Why a duck?—GROUCHO MARX, Duck Soup
Last fall, at the moment the Philadelphia 76ers traded him and a No. 1 draft choice to the Houston Rockets for Moses Malone, Caldwell Jones caught a live duck while he was fishing off New Jersey. Why a duck? Perhaps because ending up in Houston, when on the whole you'd rather be in Philadelphia, is the NBA's equivalent of hooking a bird on a fishing line. What's more, events of great significance—and any one of the 1.7 million people who witnessed the 76ers' championship parade down Broad Street in June can tell you how significant the Malone trade was—often have memorable props. The sale of Manhattan had its $24 in trinkets. The burning of Rome had its emperor's fiddle. The Ma-lone-for-Jones deal had its duck. Why not a duck?
The land near the Yazoo Delta is so flat that it's a wonder the Mississippi River can even flow through it. It seems to get flatter as time goes on, too, what with all the clear-cutting that's being done to open up new farmland. If Caldwell Jones Sr. were a run-of-the-mill 70-year-old, the removal of some trees probably would not matter much to him. But he still drives his tractor over 48 acres of soybeans on the outskirts of McGehee, Ark., and he and his wife, Cecilia, would like to see some trees left standing. They're partial to verticals. You get that way when you've raised six boys 6'8" or taller.
These six, the youngest of the Joneses' seven boys and one girl, are also the first six guys on the alltime rebounding list at Albany State College, a predominantly black school in southwest Georgia, where the land is predominantly red and even rolls a little. At least one Jones has been at Albany State each season since 1961, when the 6'8" Oliver enrolled.
October 16, 1983
This fall, the 40-year-old Oliver, who had 1,255 career rebounds at State and was the Cincinnati Royals' 13th draft pick and a late cut in 1965, begins his 12th season as coach of the Division II Albany State Golden Rams, defending champions of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Melvin, 36, 6'9", 1,926 rebounds, who had a shot with the ABA's Denver Rockets in 1968, is Oliver's unpaid assistant when he's not working as a supervisor at Procter & Gamble's Albany paper products plant. Wilbert, 36, 6'8", 1,656 rebounds and a nine-year pro with three ABA and two NBA clubs, has run an Atlanta recreation center since 1980. Caldwell, 33, 7 feet, 2,216 rebounds, is a sometime duck fisherman who soon will begin his 11th pro season, with Houston. Major, 30, 6'9", 2,052 rebounds, is a reserve forward with the Rockets who, after hearing of the Malone-for-Jones trade, said, "I'm losing my best friend and gaining a brother." Charles, 26, 6'9", 1,378 rebounds, who is in the New York Knicks' training camp, doesn't like to be compared to his brothers, as we shall see.
Credit the late Robert Rainey, another Arkansan, for starting the Jones family's march to Georgia. Before he came to Albany State in 1960, teams like Florida A&M would blow into Albany and fleece the Rams. Oliver was one of the first players Rainey brought in; he was a rough-edged kid Rainey had taught seventh-grade science to back in McGehee. Of all the Jones boys, Rainey affected Oliver most profoundly. Oliver became Rainey's assistant in 1970 and succeeded him when he died of a heart attack before the 1972-73 season. "We ran the four corners in '61," Oliver says. "We had only one big man—me—and 6'3" and 6'1" forwards and 5'11" and 5'7" guards. Coach Rainey sat me down and said, 'Jones, you're all the size we got. We need you to sacrifice your scoring for rebounding and defense.' "
Groucho gets the epigraph; let's save the concluding sentence of that last quote for the Jones boys' epitaph.
Most of pro basketball's best defensive centers have been Southerners. The Louisiana towns of Shreveport and Bernice and Monroe produced Robert Parish, Willis Reed and Bill Russell, respectively. Cordele, Ga. gave us Tree Rollins, and Macon, Ga., Elmore Smith. From Chipley, Fla. came Art is Gilmore; from Tylertown, Miss., George T. Johnson.
McGehee fits neatly into basketball's defensive gazetteer. Caldwell has twice been the center on the NBA All-Defensive Team, and he twice led the ABA in blocked shots. Houston deploys Major when it needs bolder defense and rebounding. Wil was selected to the ABA's all-defense first team in 1974-75. In 1979-80 Charles set league records for blocks in a game (11) and a season (185) while playing for Maine in the Continental Basketball Association, a minor pro league. Says Melvin: "When we were young, all the things we did when we weren't playing basketball helped develop quickness and speed and judgment. We'd go into the woods and jump from tree to tree, like Tarzan. Miss a limb, you'd hit the ground."
