Receé Caldwell lay motionless on the UCLA gym floor after an awkward landing. Knowing her toughness as a player, everyone at the Bruins’ practice was expecting her to bounce right back up.
But after a few seconds, it became quite clear that something wasn’t right. Then, all of a sudden, the entire UCLA women’s basketball team was caught by surprise. From her spot on the floor, Caldwell began yelling at herself: “Get up, get up, get off the floor!”
Later, it was revealed that Caldwell had torn cartilage in her right knee, which would cause her to miss most of the Pac-12 season and the Bruins’ NIT championship run.
“It kind of messes with you a little bit, knowing that you can’t really help your team in a physical way but you can always help them in a leadership way,” Caldwell says. “That’s what I really focused on and just coming to terms with ‘You’re not playing, Receé, so how are you going to help your team in a different way?’ ”
Now, as the first graduate transfer in Cal women’s basketball history, Caldwell is seeking to milk every last ounce of collegiate basketball she has left in her. Cal will be the third stop on her train ride of a college experience, as well as her third stint living in California.
The start of her back-and-forth trips between California and Texas started from the very beginning, as Caldwell was born in Riverside as the first of two daughters to Ray and Alba Caldwell. When Receé was 10 years old, the family relocated to San Antonio, Texas, where Caldwell played club basketball under her father.
“(I’ve) been around basketball since, I mean, I could remember, being a coach’s kid,” Caldwell says. “I think it gives you advantages. You watch a lot of films, your IQ is there at a pretty early age, and you grow a love for the game at a really early age.”
Under the guidance of her favorite coach, Caldwell thrived. Heading into high school, she was selected to play on the U-16 USA National Team for the World Championship, a tournament in which she took home a gold medal. After a successful summer, she initially verbally committed to Baylor but later recommitted to UCLA, staying true to her California ties.
“I was really heavily recruited in high school,” Caldwell says. “You kind of get tired of it. Coming off of a USA team medal, I was just like, ‘I know what I wanted already.’ But at 14 years old, how do you even know what you want?”
She would later win a second gold medal with the U-18 USA team. It was at this World Championship where she crossed paths with Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who at the time was a part of the selection committee for the national squad.
“I remember vividly that we talked to Dawn Staley (then-head coach of the U-18 national team). We said, ‘OK, what do you think?’ And she said, ‘Give me anyone that you want, but I need Receé at the point,’ ” Gottlieb said. “I don’t think that was necessarily because she was the best player in the gym. I think she was the most vocal player in the gym; she knew how to run a team — I think that’s also what she brings here.”
When Caldwell began her collegiate career in Westwood, she had very familiar faces on her side. She and her close friends, current Atlanta Dream forward Monique Billings and Seattle Storm guard Jordin Canada, all chose to be Bruins together in college.
“(Jordin) and Monique are my best friends,” Caldwell says. “I’ve actually known Monique since I was 6 or 7. We actually grew up together, and Jordin and I became close as freshmen playing for the USA team. … To be able to say, like, ‘We all played in the same team together,’ it’s pretty special.”
After a year at UCLA, which was derailed by her freak injury during practice, Caldwell headed back to the state of Texas to play at Texas Tech under head coach Candace Whitaker. Whitaker, however, wasn’t the only notable face she was playing for — it was at this time that her father was hired as an assistant coach for the Lady Raiders.
“It so happened that my dad was about to be an assistant coach at Texas Tech,” said current USC freshman Desiree Caldwell, Receé’s younger sister. “That’s why (Receé) ended up going to Texas Tech, and she didn’t really enjoy it there, either.”
Redshirting her first year at Texas Tech, Caldwell had the chance to fully heal from her knee injury and learn about the Big 12 Conference, which led to a very successful redshirt sophomore campaign in which she earned an All-Big-12 honorable mention.
“She never let that (injuries) hinder her progress or take her joy away — she does her best to stay focused and really control what she can,” Desiree said. “Our parents raised us to never stress over things that we can’t control but instead focus on what we can.”
But just as things seemed to finally be clicking, another injury struck. Her redshirt junior season was cut short because of a shoulder injury, delaying the progress she had made since her departure from UCLA.
“It’s mentally taxing, if we’re being honest,” Caldwell says of her injuries. “Being an athlete and then being out for three months not being able to do anything — yeah, it really took a toll on me.”
After another injury-shortened season, she graduated from Texas Tech with a business degree, and a flurry of coaching changes motivated her to seek her final year of eligibility elsewhere. In keeping with her ties between Texas and California, UC Berkeley was a natural choice.
“When Receé was looking to go somewhere else for fifth year, I kind of laughed and said, ‘Finally, are you going to make the right decision?’ And it’s neat that it worked out that way,” Gottlieb said.
It was a long wait that Gottlieb endured until Caldwell ended up at Cal, but that patience will pay dividends in a variety of ways. Caldwell is not just bringing to the Bears excellent shooting and talent in playmaking; she also brings a lot of experience to a young team seeking a deep run during March.
“I’m literally going back and forth between Texas and California, which is pretty funny,” Caldwell said. “Just being able to adapt to different cultures is a really big thing because in women’s basketball, for nine months out of the year, you’re probably going to a foreign country, and obviously Texas and California aren’t foreign countries, but being able to adapt to different environments, different people, different cultures is a skill in life.”
The chemistry between Gottlieb and Caldwell was never in question, given their history. Gottlieb’s impact on Caldwell, however, extends beyond the court. She is more than a coach for Caldwell and the Bears, always taking the extra time to help them with off-court issues.
In Receé’s case, that help consists of choosing professional attire for Caldwell’s first job interview and continuous advice regarding professional life off the court.
“It’s really surreal at times,” Caldwell says. “(The coaching staff) cares about how we are doing off the floor. I think that’s the most important thing about Coach G.”
The chemistry of the team is very important as well, and Caldwell’s transition into the program seems to have happened as seamlessly as possible, with improvements to come as the season tips off. She is entering a very talented backcourt, forming a four-guard group with Asha Thomas, Kianna Smith and Mi’Cole Cayton as Gottlieb’s primary weapons along the perimeter.
Caldwell’s vocal presence in the locker room and on the court adds to her leadership role on the team. In practice, she tends to mix up her advice with motivation for young players — whichever is necessary at the time.
“Receé had a loud mouth, but in a good way. … Every now and then she would talk trash to us, but that’s just her personality,” Canada said of her former teammate. “She was always competitive even when she was hurt, and I think that’s what kept me and some of our teammates engaged; she made practice fun.”
Avery special season with the Bears awaits Caldwell, including a matchup against her sister Desiree in a Pac-12 rivalry between Cal and USC. Both programs are poised for a competitive season within the “Conference of Champions.”
“Receé and I have been super competitive from a very young age. We haven’t really received an opportunity to play with or against each other because of the age difference between us. Now that we finally get the chance to go head to head against each other, there’s not going to be anything like it — we’re so excited,” Desiree said.
While seemingly long overdue, a season where Cal basketball and Caldwell are together as one has finally arrived.
“The best is coming,” Caldwell says. “I think our team is a special team, and as long as we keep our eyes forward and we’re continuing on our goal to go deep into the tournament, it’s going to be a special experience … not only me but for all of our team that I think deserves it. … We all deserve a great year, and I think it’s coming.”