Stand UpFrom Tag to Basketball, Talia Caldwell Used Her Competitive Streak to Propel Her Forward
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Category: Sports > Winter > Basketball (Women's)
Talia Caldwell begins to laugh as she recounts the story. It's a jovial laugh, the kind that makes you want to chuckle along with her.
She had hopped a fence while playing tag as a kid and fallen, busting up her arm in the process. She didn't think it was that serious at first, but it swelled up that night.
"At three in the morning, I say 'Mom,' - and it's huge - and she's like, 'Oh my God, we gotta go to the emergency room right now.'"
She has to stop, the snickering blending in with the words.
It's no laughing matter, but Caldwell is amused by her childhood memories. She was competitive even then.
The games of tag were not limited to the outdoors. Caldwell would go as far as sneaking into Costco to play, getting inside by pointing the closest woman out as her mom.
Caldwell, the sophomore starting center on the Cal women's basketball team, lives for competition - always has, always will.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Caldwell would play pick-up basketball games with the boys. Apparently playing with girls her age just wasn't enough of a challenge for her.
"If you wanna see a good game of how Talia really can play, see me play against some guys," Caldwell says. "It's fun. I just love it. The guys are more competitive already, so it just makes you want to be more competitive, physical - it was just so much fun."
But that ultra-competitiveness could be a burden sometimes.
"I've gotten better since I've gotten older, but I used to be really bad when I was young," Caldwell says.
The kickball games could get especially brutal. She would taunt her opponents - in fifth grade.
"I had mental games at a young age," she says, "And that wasn't cool at 10 years old."
In grade school Caldwell had to play with the kids in her P.E. classes. Needless to say, they were not as fired up about sports as she was.
Some didn't play very well; others didn't even play. That didn't go over so well with her.
She remembers her thought process at the time as if it was yesterday,
"I'm just mad, because if we lose, I am upset," she says, banging the table. "Why are you on my team? Get off. What are you doing?"
Those kids were not even the worst. What bothered Caldwell the most were the ones who just didn't care.
"I never understood the point of doing something just because," she says. "That's a waste of my time."
Caldwell's time isn't wasted in the paint. She looks a lot taller than her 6-foot-3 stature - more physical, more imposing - and has no problem knocking people down ... that is, if they are standing between her and the hoop.
She plows through defenders, sets impenetrable screens and seals opponent effectively and forcible during box outs.
"I try to be tenacious in everything," she says.
Indeed, while some players shy away from contact, Caldwell embraces it. On the court, she barges into players, drawing fouls and getting to the line. She has attempted 151 free throws, by far the most on the team.
She goes after rebounds with authority, demonstrating her competitive fire. The sparks flicker the brightest every 3.7 minutes. That's the average amount of time between her rebounds.
"She is in my opinion one of the best rebounders in the Pac-10," Cal guard Rachelle Federico says. "She out-toughs a lot of players, she's physically strong and you put mentally strong on top of that, it's a dangerous combination."
Caldwell's frontcourt partner was more succinct.
"Her rebounding ability is ridiculous," power forward DeNesha Stallworth says.
Caldwell's determination is most apparent on the offensive glass, where she ranks second in the Pac-10 with over four boards a game. Not that numbers really matter all that much to her - she had no idea she pulled down 20 boards against Oregon on Feb. 24.
But the results sure do.
"I always wanted to win," Caldwell says, "Even at kickball."
And in school.
John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and five other U.S. presidents all went to Harvard. Caldwell could have joined them.
But she spurned the Cambridge's crimson courtyards for Berkeley's Strawberry Creek. When she talks about it, she acts as if it was the easiest decision in the world.
"I wanted to do business," she says matter-of-factly. "If you want to do business it doesn't make sense to go there for undergrad."
But turning down Harvard?
"I just got into Haas."
A no-brainer. And it had nothing to do with basketball.
Business is an aggressive, combative industry, but that's what she likes about it. Caldwell relishes competition.
That's what has made this season so difficult for her. The young Bears have underachieved, limping into the Pac-10 tournament on Wednesday with a record just one game over .500.
Cal lost six games in a row in February - and not just to good teams. During the stretch, the Bears lost to Washington, Washington State and Oregon, ranked seventh, eighth and ninth in the conference.
"Oh Gosh," she says, at a loss for words otherwise.
She's not used to defeat. Her Marlborough High team won its regional division championship three times and in 2007, the state championship. Last year, Cal won the WNIT.
Even a week after the Bears put an end to the losing streak, the strain in her voice is still discernible.
"It was terrible. It was tough," she says. "Basketball takes so much work and effort, but it's not enough sometimes. You're just like, 'Why? ... Why can't this go right?'"
In February, coach Joanne Boyle said time and time again that Cal was in need of a leader. She pleaded for someone on the team to step up.
"(Talia is) all about setting goals and achieving them and having nothing less," Federico says. "She carries that weight and pulls people along which I think our team definitely needed."
Maybe in this case, the biggest heart does in fact come from the biggest player.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers women's basketball. Contact him at [email protected]
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