The Joneses raised cotton and okra and soybeans, and hogs and cows and chickens, but no ducks. Clint, the eldest and a mere 6'6", now a construction worker in St. Louis, enjoyed farm work. So did Charles. But the others, including 6'1" sister Clovis, who's a computer programmer in Arverne, N.Y., could do without it. "Best thing that happened to me," says Major, whose left leg bears a scar from a bean knife, "was when they got the cotton picker." Caldwell adds, "I've plowed it, chopped it and picked it. Done everything to cotton except make a shirt." Oliver laughs when he says, "Being seven feet tall, bending over a two-foot cotton stalk...."
Today, McGehee's economy is suffering. King Cotton has long since abdicated, a stop sign stands where the traffic light once did, and both movie houses the Joneses used to frequent have closed up. "We did the same things everybody else did," Major says. "We ran away from home—'til it got dark. And threw walnuts at the chickens." But mostly they played the game their father called "that jumpin' and jumpin'." "At first we took a barrel hoop and nailed it up on the side of the smokehouse," Oliver says. "But it began tearing the boards away." So Caldwell Sr. decided to plant a pole in the turf next to the farmhouse. The Joneses' yard became an alfresco gym, with neighbors and cousins stopping by to play three on three and visit under the pecan tree.
"We never had that much, but by the same token we never went hungry," Wil says. "We learned to appreciate life. Our parents instilled in us that you get out of life what you put in." Moses Malone says Of the Joneses, "They're good people, really down to earth. Nothing gets them upset. When Caldwell fouls, he acts like nothing happened."
"It's going to be one hell of a girl who marries Caldwell," says David Vann, the manager of the softball team in Philadelphia that Caldwell and Charles play on. "Southern men have their own will. You don't tell them what to do or when to do it. His agent's got to be some man to tell C.J. what to do with his money."
That man is Tom Meehan of Fresno, Calif., who has represented Wil, Caldwell, Major and Charles, investing their money in, among other things, several movies, including a horror film about some giant cockroaches that devour Fresno, a project that especially intrigues Caldwell. "I'd never act, though," he says. "Too many takes!" Besides, the Joneses aren't actors. They're observers. So let's just lay back and observe a Jones as he takes in the world.
It's noon on a sticky Albany day, and Melvin is out to score some beef at one of those cafeteria-style steakhouses now endemic to the outskirts of so many towns, where a number on your tray indicates what your order is and waitresses cruise the dining area offering free refills of whatya drinkin'. Halfway through the serving line Melvin finds himself opposite a kid busy slinging dollops of sour cream into baked potatoes. The kid looks up. And up. "How's the weather up there?" the kid says, not unpleasantly. Over the years this query has elicited ripostes ranging from "It's raining," followed by a shower of saliva, to "You look like a monkey, why don't you climb up and see." But Melvin just shrugs.
"Hot air rises," Melvin says softly, adding a smile, and nudges his tray down toward the Jell-O cubes.
That scene could have been played by any of the other Joneses, who are similarly droll. To be one of them is to be a vertical Mississippi riverbed: Life flows right over you, yet never passes you by.
"Darryl Dawkins [Caldwell's erstwhile 76er teammate] always wanted to be as cool as Caldwell," says a friend of both. "But he just didn't know how." Adds Franklin Edwards, the young Sixers guard, "Caldwell's the classiest person I've ever met. I've tried to model myself after him. He speaks to everybody, not at anybody." And Vann says: "He knows how to deal with people. If fans disrespect him, he's got a great way of dealing with that: He just doesn't look down. When you're seven feet tall, that's easy."
For a long time, basketball people didn't even pay Caldwell enough mind to actively disrespect him. "It was reported that the Arkansas coach [then Duddy Waller] had said Caldwell wasn't college material," recalls Oliver. "Too thin."
So Caldwell played three seasons under Rainey, and then in his senior year, 1972-73, Oliver took over, Major was a freshman and the Rams were loaded. They drew Transylvania in the first round of the NCAA College Division playoffs. Caldwell drew two fouls in the first 17 seconds and fouled out in a 72-71 overtime loss.
