UI senior going out with smile

He cannot fool his teammates, no matter how many forearm shivers he delivers in practice, no matter how many times he gets in their face and yells words he'd never use in public.

Herb Caldwell is not a menace. It's not in his nature.

The man, after all, owns a teddy bear.

That's if you believe Brian Johnson, Caldwell's roommate when the University of Illinois men's basketball team hits the road.

"He calls it Little Latosha," Johnson said. "He's cuddling it all the time."

How to blow a cover, by Herb Caldwell.

For two seasons at the UI, he works night and day on developing a don't-mess-with-me persona. He sets hard picks, makes hard fouls and talks up a storm on the court. And on the phone.

Mistake No. 2.

More from his roomie: "He's calling his wife all the time. He can't stand being away."

He is Grant Hill in the Bill Laimbeer commercial, a gentle sort desperately seeking a nasty edge.

It's not working.

This one-time trombone player, part-time basketball player, full-time husband and future counselor of kids isn't fooling a soul.

"It's not my personality," Caldwell said, setting the record straight. "I'm not like that at all."

Popular senior

Sure, Kiwane Garris owns all those records. And Chris Gandy has come a long way in five seasons.

But nobody's in greater demand tonight – when the UI honors its three seniors – than 22-year-old Herb Caldwell. He's in charge of lining up tickets for his eight brothers and sisters; his mom and dad; his wife, Latosha; and a collection of relatives.

"Around 25," he said. "I don't know where I'll get them."

His teammates surely would chip in.

On the stat sheet, Caldwell does not rank high. He has scored 46 points in 28 career games.

In the popularity poll, he's all-conference. Coaches praise his work ethic, teammates laud his camaraderie, fans go hoarse whenever he walks to the scorer's table.

"I appreciate that," Caldwell said. "A lot of people would love to sit where I sit and hear them yell their name."

But he doesn't sit. Caldwell stalks the sidelines more than Lon Kruger, definitely talks more than Kruger.

Sunday against Michigan, the 6-foot-8 sub was so noisy he didn't hear UI assistant Robert McCullum's plea to chill. So an exasperated McCullum summoned an official and told him to settle Caldwell down before a blood vessel burst. The referee cooperated. Caldwell recoiled.

"I felt betrayed," Caldwell said, laughing as usual.

Fighting to the finish

He doesn't get many minutes, but respect's not a problem.

Being married helps, he says.

"They think I'm old, like from another generation," he said. "When they first met me, they found out I was married, and they'd say, 'Really? Are you mentally OK?' "

Being talkative helps, he says.

In practice, Caldwell picks on Garris the most, constantly badgering the Illini star. His lines aren't original – "Don't come into the lane," is one of his favorites – but they are consistent.

"They're going to get that stuff in the games," Caldwell said. "If they can handle me, (Robert) Traylor should be easy."

Being cooperative helps, he says.

Caldwell walked on at the UI after averaging a double-double his second year at Lincoln Land Community College. By his second semester, he'd earned a scholarship from then-Illini coach Lou Henson.

That helped with the rent, not with the playing time. Still, no complaints.

"It's a miracle I'm here," he said.

Caldwell's dream started when, as a member of the Jacksonville High band, he snuck on the Assembly Hall court during the 1990 Class AA state finals and touched the net at one end. Security didn't approve the move, but it meant everything to Caldwell, who smiled all the way back to his seat.

Perhaps tonight he'll do it one last time. This time with a scowl to protect his image.

But nobody will be fooled.

Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.

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