jumpin’ joe

words: robert silverman

photography: david la spina

“After 40 years of doing it, I have to ask, 'What did I do?'”

 

Joe Caldwell, who spent 11 years as a defensive-minded small forward on the court in the ABA and NBA and then four decades in court, knows what he did. He doesn’t thunder or rage, but even with his languorous Texas drawl and tendency to refer to various authority figures as “Mister,” you hear the vestiges of anger in his voice. On the surface, Caldwell’s question is rhetorical. But there’s also an existential, doomed quality to it, as if it’s seeking acknowledgement of what was taken away.

 

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.”

 

II

 

Joe Caldwell was born in 1941 Texas City, Texas, a port city that, like many Houston-area suburbs, was largely dependent on the oil and gas industry. At age six, he witnessed the Texas City Disaster, when a docked ship blew up and set off a series of explosions. By the time the fires were extinguished, 581 people had died and thousands were injured. Save for some minor bruises suffered by his sister, Caldwell’s family was left unharmed, but as he told Sam Smith in Hard Labor: The Battle That Birthed the Billion-Dollar NBA, “I can still see people flying through the air.”

 

His father worked as a longshoreman and mechanic, often meting out life lessons backed by corporal punishment. “He always told me to do my job, don't worry about anyone else,” Caldwell says, and when orders weren’t followed or tasks left unfinished, “he hit me with anything he had in his hand.”

 

His mother stayed at home raising Caldwell and his 10 brothers and sisters. Though the family’s income was relatively meager, there was always food on the table.

 

"All I know is that we were eating," Caldwell told The Phoenix New Times in 1989. "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."

 

At age 12, Caldwell and the rest of the clan left Texas for Los Angeles. He didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was a junior in high school but quickly became a prized recruit, Despite the best efforts of John Wooden to lure him to UCLA, Caldwell ultimately settled on Arizona State. Caldwell was working as a weed-puller on the UCLA campus when two assistants got him into a car and drove him to the Tempe campus. Before Caldwell knew it, he had signed a letter of intent.

 

Following a stellar college career at ASU and a trip to Tokyo as part of the gold medal-winning men’s 1964 Olympic basketball team, Caldwell was selected second overall by the Detroit Pistons.

 

Even in those early years, Caldwell was willing to voice his concerns and speak his mind, violating harshly-enforced if unwritten rules. Midway through his second season, the Pistons fired head coach Charles Wolf; with the team hunting for a replacement, Caldwell suggested Earl Lloyd, a Pistons assistant who had been the first African-American to play in the NBA and had proven an invaluable resource to Caldwell during his rookie year, serving as a mentor and guide. So, “I go in with my dumb butt, saying to [Pistons owner] Mr. Fred Zollner, 'I really like Earl Lloyd and I think he's doing a wonderful thing, helping me,’” Caldwell says.

 

Zollner was less-than thrilled. “Man, he started screaming at me, ‘I run this team. I pay you. You must apologize,’” Caldwell says, laughing.

 

Caldwell acquiesced, but a little over a year later he was traded, largely at his request. Still, he chuckles, describing a report in the Detroit Free Press following the transaction in which an unnamed Pistons official called him a "loser" who didn't like “pork or white women.” (There are no such statements in the December 29, 1965 edition of the Detroit Free Press covering the trade, though it’s possible that Caldwell misremembered which outlet published the article.)

 

Caldwell says he confronted the reporter who wrote the article and told him he was "wrong on both counts. Hell, I like both of them." he says, laughing, “And that was the end of that story."

 

The St. Louis Hawks, a team in the process of rebuilding following Bob Petit’s retirement, traded for Caldwell. They had a deep and potent roster: Lenny Wilkens manned the point, Lou Hudson handled the bulk of the scoring load along with center Zelmo Beaty, and forwards Bill Bridges and a young Paul Silas cleaned up the boards. Caldwell was charged with shutting down an opponent’s top scoring guard or forward.

 

Just before the start of the 1967-68 season, Caldwell was aiming for a new two-year contract. He hunkered down with the St. Louis Hawks’ owner, Ben Kerner, who came to visit him at the George Washington Hotel at 7:30 on a Sunday morning.

