For a decade, Joe Caldwell’s No. 32 jersey has hung in the rafters of Desert Financial Arena. This year, it will be worn on the court by his grandson, ASU freshman Marcus Bagley, a top 30 recruit in the nation, according to 247Sports.
Bagley looks to build on the Sun Devil legacy that his grandfather created 60 years ago, but Caldwell was never supposed to wear an ASU jersey.
Caldwell, a Southern California native, was set to join the soon-to-be dynastic UCLA basketball team after high school but lacked several prerequisite courses.
He then enrolled at Santa Monica Junior College to earn his credits and lived on the UCLA campus and practiced with his future teammates.
After about a month on campus, Caldwell was surreptitiously approached in his room one night by his Spanish teacher, who, unbeknownst to him, was an ASU booster and ASU men's basketball assistant coach Fanny Markham.
“(Markham) said, ‘We need you at Arizona State,’” Caldwell said. “‘I said ‘No, it’s too hot down there. I can’t go down there and play basketball.’”
His protests were dismissed. Caldwell was then “essentially kidnapped” and taken to Tempe, where he remained for a week, awaiting outrage from UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden over the disappearance of one of the top players in the state. The outrage never came.
“I said, ‘Well, they must not want me,’” Caldwell said. “So, I stayed in Arizona.”
Caldwell made Wooden pay for his disinterest, averaging 18.3 points and 11.2 rebounds per game in his ASU career and led the team to three straight NCAA tournament appearances.
In the 1962-63 season, the Sun Devils notched a Sweet 16 victory over the Bruins, who would win nine of the next 10 national championships.
Caldwell achieved even greater basketball success after his time at ASU, winning an Olympic gold medal and being honored as a multiple time all-star in both the NBA and ABA.
Yet, six decades after his college days, he remains an Arizona resident and a loyal Sun Devil, saying that “ASU is in (his) blood.” He instilled that same passion in Bagley, bringing him to nearly every ASU basketball game throughout his childhood in Tempe.
“ASU was my dream school,” Bagley said. “It’s kind of surreal to be in this position where I’m about to suit up for them.”
Despite his love for the school, Caldwell never attempted to sway Bagley to ASU, who also received offers from Arizona, UCLA and USC.
Bagley made his decision public following an AAU tournament in Las Vegas, where Caldwell watched his games. Bagley deliberately didn’t break the news to Caldwell directly but did slip him a hint the night before the announcement.
“He said, ‘I'm going home,’” Caldwell said. “(I said), ‘Okay, y'all drive safely,’ thinking they're going to drive home tomorrow back to Sacramento.”
The next day, Caldwell received a call from Bagley’s mother, informing him of the commitment.
“(I thought), ‘Oh, goodness gracious, that’s what he meant by going home,'” Caldwell said.
Bagley, who said ASU was the obvious choice thanks to his childhood fandom and its aggressive pursuit of him as a recruit, said the next time he saw Caldwell, “He had a big smile on his face.”
“(For Caldwell) to have (Bagley) here in his backyard, and to have the chance to watch him here at ASU, I know it’s going to be extra special,” ASU men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley said.
Expectations for Bagley are high, as he brings a blend of interior prowess, which Caldwell said reminds him of 1968-69 NBA MVP Wes Unseld, and smooth shooting.
“I’m not trying to put a lot of pressure on my grandson, but I’ve been saying, if he does what he’s supposed to do, nobody’s going to be able to deal with him,” Caldwell said.
Although Caldwell said he prefers to be a fan, often marveling at the talent of Bagley and his brothers, including former second overall NBA draft pick Marvin Bagley III, he doesn’t shy away from giving advice if he feels he can be helpful.
“His knowledge about the game, and just life, has helped me and my brothers out tremendously,” Bagley said.
Now, Bagley and the Sun Devils prepare for a season where they have the opportunity to make their third consecutive NCAA Tournament for the first time since Caldwell’s teams did so in the 1960s.
Caldwell said he hopes this squad breaks the program's single-season wins record that he and his teammates set in the 1962-63 season when they went 26-3.
“To this day, the ones of us (from the 1962-63 team) who are still kicking, we chat and holler at each other and say, ‘When are they going to break our record?’” Caldwell said. “It better be broken soon, because we’re not going to live forever.”
To do so, Caldwell said the Sun Devils will have to match the cohesion and unity that defined that team by “becoming one,” a bar that Bagley feels they are approaching.
“I think we’re going to be pretty special,” Bagley said. “We’re all working together, making that extra pass. We’re all connected on defense. Of course, there’s a lot of work still to do, but we’re looking good.”
With expectations mounting and the unavoidable comparison of Bagley to his successful family members, Caldwell said his greatest hope for his grandson is that he has the incredible college experience and connection with his teammates that made Caldwell fall in love with ASU.
However, he did offer Bagley one crucial piece of advice: “Do your job. Don’t worry about anybody else.”
Editor's Note: A sentence in this story was updated for clarity at 10:10 p.m. on Oct. 13.