The Madness of John Chaney


HOW YOU START IS HOW YOU FINISH.

The old man loves little sayings that capture the whole deal, and he sprinkles them through practice on an early December morning. Sipping a 12-ounce Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, in sweats and a Temple baseball cap, John Chaney, born almost three-quarters of a century ago, edges around the Liacouras Center court stiffly, pigeon-toed, calmly watching his players scrimmage before the sun is up on North Broad. Then the ball is passed carelessly out of bounds.

“I’m looking at your head, Dustin!” Chaney yells in his pebbles-in-a-pipe voice. “What you can’t see will hurt you. But what you can’t see but know, will help you.” Coach is full of stuff like this. What’s he mean? It’s not always obvious. He wants his kids to think, to figure it out.

A few minutes later, Coach is holding forth near mid-court, his team in a loose semicircle, dripping with sweat, all eyes on him. He is talking foundation, he is talking how you start, as a player: “With one step. Catch it, pass it, ex-e-cu-ting your plays. Your job, when you come out on the floor, is, one, no turnovers. Two — what’s the second one?”

Someone calls out, softly: Establish the floor.

“Establish the floor!” Chaney yells. It means, and they know this because he’s been drumming it home for a month of practices, Take control. Make it yours. Chaney is quickly heating up to something larger, and his eyes seem to go opaque with intensity: “You do that in marriage, you do that in a home, you do that in a business, everything you do involves what you do the first day. The first day!”

A momentary silence, everyone still watching him. Then, louder still:

“Even today, this country right now, this country that you live in, they’re going back to how this country was BORN! The Constitution. And they’re STILL all fucked up in the head about it. The Constitution says, CLEARLY, separation of church and state. … The motherfuckers are still fucking around right now, trying to appropriate church, religion, into the Constitution. They haven’t found it yet. And you’re going to find that that’s how you’re going to look at life! Keep coming back to it! All the time!”

His players, they’re still staring at him.

To Coach, though, there’s nothing strange at all in his leap to the Constitution, their Constitution, because it is, after all, the basis of things, and it is an injustice, what is going on. And injustice, all injustice, is personal. It’s about all of them, and he’s still fighting it.

Chaney has been the head coach at Temple for 24 years now, saving kids like these and making the Hall of Fame to boot. And he knows the end is coming, just like it does for everybody. But how it’s coming, how they’re trying to take it from him, it’s not right — and he’s not going to let it happen. He has come so far, a black boy from the hellhole of Black Bottom, Florida, born during the height of the Depression. He knows injustice. Just as he knows how they’re fucking up the world now. The war. The lies.

“How can you keep making the same mistakes?” he wants to know. Back to his team, back to b-ball. Back to a foundation. More on life as John Chaney sees it. “You start with a constitution, as a player — always go back to that. You have to find your way in this basketball world. How you start is how you finish!”


AND SO THERE was, last year, the strange odyssey of the Goon and the War, the mating of injustice on a personal and an apocalyptic scale, and it seemed that at 73, John Chaney was, just maybe, finished. Or that he’d lost his marbles. Chaney has a history of violent outbursts, which have tended to focus on opposing coaches: His third game at Temple, in 1982, he got Stanford’s Tom Davis in a choke-hold; ditto Gerry Gimelstob of George Washington in 1984; and in ’94 he screamed “I’m going to kill you!” at John Calipari of Massachusetts during a post-game press conference. All three times, some alleged manipulation of the games’ referees pushed Chaney’s hot button, which is a hellfire mix of competitive fairness — justice! — and straight-out competitiveness. Chaney can reach the brink of a fistfight over weekend tennis — he’ll get, a friend says, a little “Calipari-ish” — never mind the big-time games he coaches.

But last year’s blowup was different. In February, the day before the season’s second meeting with city rival St. Joe’s, Chaney announced in a media conference call that he was fed up with how St. Joe’s was setting picks (where a stationary player gets in the path of a defender to free up a teammate for a shot). Chaney claimed that St. Joe’s pick-setters were moving — that’s wrong! Illegal! — and if the refs continued to let it happen, he would dispatch “one of my goons and have him run through one of those guys and chop him in the neck or something.” Nobody paid much attention, given Chaney’s penchant for saying all kinds of things. However, early in the second half of the game, with Temple behind by six points, Chaney got a technical foul for arguing a call against his team, and then, obviously agitated, sent in Nehemiah Ingram, 250 pounds of football player who almost never saw basketball action. Ingram proceeded to throw elbows, bump and shove his way to five fouls in four minutes — astonishingly quick work. The last one was a push that sent St. Joe’s forward John Bryant, who’d leaped for a dunk, down to the floor, where he writhed in pain for several minutes. After the game — Temple lost by seven points — a still-aggravated Chaney said, “I’m sending a message. And I’m going to send in what we used to do years ago — send in the goons. That’s what I’m going to do.”