 

Per then-NBA rules, free agency didn’t exist. Once a contract expired, a team still maintained the rights to that player via a “reserve clause.” A player’s only leverage came from threatening to hold out until he and the team agreed on a dollar figure. But if an owner wouldn’t bend, the player risked missing gobs of playing time, thus decreasing his value. The longer he remained on the sidelines, the more he was likely to be hounded by the era’s pro-management press, the vast majority of which that was all-too willing to paint a holdout as greedy and selfish.

 

As such, Kerner had little reason to give in to Caldwell’s demands. He initially offered Caldwell $30,000 for the coming season, followed by $27,000 for 1968-69. Though Caldwell was working without an agent on his behalf, he initially, balked at the pay cut. But he and his wife had found a home they wanted to buy and had existing debts to pay off. So Kerner offered a sweetener: If Caldwell signed the proposed contract as-is, he would loan him the $20,000 needed to cover the house and other debts. Caldwell agreed, even though the loan wasn't explicitly included in the contract. (Kerner insisted that getting it in writing would be a violation of NBA bylaws.)

They shook hands, and that was enough for Caldwell, whose father had taught him that “a man's handshake is his word,” he says. That same morning, he and his family went to church. There, “I thanked God for sending Ben Kerner," and told his wife that everything was set.

The following Monday, Caldwell marched into Kerner's office to finalize the agreement only to discover that Kerner had come down with a sudden and crippling case of temporary amnesia. "What am I, a damn bank?" Kerner spat out, according to Caldwell. “I was stunned. I couldn't say nothing."

 

All the paperwork on the house was in order and without Kerner’s promised loan, it would soon be gone. In shock, Caldwell turned to leave and just as he reached the door, he was stopped dead in his tracks by Kerner’s voice, one Caldwell imitates on the phone and describes as “little and whiny.”

 

"Hey, Joe," Kerner needled him, "Remember: Always get it in writing."

"It's like he stuck me and turned the knife," Caldwell says. “[His voice] still echoes in my head.”

One incident during Caldwell’s tenure in the NBA was indicative of the wild, lawless state of the the league at the time. According to Caldwell, before game one of the 1970 Western Conference Finals, he and player-coach Richie Guerin were walking through the tunnels of the Alexander Memorial Coliseum at Georgia Tech University, discussing who would be tasked with stopping Jerry West, when they overheard two voices in the midst of an animated conversation.

 

“Look Mendy, they can only seat 7,800 people here,” one of the two parties said, according to Caldwell. “This is the NBA. We got to show more people than that.”

 

Guerin and Caldwell peered around the corner where they spied NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy chatting with Mendy Rudolph, the NBA’s head of officials. For Caldwell, the clear implication was that the league did not want the Hawks to go to the Finals. Not when they might lose out on three games at The Forum, which seated 17,500, and Los Angeles TV market. Guerin shoved Caldwell back, told him to go back into the locker room, and lit into Kennedy.

 

After game one, in which the Lakers attempted 60 free throws to the Hawks’ 32, When asked by reporters about this disparity, Caldwell raised an eyebrow. Then Guerin let loose. Though neither he nor Caldwell said outright that the game was rigged, Guerin did threaten that if the unfair calls persisted, his Hawks would spill, “a lot of blood.” Guerin was fined $1,000, but said it was worth it because, “My players aren't going to get pushed around again, that's for sure.” While the Lakers swept the series in four games, the free throw numbers were more or less even from that point out.

 

At the conclusion of the 1969-70 season, the Hawks ended a gentleman’s agreement among owners to keep salaries artificially down by signing prized rookie “Pistol” Pete Maravich to a five-year, $1.9 million contract. With the upstart ABA looking to poach underpaid stars, a wink and a nod brand of collusion no longer made sense.

 

Caldwell, still under the reserve clause, was not immediately resigned despite coming off a year in which he’d averaged 21.1 points per game, been named an All-Star, and made the 2nd team All-Defensive Team. Maravich’s seven-figure deal was a major sticking point. In his mind, it was ludicrous that his paycheck should pale in comparison to those of an untested rookie. But for Cousins, who was scrambling to secure public and private financing for a brand new arena, an attendance-drawing white star like Maravich was invaluable while Caldwell—no matter how well he’d played—was expendable. If paying Maravich meant gutting the roster, so be it.

 

While haggling with Cousins, Caldwell says he was told why he signing him wasn’t a priority: "One white boy is better than six niggers," he claims Cousins told him. (In Hard Labor, Smith does not specify exactly what Cousins said, he writes that Cousins spoke in a “repugnant way about the value of whites versus blacks.”)