It was a bitter end to Caldwell's college career, especially since the pros hadn't rated him highly. Still, Philadelphia picked him in the second round, and even though the Sixers were coming off the worst season in NBA history—9-73—they balked at his $40,000-a-year contract demand because Coach Gene Shue and General Manager Don DeJardin thought him too light at 215 pounds.
So Caldwell turned late to the ABA, whose Virginia Squires had just traded his rights to the San Diego Conquistadors. Caldwell signed with the Q's after one day in camp and, playing for Coach Wilt Chamberlain, was beaten out by Swen Nater in Rookie of the Year balloting. When San Diego folded in 1975, Caldwell stayed in the ABA, first going to Kentucky and then joining Malone in St. Louis. In the ABA Caldwell was known as a stalwart defender who could score; he averaged 15.8 points per game in three ABA seasons. Meanwhile, Pat Williams had taken over as the 76ers' general manager; he finally signed Jones to a future contract set to begin in 1977-78 but got him a year early when the NBA and ABA merged. The team Caldwell joined in Philly—Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Lloyd Free, Doug Collins, Joe Bryant and the rest—was one on which everyone wanted and needed the ball. Shue didn't even have to say it to Jones: We need you to sacrifice your scoring for rebounding and defense.
Over the six seasons Caldwell played in Philadelphia, no individual, not even the sainted Erving, better epitomized the team's fate of doing well but falling short: three trips to the NBA finals with no championship ring. Jones would simply do his job and the Sixers usually won, but on those rare occasions when he played poorly they often lost, a circumstance he accepted philosophically.
But just because Caldwell had the stoic constitution to cope with defeat didn't mean he acquiesced to it. A reporter once asked him to name his greatest thrill as a pro. Caldwell, who is a cartoon aficionado, whimsically replied it had been a Saturday morning, the day The Flint-stones went from a half hour to a whole hour. Yet he chafed at another writer's suggestion that, win or lose, he was content with Fred and Barney once a week.
Cut to the aftermath of that fishing trip, the one that turned into a ducking trip. It fell to Vann to break the news of the trade to Caldwell over the phone after he had returned home. "He just said, 'Solid,' " Vann says. "Like someone had told him his shirts were ready. That night we went out, and I was staring in my beer, moping. And he said, 'Wait a minute. We came to praise C.J., not to bury him. Hey, Dave, it's just a business.' "
Exit Jones to the Rockets, a collection of marginal talents that Major has likened to "a dispersal draft." Houston started Caldwell in the middle, used Major occasionally off the bench and went 14-68. Something about it was unnatural. In one Rocket-Sixer game, Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham found himself yelling instructions to C.J. by mistake. "It was the longest season I've ever had," Caldwell says.
For Major it was longer still. One evening in Houston, after overindulging a taste for beer, which he shares with his brothers, he was picked up for drunk driving and spent a night in the Harris County Jail, which isn't to be confused with former Coach Del Harris' doghouse, though Major got to know the inside of that, too.
Major had drifted among teams in the CBA, the Western Basketball Association and the All-America Basketball Alliance after abortive tryouts with Portland, Buffalo and Atlanta in 1976 and '77. Meehan, then general manager and president of the WBA's Fresno Stars, drummed up some NBA interest in Major after he averaged 21 points and 14 rebounds a game for Fresno in 1978-79. But he tore up his knee on the eve of a tryout with the Celtics the next season, and not until he got a shot with the Rockets in 1980 did he hook on for good.
Of all the brothers, Major had the most enthusiastic high school notices and the most rugged body. And he withdrew his name from the NBA hardship draft after his junior year at Albany State, but not because he felt a commitment to academics or to his brother the coach. He did it for Charles, the most countrified of the Joneses. Before Charles had run his first windsprint for the Desha Central freshman team, his name had appeared on several scholastic All-America lists. Scouts and writers passing through to see Major assumed Charles would be the family's next star.
"Anytime Charles would do something wrong," Oliver says, "the coach would say, 'If that had been Major...' or 'If that had been Caldwell...' One day Charles said, 'O.K., you find yourself another Jones,' and walked out."