It came to light, two days later, that Bryant’s arm was broken. Chaney — who had issued a threat, followed through on it, and then told us exactly what he’d done, as if all of this flowed as naturally as A-B-C — was in a lot of trouble. His suspension, first self-imposed at one game, was stretched by Temple to five. The media began calling for his head, and racially charged calls and e-mails flooded Temple. Though Coach still had some backers: Bill Clinton phoned to say that he and Hillary loved him, and he should stick with it. So did Ed Rendell, to tell Chaney how much the state needs him.


All this came on the heels of inflamed comments Chaney had made on President Bush and Iraq. When Temple played Xavier in Cincinnati last January, Chaney told a reporter how much it bothered him that Ohio’s electoral votes had put the President back in the White House: “I hate everything out here. It’s not the people I hate, it’s what they did that I hate.” Noting that Ohio unemployment was high, Chaney added, “Sometimes you get what you deserve.”

A few days later, at a Philadelphia Sportswriters dinner at the Cherry Hill Hilton, ex-Eagle Gary Cobb, in opening remarks, ribbed Chaney about his politics, suggesting that the values to live by that Coach instills in his players are really Republican tried-and-trues. The red flag had been waved: When Chaney spoke, he went off on Cobb, Bush, the war. Where are the weapons of mass destruction? All these young people dying before they have a chance to live. The lies! … This at an event where he was being honored for winning 700 college basketball games. There were catcalls from the audience to shut up and sit down; Chaney challenged one heckler to meet him outside. His friends there — and Chaney has a lot of friends everywhere — were embarrassed for him.

But Chaney has never started a fire that didn’t deserve a little more gas. The next day, he was a call-in guest on Michael Barkann’s Daily News Live TV show and got into it with columnist Bill Conlin, hammering Bush and the media in one fell swoop: Our boys are dying because somebody lied to us, because the president of the United States lied to us, and you all know it and nobody says anything.

Later in the show, he bellowed, “You guys all belly up. You’re all Republicans!”

“Don’t lecture me,” an annoyed Barkann responded. “This is a sports program, John, not foreign policy. But I still love you.”

“I don’t care if you love me!” screamed Chaney, sounding unhinged. “This is America!”

It’s not that his theater-of-the-absurd opinions were so outrageous — as opinions. Neither was sending in a player to commit hard fouls — intimidation has always been part of the game. What was disturbing was the intensity of it all. Chaney has always been cranky and loud, but now the volume had been turned even higher, over wrongs as disparate as uncalled fouls and an unjust war. Why was he so angry?


This season, it appears little has changed: After the first game against St. Joe’s, another loss, Chaney was whining to reporters once again, that the refs were anticipating trouble where there wasn’t any and had made six straight calls against his team at the end. The injustice! And: “Philadelphia don’t let nothing go. You guys don’t let nothing go,” he said of the goon controversy.

The thing was, none of the reporters had even asked him about it.

GET WITH JOHN Chaney away from basketball (and sportswriter dinners), though, and you meet a different guy, one who, over a few hours in his Temple office, will take you on a tour through poetry, Sinatra, philosophy, politics, religion (no use for it), sex and food (an abiding obsession). “I can remember when I was a kid,” he goes off in his gravelly whisper, “oh my, my mother would take me to the Italian Market, and I carried the bags, and if I did a good job, she’d take me to George’s, and get one of those pork sandwiches where juices run out the side of your mouth. I still go there and eat them!”

Happy as a hog in slop, leaning forward at his desk, his hands on either side of his face in an “Oh my” punctuation — Chaney’s small head peers, turtle-like, from hunched shoulders as he pages through a little black book and shares his favorite jottings: The game has to break your heart, before you know you love it. And: Tell me where to stand, I can move the world.

“That’s Archimedes!” he says. “I got shit all over this book. Here’s something! Thurgood said, ‘A black snake or a white snake, it’s still a snake.’”

He turns to his favorite Sinatra song, “One for My Baby,” and for no apparent reason does a complete, and surprisingly soft and slow and sweet, rendition of it. He tosses aside Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities to hand over Derek Bok’s The Shape of the River — “It talks about affirmative action, how necessary it is.” On sex: Chaney just had one of his players in to warn him he was getting carried away in that department. “You can’t do that! You fucking all the time and you get out of bed and your legs are all wobbly, you can’t do that! My coach told me that. You can’t train and fuck. When I first came here, I told guys they weren’t allowed to fool around with girls. Well, I’ve grown old, so now I want to know what girl they’re fooling around with.”

It’s true — not the sexual nosiness, but knowing what his players are up to. Chaney is famous for taking kids from broken homes and nurturing them, willing them, into manhood. What we don’t know is how much fun he has doing it. One day in early December, freshman Anthony Ivory is summoned to explain where he was yesterday, a Sunday. Chaney was trying to get hold of him — not for any particular reason, just to check in. “What if your momma calls me and wants to know where you are, and I don’t know?” he chastises. “What am I supposed to tell her?”