 

From that point, there was zero chance that Caldwell would return to Atlanta, regardless of what dollar figure the Hawks presented. Caldwell and the ABA’s Carolina Cougars agreed to 5-year, $1.1 million deal, and the Hawks took him to court, claiming that they still held the rights to his services. While Caldwell suited up for Carolina, the case dragged into January 1971, when a Federal judge ruled that the Hawks’ offer—which topped out at less than 75 percent of his previous contract—was in violation of the NBA's reserve clause. Caldwell became the first NBA player to skedaddle off to the ABA without having to sit out a year (as was the case for Rick Barry when he fled the NBA and joined up with the ABA’s Oakland Oaks in 1967 and again, mandated by the reserve clause).

 

As part of the contract signed with Carolina, Caldwell also secured a then-unheard of pension: $600 a month for each year he spent in the pros, paid for life starting at age 55. (The going rate was one tenth of that.) To celebrate, Caldwell took Kerner out to dinner in St. Louis, brandishing his shiny new deal.

 

But Cougars owner Tedd Munchak quickly began to have second thoughts about the money he’d be forced to pay long after Caldwell retired. In 1973, he sued Caldwell, claiming the pension should only have been $60 a month per year of service, blaming the 1000 percent increase on a typographical error made by the attorney who had written up the contract. In 1978, 60 Minutes ran a segment on Caldwell. Interviewed by Morley Safer, Munchak laid out his reason for opposing a generous pension, alleged typos notwithstanding. “I don’t think sports gives any person—owner, agent or player—the license to live the rest of their lives depending on what they did were 22,” he growled. The North Carolina Court of Appeals eventually ruled in Caldwell’s favor in 198o and his pension kicked in in 1996.

 

IV

 

Though Caldwell had served as the Atlanta Hawks’ representative to the NBPA, he initially refrained from taking up union activities in the fledgling ABA. "I was just minding my own business," he says. But during the 1971-72 season he became part of the union, eventually ascending to the role of vice president.

 

As VP, he sought to alter travel rules. Teams often flew on the day of games and used the relatively inexpensive services provided by the Piedmont Airlines, whose coach seats offered little leg room. He also demanded increased meal money, argued that standard pension at the time—$60 per year of service—was woefully inadequate, and fought against the proposed ABA-NBA merger. In 1973, Caldwell was named acting president of the ABAPA when Zelmo Beaty stepped down. Though the position was intended to be a temporary one, Caldwell remained in it until his career unexpectedly came to a shuddering halt a year and a half later.

 

V

 

During his four years in Carolina, Caldwell was named to multiple ABA All-Star teams. In 1974,  the franchise was bought by the brothers Ozzie and Daniel Silna and their lawyer, Donald Schupak, who promptly moved them to St. Louis before the start of the 1974-75 season and rechristened them “the Spirits of St. Louis.” Their 1974-75 roster was a combustible mix of seasoned veterans and out-of-control rookies. They barely heeded the words of first-year head coach Bob MacKinnon, who would end up with career coaching record of 57-120. They were led, unfortunately, by 6’8” power forward Marvin Barnes, an incredible “Hall of Fame talent” according to Costas, who would average 24.1 points and 15.6 in 1974-75 and win Rookie of the Year. But Barnes, who more than earned the nickname “Bad News,” was as volatile as he was talented. A brief sampling of his exploits includes bludgeoning a Providence College teammate with a tire iron, routinely missing team flights, squandering untold stacks of cash on mink coats, and shrugging at the idea of practice long before Allen Iverson.   

 

Barely a month into the season, Barnes had begun to take issue with the  $2.4 million contract he’d signed. Even in an era where a player had little negotiating power, he chose an extreme tactic, choosing to jump the team in November without informing MacKinnon, the Spirits’ front office, or most of the team. But one Spirit did know about Barnes’ ploy. Before vanishing, Barnes had sought out Caldwell for advice without fully explaining his reasons for bolting. Rather, Barnes framed the source of his contractual discontent as an issue with his taxes. “I couldn't understand it,” Caldwell says when they first spoke. “I said, 'What do you mean, a tax problem? You just signed a $2.5 million contract. How can you have a tax problem?’”

 

Caldwell and Barnes were both in New York on November 20, 1974, after the latter had already skipped out on a game against the New York Nets. They were tooling back towards LaGuardia Airport in a limousine along with Caldwell’s then-agent, Marshall Boyer. Barnes began airing his grievances, asking for help.

