldwell had led Barnes “astray.”
Bob Costas, then a young broadcaster for the team, later noted, “Marvin spent much of his life ‘astray.’ He didn’t need a map or someone to take him there.”
Nevertheless, the team used the Barnes situation as a pretext to suspend Caldwell, who was then 33 years old and still a very productive player (14.6 ppg, 5.1 apg, 4.4 rpg in 25 games prior to the suspension). He testified in court that he had nothing to do with Barnes briefly leaving the team but Caldwell never played another pro basketball game.
More than three decades later, Caldwell still insists that the Barnes situation was just a convenient excuse to mask the real issue.
“Marvin Barnes, I was trying to stop that young man,” Caldwell says. “I was trying to stop all the young basketball players. I told them that there are three things that you have to do before you get to the pros: eat right, get your rest and be on time. Those are the only three things that you have to do. If the man says practice is at 6:00, he doesn't mean 6:01. He doesn't mean 6:02. He means 6:00 sharp. That's what I was training them (the young players). I was trying to train them, when they (Spirits management) told me that I was bad for their business, so they kicked me out of basketball. I really had nothing to do with Marvin Barnes other than trying to tell that young man to get himself together. Stop having 35 telephones or 15 telephones in his house and all that silly mess. They chose to do what they did because of my pension – and that's an ongoing fight for 25 years now."
Caldwell’s original contract with the Cougars included provisions for a very generous pension plan. Caldwell adds that this came in the form of an “irrevocable guarantee” that could not be amended by any party but that almost immediately after signing this deal the team tried to change it, offering to give him a bigger salary in exchange for agreeing to reduce the pension. He declares that his adamant stance that he is entitled to this pension poisoned his relationship with the team’s management and is the real reason behind not only his sudden banishment but the fact that no team in either league signed him.
Caldwell says that the ABA – and later the NBA after the leagues merged in 1976 – kept him suspended to make sure that he will never receive his pension.
"A man who was in great physical condition like myself, who prided himself on defense – and you know how hard it is to play defense – you have to keep the drugs out of your system, keep the alcohol out of your system, you have to come to play every night because there is a good offensive player on every team,” Caldwell says.
“Every team we played, that was the guy I was assigned to – I don't care if he was 6-9" or 4-1 I had him. So, why would a guy like that never play after he turned 33? The NBA said I was too old. They've been playing guys who are 41, 42 and I probably could still outplay them now. It's crazy what they tried to say that I was, but I'm not that person. I'm a basketball player. I've always loved the game and I will always love it. I'll go away from here loving it. I was going to play until I was 40. I was going to play 20 years. I had trained my body to play 20 years and then I was going to retire. I was going to be the first 20-year man instead of Robert Parish. That was my dream.”
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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