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.