 

“I said, 'well, the only thing I can do as the [ABA] Players Association man is to recommend three people for him,” says Caldwell. He suggested that Boyer, or two other agents, Irving Weiner and Al Ross, might be able to help.

 

Boyer then accompanied Barnes on a flight to Dayton, Ohio. According to an article in The New York Times from November 23, 1974, Boyer had whispered to Barnes that his contract wasn’t valid, and going away could force the Spirits back to the negotiating table. Additional reporting from the time suggests that Caldwell did whisper to Barnes that he should dump his agent, Bob Wolff, and replace him with Boyer.

 

Caldwell insisted that he had played no part in Barnes’s decision, though reports at the time and court testimony does indicate that he at least read Barnes’s contract. Under oath in the subsequent court case, Barnes claimed that during the limo ride, Caldwell and Boyer had both pushed him to leave the Spirits; Caldwell testified that he did no such thing and also knew he couldn’t sway the pair. When he heard about the fines that Barnes was racking up, he told him to pay it and get back on the court. True to form, over the years Barnes would repeatedly go back and forth as to whether Caldwell was a willing accomplice. In the 60 Minutes segment, Barnes indicates not only that Caldwell was innocent, but that Spirits owners wanted to get out of paying the last year of Caldwell’s contract.

 

Though Barnes would soon end his wildcat strike—after a ten-day absence, he was discovered hanging out in a Dayton pool hall—the Spirits weren’t done assigning blame. On December 3, 1974, general manager Harry Weltman sent Caldwell a telegram informing him that he had been suspended indefinitely without pay. Weltman alleged that Caldwell had concocted the entire scheme.

 

“They spread the lie that I talked to [Barnes] and told him to jump teams,” Caldwell says “I ain’t never said that." Costas too is confident that Caldwell’s version of the events is the closest to the truth.

 

“I'm sure Joe did not encourage [Barnes],” says Costas. “Joe may have advised him about an agent but Joe would not have told him ‘Go AWOL.’”

 

The letter from Weltman also informed Caldwell that he could appeal the suspension to the ABA commissioner. The problem was, the Cougars’ ex-owner, Tedd Munchak, who was suing Caldwell, and had been named ABA Commissioner in 1974, and according to Caldwell, still harbored no small amount of resentment towards him.

 

That’s not the only reason Caldwell assumed there was little chance he’d receive a fair hearing. There had been plans to combine the ABA and NBA going back to the late 1960s, but Oscar Robertson and 14 team representatives—including Caldwell—had strongly opposed the merger, arguing that a consolidation of the the two leagues would artificially suppress wages. As previously mentioned, salaries took off once the ABA and NBA began directly competing for talent; a merger would have put an end to all that. In 1970, Robertson and 14 plaintiffs (again, including Caldwell) sued the NBA to halt the merger, charging the league with violating U.S. antitrust laws. The case was resolved via a settlement agreement 1976, allowing the two leagues to merge, killing the reserve clause, granting players  the right to free agency.

 

But because the NBA and ABA had racked up untold legal fees and had to make serious concessions. all the litigants were to a certain degree in the crosshairs of ownership. Oscar Robertson believes he was removed after a one-year stint in 1974-75 serving as a color commentator for CBS as retribution. Despite his star power, “I generated the wrath of the NBA,” he says. ”They didn't care for me at all.”

 

Moreover, Caldwell, who was still the president of the ABAPA at the time of his suspension, was also working to stop the ABA from subverting the union’s authority altogether. In 1973, Bill Melchionni of the New York Nets and Roger Brown of the Indiana Pacers had negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with the previous ABA commissioner, Mike Soren.

 

One small problem: neither Melchionni nor Brown were team union representatives. Even worse, the trio had failed inform Caldwell or any other ABAPA officials that the negotiations were taking place. Naturally, Caldwell refused to accept the agreement, a matter that ended up being heard by the National Labor Relations Board and was not ruled upon until 1975. After the board ordered Caldwell to ratify a CBA that he had no part in crafting, he resigned, handing the presidency off to Julius Erving and “Jumbo” Jim Eakins.

