’64 OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST RECALLS
by Cash Michaels
He’s a five-time NBA/ABA all-star, having played for the Carolina Cougars in the early 1970’s, scoring at will, and giving “Dr. J” Julius Erving fits on defense every time they faced off.
He is also one of the most coveted hoop stars in Arizona State University Sun Devils history, the former 6’5” guard/forward having his #32 jersey retired to the rafters there in 2010.
But the honor that “Pogo” Joe Caldwell displays with the greatest pride from his extraordinary career in collegiate and professional basketball is the gold medal he brought home from the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
So he knows, firsthand, how the US Olympic men’s basketball team, in addition to all of the other American athletes, feel as the Games of the XXX Olympiad get underway in London, England.
Caldwell, 71 and residing in Arizona, says even for the professional basketball players there, there is a tremendous sense of pride and honor in knowing that you are representing your country on the giant world stage, and that you are competing against the best athletes in the world.
After standing on the Olympic stage in Tokyo with his teammates, receiving the gold medal around his neck, Pogo Joe says after their victory, there was no feeling like it.
“As young men, all we wanted to do was win the gold,” he says.
And yes, in case you were wondering, Caldwell’s Olympic gold medal is indeed solid gold.
Having grown up a poor black boy in Texas city, Texas, Joseph Louis Caldwell, nicknamed “Pogo Joe” because of his tremendous ability to leap so high off the ground, was now part of a proud legacy of US Olympic champions in 1964. So much so that his mother kept his gold medal with pride until she died, and his father, who was always tough with Joe, even had to admit that his son achieved something he never dreamed of.
Especially after Joe went to the White House, and shook hands with another Texas native, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“Everybody’s got to be on the same page,” Caldwell says now regarding the current US Olympics men team, featuring NBA stars Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Kevin Durant; and coached, once again by Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski.
Pogo Joe says when, at age 23, he was chosen the first of the final 12 from a list of 100 great college basketball players like Willis Reed and Cazzie Russell, to play for the United States, “There was simply no feeling like it.”
Caldwell’s team then was significant because it was one of the last to feature primarily college stars, in contrast to the NBA-dominated “Dream Team” US Olympic men’s basketball teams that have been in vogue since 1992, featuring superstar future Hall of Famers like North Carolina native Michael Jordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird.
Caldwell’s 1964 US Olympic team, which it had no pro players (that wouldn’t be allowed to until a 1989 change of international rules), didn’t do too badly in the future NBA superstar category either. UNC Tar Heel player Larry Brown was a top scorer; as was future NY Knicks star Bill Bradley; Duke University’s Jeff Mullins; and UCLA’s Walt Hazzard.
“We were the originally Dream Team,” he says.
They won all nine of their Olympic contests in Tokyo convincingly, finishing off top favorite (and USA arch-enemy) the now defunct Soviet Union, 73-59.
So important was the Olympic victory over the Soviets during what was the “Cold War” period in US-Soviet relations, that military personnel held the victory as a great symbol of pride to them.
Historically, it was the US Olympic men’s basketball team’s sixth straight Olympic gold medal, and their 46th straight win.
Caldwell would be drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1964 after he brought the gold home from Tokyo. He would later play for the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks, and then make history by being one of the first NBA players to leave to play for the fledgling ABA, signing one of the first big contracts ever in 1970 with the Carolina Cougars, which played in Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte. Caldwell and his family lived in Greensboro from 1970 -74.
It was only after the Cougars moved to St. Louis, and changed it name, was Caldwell “indefinitely” suspended in a contract dispute that ultimately forced him out of the game that he loved.
But despite all of the hardship of his professional basketball days, the heartwarming glory of Caldwell’s Olympic gold medal days are what still put a bright, prideful smile on his face.
Sometimes he’ll just take the mark of singular history, put it around his neck, and visit a restaurant or Sun Devils game. People immediately recognize their native son, and greet Caldwell with hearty handshakes, and heartfelt hugs.
Pogo Joe’s triumphant college basketball career made him a living legend in Arizona.
But his Olympic gold medal made the living legend a champion of history, something Caldwell says he’ll cherish the rest of his life.