Ivory, a 300-pound seven-footer from Washington, D.C., is rendered nearly mute, then manages to claim that he was studying all evening, and deep into the night, with a friend.

“Then have him call me,” Chaney commands.

A couple hours later, Ivory phones — it turns out his “friend” is female. “What!” Chaney barks. “I’m going to interrogate her ass!” It also turns out that, along with a credible Sinatra, Chaney does a very good Bob-Newhart-on-the-phone impression, when he gives studymate Renee a call:

“I want to know why he’s in your room at 2 a.m. when practice is at 6.”

“You say helping each other.”

“I want you to come in here. I want to see what kind of person — ”

—-

“Oh. How did you sprain your ankle?”

—-

“Then I want a picture of you on crutches.”

—-

“I know I’m funny! Shut up!”

—-

“No, I’m not giving you money for a camera.”

They go on to discuss how she got hurt. Chaney worries over her lack of health insurance. All this for the girlfriend of a player, Chaney confides later, who has only an outside chance of becoming any good. He suggests, finally, that Renee continue helping Anthony, but that she consider doing it during the daytime.

So it is easy to see why when those who know Chaney well — his assistants, writers who have covered the team forever, janitors at Temple — talk about the two sides of Coach, they say that this one, the one that cares so deeply and takes us all on a funhouse ride, is the real one. Because it’s so clearly, well, good.


BUT WHAT TO make, then, of the Chaney who raged before the St. Joe’s game last year and kept raging afterward and as a matter of fact, when you ask him about it now, is only too happy to start raging all over again, since he only did what all coaches do, sending a player in to play hard?

Even as Chaney insists that the St. Joe’s episode was a natural part of the game, his buddies who go back a long way — Sonny and Claude and Jay, black men who’ve been friends with Chaney 50 years — all know better. “It doesn’t take long to remember yesterday,” his old friend Andy Hinson says, talking about Coach’s long-ago past. Hinson attended college with Chaney in the early ’50s at Bethune-Cookman, a black school in Florida. Yesterday was a long, long day. And the collective unconscious of black men of a certain age holds it forever.

Chaney started from nothing down in Florida, where when it rained the water came right up, flooding the porch ankle-deep where the kitchen was, leaving frogs and mud and bugs and shit for his poor mama who made three dollars and 50 cents a week cleaning houses for rich white folk. His dad brought the family — his mother, his younger brother and sister, his auntie — north during World War II. First day, heat of August, 14-year-old John walked around South Philly in the one wool outfit he had, a stick-figured yahoo. Every day at school that fall, a kid named Dante would take his lunch money. John would eat nothing, go home crying with a headache. Had to go get the belt so Momma could teach him a lesson. You stand up for yourself! One night, sleepless, John hatched a plan. Next morning when he got to school, he went to the metal shop, got inside the cage where they kept the tools, and found a wooden mallet. He was going to crack Dante right on the back of his fuckin’ skull. Except he got caught first, with the mallet, and got a week’s suspension for the idea. More whippings at home — but Dante never bothered him again. A foothold …

And then he found ball.

 

He’d sneak off, Saturdays — he was supposed to wash cars in the garage below their place at 17th and Ellsworth with his father, all day, for 75 cents. He’d play ball instead. Another whipping when he eventually showed back home. Didn’t matter. Ball was his escape — better than escape, it hatched an idea. That he was good. That he would do better than the rat-hole they were living in. He went all over the city, looking for games. They called him the Cherokee, he was so skinny and his cheekbones so high he looked like an Indian, but nobody could take the ball away from him. Along about here his mother told him — she had to before he found out somehow — that his Daddy was really his stepfather, and she begged him never to tell his … well, half-brother and half-sister. John never told, and never found out who his real father was. He kept playing ball. His father — stepfather — said it was a waste of time, didn’t represent nothing. For John, it didn’t need to represent nothing. Because becoming Philadelphia public-school player of the year — that was a pretty tall thing in itself. Nobody could take the ball from him.


But his hometown did. Philly colleges — including, especially, the Big Five — took a pass. He had to pack a cardboard suitcase and head south to Bethune. And then the Eastern League instead of the NBA — shit, everybody knew he had the talent — and then a slow climb in coaching, junior high, Simon Gratz, leap to Cheyney University, where he won a Division II national championship in ’78, until, finally — Christ, at this point he was past 50 — Temple president Peter Liacouras took a brave flier, bringing a black coach into the Big Five. All the way to the Hall of Fame! Twenty-four years now …

AND COUNTING DOWN. One thing Chaney, a stickler for the truth, can’t dispute: His teams have dropped a notch. He took Temple to the NCAA tournament 17 out of 19 years, reaching the Elite 8 five times (only three more wins, any of those years, and he would have had a national championship). But the last four years, the Owls haven’t been good enough to get to the NCAAs. And then there’s Martelli at St. Joe’s, getting him seven straight times now and counting. Chaney once owned St. Joe’s; when Martelli started in ’95, Chaney beat him 10 straight.