The Desha coach visited the Jones house, vainly pleading with the father to intercede. "I told Charles he was on his own," says Caldwell Sr. "You make your bed soft or you make your bed hard, 'cause you're the one who's got to sleep on it. When he asked me one day before his last year, 'If I start playing ball, will you come see me?' I said sure. And he said, 'I'm thinking about it.' "
Charles had one splendid season under a new high school coach, but he just as easily could have chosen life on the farm over college if it hadn't been for the chance to play with Major. When Cunningham cut him from the Sixers' roster before last season, he said the club wasn't satisfied with Charles's point production. Charles had taken it for granted: We need you to sacrifice your scoring....
Melvin, on the other hand, couldn't have done more than rebound and play defense. "Melvin threw a good outlet pass and was a great intimidator," says Wil. "And he had a real knack for rebounding. Of all of us, he probably made the most of his skills."
Yet there are those who think Wil is the one who has made the most of his considerable talent. He was the last of the brothers to attend McGehee's segregated Wolf Project High and the last to farm without mechanization. "Wil spent a lot of time by himself working on his game," says Alvin Williams, a cousin from McGehee who is now a high school coach in Chicago. "Even when he was little, he worked on fancy ball handling. He could do more things with a ball than any of the brothers."
Wil could attack a press or fill a lane on the break and wasn't a bad shooter. But defense, of course, was his forte, as he proved in 1974-75, when he played for the ABA champion Kentucky Colonels. When asked who gave him the most trouble on defense, Erving, then playing for the ABA New York Nets, said, "I'm not sure who No. 2 is, but No. 1 is Wil Jones."
He'd like to try assistant coaching and sent the Atlanta Hawks a resume after Kevin Loughery was named coach before the 1981-82 season, but he didn't get an interview. "I always say work, but don't work too hard," says Wil. "That same work'll be there when you're gone."
Oliver's credo is posted over the desk in his office: THE FIRST LINE OF BUSINESS IS TO MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS. IF YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS, MAKE IT YOUR BUSINESS TO LEAVE OTHER PEOPLE'S BUSINESS ALONE. His first line of business is to win a Division II title. He has already made Albany State a consistent winner, going 179-120 over his 11 seasons. "He's a quiet leader," says Fred (Doc) Suttles, voice of the Rams for 10 years. "A Bud Grant type." But Oliver has been vocal about the need for a bigger place to play for his team, which regularly packs ramshackle, 1,800-seat Sanford Hall on campus. After much debate, the city has finally built an 8,600-seat arena within several hundred yards of the college.
And Oliver has a new drawing card: 6'3" John Somerville, who last season became the Rams' first white player ever (16% of the student body is now non-black). Somerville, who is from Chicago, was Oliver's personal recruiting project. "All John knew about us was that we were a Division II school, ranked Number Two in Jet magazine," Oliver says. "I talked to his whole family on the phone and a relationship started to build."
Oliver remembers Somerville's visit in May of 1982 with great satisfaction. Caldwell was in Boston with the Sixers, already down 1-0 in a best-of-seven series for the Eastern Conference title. On a balmy evening in Georgia, Oliver and his recruit cooled out by the TV set in his living room as they watched Caldwell score a season-high 22 points. The 76ers bagged Game 2 121-113, and Oliver bagged his white guard.
The Sixers' series with Boston became a classic: Philly going up 3-1, but losing the next two, thus necessitating a trip back to Boston for a seventh game. The Sixers were in need of a verbal whipping, and their leader, Erving, knew that. But the team also had several young, delicate and vital parts. Jones, we need for you to sacrifice....
The Doctor approached Jones, asking him to agree to be his target in a closed-door team meeting. Typically, Caldwell consented. The next day C.J. had 10 rebounds and smothered Boston Center Robert Parish, as Philly romped to a 120-106 victory. C.J., normally the most reserved Sixer, was the most exuberant in the locker room afterward. "This is the alltime best!" he yelled. For Caldwell, it would be just that. Philadelphia had made the finals but would lose to L.A. in six games. Then would come the trade for Malone.
The morning after the Sixers swept the Lakers last spring, they flew back to Philadelphia. Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Earl Cureton and Edwards drove the few minutes to Caldwell's town house. Cureton, the team's toastmaster, leaped from the car, bounded into the house and, like a punch-drunk Eddie Haskel, helped himself to two cans of beer from the icebox. He cracked both open and gave one to Caldwell. Aluminum kissed aluminum, and Cureton turned to face his teammates. "There," he said. "Now it's official."