Caldwell first filed a formal appeal in conjunction with the ABAPA. While Munchak did say that the indefinite suspension violated ABA bylaws and offered to recuse himself, Caldwell pulled out of the process, against the advice of the ABA’s general council, Prentiss Yancey. (Yancey would later testify that he pressed to keep the matter out of court due to his responsibilities as council, not because he believed it was in Caldwell’s best interests.) Instead, on December 26, he chose to sue all three of the Spirits’ owners, plus general manager Harry Weltman and Commissioner Munchak, charging them with having, “conspired to blacklist him and deprive him of the opportunity to continue his career as a professional basketball player," per court documents.

 

His case was hardly straightforward. The bylaws specified that any player suspended for violating the terms of his contract—as the Spirits claim Caldwell did—should then be placed on the reserve list. While the letter Caldwell received said he was suspended and provided no timetable for his reinstatement, it never specified that he had been put on the reserve list. And here’s where a sketchy league that rarely lived up to its own questionable rules had a distinct legal advantage: There was no paper trail. No formal documentation existed showing that Caldwell’s name was ever added to the reserve list, or even that such a list even existed at all. But in a league where smoky backroom deals were the norm, it was par for the course.

 

What’s more, the Spirits also claimed that in December 1974 they had terminated the final year of Caldwell’s contract, thus freeing him to seek employment elsewhere. But again, they somehow failed to notify Caldwell or his representatives. Again, the absurdity of the ABA’s transactional process benefitted the league for two reasons: One, if Caldwell had known that he wasn’t contractually bound to the Spirits, he may have sought a tryout with other ABA teams. Because he assumed he was still under indefinite suspension, he did not do so, Caldwell argued during the antitrust trial. And two, arguing that the contract had been terminated allowed the Munchak to argue that Caldwell should not receive the final $220,000 he was owed. (With regards to the latter, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in Caldwell’s favor in 1982.)

 

It’s always difficult to prove blackballing in court—you need look no further than Colin Kaepernick for evidence of this, regardless of whether, as Caldwell wrote in his autobiography,  Munchak told him he could never return to the NBA because, “They won't take your pension. Nobody will touch it.” Both Caldwell and Yancey testified that Schupak had said he would move heaven and earth to ensure that Caldwell never suited up in the pros again. But because of the ABA’s cavalier bookkeeping, Caldwell’s suspension was itself called into question. His case, in essence, was premised on a wrong that, on paper, never even really happened.

 

For over twenty years, Caldwell kept plugging away, trying to do just that. In 1993,  the Southern District of New York ruled that he had “failed to offer evidence which would enable a reasonable jury to find concerted action on the part of any of the defendants.” Three years later, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, ending Caldwell’s attempt to prove collusion.

 

Despite the verdict, Caldwell remains steadfast in his belief that the Spirits conspired against him. They were hemorrhaging money and desperately wanted to get out of paying what he calls “the greatest contract in basketball,” largely because of the substantial pension. As for the ABA (and the NBA) writ large, he feels it was retribution for his history of standing up to ownership. In the eyes of Caldwell, professional basketball had made an example out of him. 

 

“Removing Caldwell thus would eliminate an aggressive union leader who was a major obstacle to a merger the ABA needed and to a collective bargaining agreement the ABA owners, but not the players, wanted,” Caldwell’s lawyers unsuccessfully argued in 1993. “It would send a chilling message to the other ABA players, and especially union leaders, that aggressive union action, or even counseling a teammate, might jeopardize their careers.”

 

Nor was the merger much help to Caldwell. His best years were behind him and there was no place for him in the NBA. Though he had averaged 14 points per game in his final season, he went unselected in the 1976 ABA-NBA dispersal draft.” A report in December 1975 suggested ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere had steered the Phoenix Suns away from signing Caldwell, but there were legitimate basketball reasons why teams passed. He was 35 years old, and had been out of basketball for a year and a half, his knees shot and athleticism drained.

 

For Robertson, there’s no question as to what the ABA did to Caldwell and why. “It was obvious that they blackballed him,” he says. “They blackballed him because he was a player rep and during those early days they did that.”

 

By 1978, Caldwell was in trouble. Without the final $220,000 the Spirits owed him or his pension, he was put into a bank-ordered bankruptcy. The bulk of his assets were seized, he lost all his homes, save for the one he currently resides in, and his wife divorced him. Luckily, his union brethren in NFLPA offered him a job, one that Caldwell believes saved his life. “If it don't be for the NFL Players Association, I think that I would have been not around here anymore,” he says.