By all accounts, especially his, Chaney’s passion and coaching haven’t gone slack. But the players he can still get aren’t quite as good. Chaney complains — with this, he’s undoubtedly got a point — that other coaches now talk him down in the high-stakes dog-and-pony show of recruiting big-time prospects: You ­really want to play in that god-awful slow-down offense, and get up at 5 a.m. to practice? And what if the old man decides to quit your sophomore year?

So it’s really pretty easy to understand why Chaney is grasping for any edge he can find — St. Joe’s is cheating! — and raging on about refs who refuse to call it.


Oh, it was so painful, getting suspended for those five games, end of last season. Chaney teams almost always start slow, he likes to build to the end, when he can see the fruits of all his work, his boys finally getting it. … Assistant coach Dan Leibovitz, who’d taken over, called during the suspension to say, “No matter what happens, I want you to know that I’m behind you. And that I love you.” They cried. It seemed Chaney was on the brink of getting fired, and one Temple board of trustees member says president David Adamany would have canned him if the board hadn’t intervened on Chaney’s behalf (though Adamany denies that he considered firing him). When the season was done, Chaney was forced to hunker down and shut up most of the summer, and staying in and silent is not exactly a style that fits John Chaney.

He was too ashamed to see even his tennis buddies, for a couple of months. It was as low as his friends have ever seen him, as bad, Andy Hinson says, as getting snubbed by the city the first time, half a century ago.

CHANEY REGROUPED AND came back this season fired up. Which means when his close friend Speedy Morris called to wish him a merry Christmas, Coach said, “Speedy, how the fuck can I have a merry Christmas when they’re dying over there?”

You always got to keep moving forward. The things he went through, that’s yesterday. This is today. You need that to have a tomorrow. He’ll take the players he can get and work with them. But sometimes …

A few years ago, Chaney was sure he had Rasheed Wallace coming from Gratz to Temple; now an NBA star with Detroit, he would’ve been Chaney’s best player ever. Assistant coach Bill Ellerbee had helped develop the kid in the summertime, plus he and Chaney were friends with the family; they all but had him signed — suddenly, off Wallace goes to North Carolina, a blue-chip school whose coach, Dean Smith, was white. Andy Hinson, then a coach at Cheyney University, remembers that Chaney came, the very day he got the bad news on Wallace, to guest-lecture his Scientific Principles of Coaching class. That day, says Hinson, “The subject became You Are Going to Be Black Forever. John was wide open. It was usually 45 minutes. He went on for two hours.” On white people sweeping in and taking what’s yours, what you nurtured. The injustice!

Can he stop it now? Chaney always tells the truth — he is old. He’s got diabetes and had one cornea transplant and needs another and can tell Danny next to him on the bench during games exactly where everybody should be, but not always — the light is tricky now — whether that was Mark or Dustin who made that move, and are they listening, are they listening anymore when he tells them, again and again and again and again, that speed kills, to take their goddamn time, to PROTECT THE BALL?


Of course, it’s bigger than that, it’s much more than b-ball. Even Chaney admits this: “My frustration and my anger about things that can be done right, things that don’t have a strong foundation, like lies … ” Like war.

But come on, he’s a coach: Chaney wasn’t thinking war and kids dying when he sent in the goon, it was that fucker Martelli getting him again. But the spark that set his fire was the injustice. Chaney wants to will the world into a righteous place as he kicks your ass. Or at least still have the goddamn chance to! It’s wrong! They’re trying to screw him! Even if nobody else could see much of an injustice in a referee’s calls, he could. He has to. Absolutely, his idea of injustice has broadened — these boys! The war! — but he still operates in the hair-trigger world of a challenge, a fight, the desperate need to win. It’s a Chaney aphorism: “There’s always another wall to climb. Even when there ain’t no wall.”

He won’t change, all the way to the end. How you start is how you finish.

He’s still pushing his boys. Sergio Olmos, another seven-foot freshman project of a player, brings his parents, who have come all the way from their home in Spain, into the office to meet Coach one January afternoon. Chaney hugs and kisses them, and Oh my God, were you at practice? Was my language too bad? But you don’t understand what I was saying, now that’s a good thing! Coach is a one-man roaring cackling band. He wants to show them — the mom especially — that he’s making sweet Sergio tougher, and he paws the air like a dog digging in dirt, and the mom imitates, pawing too, and everyone laughs, as an international language for John Chaney willing another boy toward manhood has been discovered.