Talia Caldwell: Athlete, Writer, ‘Accidental’ Philanthropist
This feature originally appeared in the 2020-21 Winter edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.
It was 4 a.m. on Jan. 27, and Talia Caldwell was sitting in her apartment in Wroclaw, Poland, still in her jersey, reflecting on a tough loss in the midst of her season with 1KS Sleza Wroclaw. She was on Twitter when she received a direct message from The New York Times – an offer to write an opinion piece in the wake of Kobe Bryant's death the day before. Her article – "Why the WNBA Loved Kobe Bryant" – posted online later that day, and after gaining much attention, went to print the following morning. "When I sat down to write, I wasn't writing for The New York Times; I was writing my words for Kobe," Caldwell said.
This wasn't the first time that Caldwell, the former Cal women's basketball star who helped the program to a Pac-12 title and Final Four berth in 2013, had been published. In 2016, she wrote a piece for the Players' Tribune and has had her own blog (fivefifthsculture.com) for nearly four years.
With her basketball season cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Caldwell found herself unexpectedly back in her hometown of Los Angeles on March 13. Upon her return, she entertained multiple inquiries from WNBA teams to compete in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, but ultimately made the difficult decision to turn them down due to health concerns.
Instead, Caldwell spent the next six months helping the local houseless community.
"I've been accidentally serving the houseless community in LA for the past six months," Caldwell said.
Caldwell, the first Cal women's basketball player to graduate from the Haas Business School, strongly resonates in one of its doctrines.
"One of Haas' four tenets is 'Beyond Yourself,'" Caldwell said. "I tend to live my life like that and prioritize for the moment, where I am being called."
The day after she took part in LA's first Black Lives Matter protest, she went to Echo Park, a nearby spot along her usual running route, to introduce herself to houseless community members and hand out several masks that she had recently purchased. The first person she met said, "Yes, I drool when I sleep, so I go through three or five at night."
Moved by her encounter, Caldwell offered to pick up supplies for the park's residents the next day. That night, she took to her Instagram to ask her friends and followers to donate what they could for her supply run. The response was overwhelming.
"It went from just ice and butane to big drops twice per week of Vaseline, lotion, peroxide, sunscreen, ChapStick and other essentials … it just kept getting bigger and bigger," Caldwell said.
As her funding for the Echo Park Fund grew, so did her ability to help the greater community. With the raised money, she was able to put on an event called "Homework and Hot Meals" in South Los Angeles.
"It was people coming together in a safe, outside and socially distant way," Caldwell said. "Through testing and safe procedures, I was able to get tutoring, résumé help, and one-on-one academic learning for dozens of poor families and kids."
The gathering also had games, free vegan food and a laptop giveaway.
"My event wasn't going to change the world, but I wanted just for that day to give parents and kids a relief from 4-8 p.m.," Caldwell said. "I just wanted to be there and provide a space."
Caldwell has big plans for her writing career. She recently finished submitting her application to USC's Peter Stark Producing Program with the hopes of becoming a television writer. And when it comes to basketball, she said, "My mind isn't in a rush to get on a plane to play overseas right now. Basketball can wait. It's not going anywhere."