 

Caldwell worked with the NFLPA for a year, speaking to high school students about the importance of staying in school. When the program came to an abrupt halt, he spent at a Phoenix travel agency owned by a former teammate and taught basketball at a community college. He hasn’t been able to to secure full-time employment since. The $220,000 in salary Munchak eventually paid out in 1980 when the courts ruled in his favor was dispersed to his creditors. He would remain at the mercy of the banks until he was freed from bankruptcy in 1990. He’s been living off of his Cougars pension—$6,600 per month, since 1996. As Caldwell puts it, he’s "just been stumbling around and waiting."

 

VII

 

What upsets Caldwell the most is not the ABA officials who exiled him but the total radio silence and lack of solidarity from other players, particularly following his banishment. “I was head of the [ABA] Player's Association, I was trying to do the best I could for every player,” Caldwell protests. “But when I got suspended and nobody ever said one word on my behalf … None of them fought for me."

 

Curtis Harris explains that given the imminent merger, the calculus on the part of Caldwell’s ABA colleagues is a brutal, if understandable one. The fragile financial state of basketball circa 1975, meant, aside the ABA’s unquestioned stars, any player who called out unfair labor practices might be moved a few rungs down the dispersal draft board or find himself passed over entirely and labeled a “troublemaker.” With jobs in the far-more stable and reputable NBA mere inches from their grasp, as, Harris asks rhetorically, “Why risk it by trying to stick up for Joe Caldwell?”

 

VIII

 

History has not been kind to Caldwell. The most well-known accounts of the ABA hew to the idea that Caldwell was the problem. In Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls," an oral history of the ABA, Caldwell is depicted as “troubled,” having “a chip on his shoulder,” and laboring under the delusion that “everyone is out to get him, that being black hurt him.” The overall portrait is of a “moody” malcontent who isolated himself from teammates and snapped back at assistant coaches even as the 1972-73 Cougars made it all the way to the ABA’s Eastern Division Finals.

 

That characterization, from ex-coaches and teammates alike, came as a great surprise to Caldwell. “I was so shocked,” he says, particularly by Gene Littles, who said that the rest of the Cougars had to redouble their efforts to cover for Caldwell’s antics. “I didn't know he felt that way about me.” ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Free Spirits follows more or less the same script, calling Caldwell a “notorious clubhouse lawyer." Barnes, who was interviewed prior to his death in 2014, this time claims that Caldwell did convince him to ditch St. Louis. Caldwell himself was never approached by ESPN, and neither his suspension nor the subsequent lawsuits are mentioned.

 

When Caldwell saw the film, he was stunned, unable to comprehend why ESPN felt compelled to “dirty me up 40 years later.” He met with a lawyer to  discuss taking ESPN to court. While no legal action was taken, in a settlement agreement, ESPN and the film’s director formally apologized and removed the inaccurate depiction of Caldwell from any future iterations of the documentary.

 

IX

 

None of this, though, has been enough to poison Caldwell’s feelings about basketball itself. “I love the game,” he says. “That's one thing they can't take away from me.” It’s a lesson he’s tried to pass on to Marvin Bagley III. “Boy, you love this game and you stay there until it eats you up,” Caldwell has told him.

 

Like his grandfather, Bagley can absolutely fly. But he’s also 6’11”, a wholly modern big with guard-like skills—albeit one still looking for a consistent jumper. Asked how Bagley’s abilities compare to his own, Caldwell bursts out laughing. “He's twice as fast as I was. He's twice the size that I am. I can't do the stuff that he's done. He can put his chin on the damn basket. I used to put the back of my head on it. He's just unbelievable as far as a specimen of a basketball player.”

 

Caldwell has been dreaming about a coda to his career that involves Marvin. It goes something like this: Maybe, after two stellar years in the NBA, Bagley will earn a spot the 2020 Olympic team. Caldwell can then return to Tokyo alongside his grandson. He even sometimes imagines being joined by the surviving members of 1964 team so they can enjoy one final moment in the basketball spotlight. Maybe then he could finally put away all the documents from his trials, and be remembered for the player he was, and not someone for whom the NBA’s labor victories came far too late. Maybe then, “40 years later, you can tell the world how good you were,” he says.

 

Still, even if given the chance to rewrite history, despite the lies, the litigation, and the injustice, he wouldn’t change a thing.

 

“I have to go through this over and over in my mind,” Caldwell says,  “If I can wake up in the morning without drinking alcohol and smoking dope and trying to kill the pain, I can say I did it right.

 

“I did what I was supposed to do, and nothing else I can do.”

 

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