John Chaney used sport to fulfill a greater mission: giving hope to the disadvantaged

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May 8, 2002
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The lion of North Broad Street – part philosopher, part humanitarian, part poet – leaves behind a towering legacy in Philadelphia that only begins on the basketball court Temple University men’s basketball coach John Chaney of Temple University in January 1994 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Ronald C Modra/Getty Images The city of Philadelphia is poorer today for the passing of John Chaney, the legendary Temple University basketball coach, champion of the disadvantaged and lion of North Broad Street who died on Friday just eight days after his 89th birthday. Chaney transformed what was known primarily as a commuter school on the city’s rugged north side into an unlikely national power in the 80s and 90s, mostly by recruiting high school players from disadvantaged backgrounds who were overlooked, disregarded or unwanted by the sport’s traditional bluebloods. The Owls became a March Madness staple at his peak, reaching the NCAA tournament in 17 of 18 seasons, including five runs to the Elite Eight. He retired with 741 career wins, including 516 at Temple, and earning induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame along the way. The unorthodoxies that underpinned Temple’s success under Chaney became familiar strokes of basketball folklore during his tenure: the famed 5.30am practices, the almost-pathological aversion to turnovers, the enigmatic, amoeba-like matchup zone defense that confounded rival coaches for 24 years and made the Owls a mainstay among the annual leaders in fewest points allowed. Those curiosities became a national fascination in 1988, when the Owls, despite playing in the unheralded Atlantic 10 Conference, spent most of the season as the No 1-ranked team in the country. Whatever it was, it was working. The program built in Chaney’s hard-edged image became one of the toughest outs in college basketball for more than two decades: the last name opposing coaches wanted to see next to their team’s when the NCAA tournament draw was announced in March. You could beat Temple’s disciplined zone, but you would rarely look good doing it. For years Chaney’s teams, clad in their signature cherry and white uniforms, made a kind of art from grinding out low-possession games, never backing down and ripping wins away from more decorated opponents with a lunch-bucket style that matched Philadelphia’s hard-nosed identity perfectly. Chaney holds court with the Owls at one of his famed pre-dawn practices in 1994. Photograph: Focus On Sport/Getty Images Yet Chaney, himself a standout player who was denied a spot in the NBA due to the racial quotas in place in the 50s, used basketball as a vehicle to fulfill a greater mission: giving hope to the disadvantaged. A staunch advocate of helping the poor better their lives through education, he was a tailor-made fit for Temple, the public university whose mascot, the Owl, reached back to its origins as a night school for ambitious young people of limited means. Born into abject poverty in fully segregated Jacksonville during the Depression and raised in Philadelphia, he saw himself as a mentor and father figure to young men who often came from broken homes and distressed upbringings, frequently reminding anyone who would listen – and the congregation only swelled with time – that his biggest goal was simply to give impoverished kids an opportunity to get a degree. The pre-dawn practices made for good copy, but like most of Chaney’s surface-level eccentricities were pregnant with deeper meaning. There was his belief that his players were more alert before dawn than in the afternoon, but also a comfort in knowing they’d be far less likely to miss their morning classes after training. Countless former players will recount how an errant pass or botched assignment would spin on a dime into a half-hour sermon on life lessons: discipline, accountability and tough love by way of James Baldwin or William Butler Yeats. Similar stories abound of his post-game press conferences, where he was prone to soliloquies in his cracked, high-pitched rasp that often were more captivating than the basketball that preceded them. Over time Chaney became a towering figure in Philadelphia and black America at large not for the hundreds of games he won, but for his fierce devotion to uplifting those at the bottom – and dedication to calling out hypocrisy at the top. When the NCAA instituted a new set of initial-eligibility standards around standardized testing that he felt disproportionately singled out young black athletes, Chaney was among the first to publicly denounce the requirements – known as Proposition 48 – as culturally biased and racist. No kid, he said, should be penalized because they are too poor to live in a good school district. He weathered no shortage of criticism for his stance at the time, but major rollbacks to the restrictions in the years since have only validated it. Chaney not only took on these “problem” recruits that others had quit on, despite rules that prevented them from playing during their first year and required they pay full tuition; they became the source of his greatest pride. Some of them, like Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie, would go on to play in the NBA. Others, like Alex Wesby and Rasheed Brokenborough, did not. But Chaney prodded and mentored nearly all of his Prop 48 recruits until they left Temple with their degrees. Chaney reacts to call during 1991 game against George Washington University. Photograph: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images “These are guys that, if they’d been denied, my God: How much hope would have been destroyed? In their families, in the communities in which they lived?” he told me during one of our final conversations. “That’s one of my proudest moments: fighting something which was not only racially empowered but something which was destroying opportunity and access. Any time you destroy opportunity and access, you can very easily destroy hope in young people. “When a kid does not have hope, when a human being does not have hope, it’s bad. And for someone to legislate against the right of youngsters to have access and opportunity to go to college and to do well in college is just stupid. It’s the dumbest thing that ever happened, and it’s taken them many years to realize it – because they rescinded a great deal of those things in later years. But how much damage did it do to those other kids years ago?” Chaney joked that most of his career was over when he arrived at Temple aged 50, having overcome racism as a player and as a coach to win a Division II national championship at Cheyney University, a historically black college in suburban Philadelphia. A chance to coach at college basketball’s highest level seemed like an impossible dream until the Owls came calling in 1982. The surprise appointment made him the first black coach in Philadelphia’s Big 5, the informal association of local schools including La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s and Villanova which play a round-robin series every year. Chaney shops for shrimp at Philadelphia’s Italian Market in 1994. Photograph: Ronald C Modra/Getty Images As the Owls’ national profile climbed, the city fell wholeheartedly for the pugnacious coach with the dark undereye circles – part philosopher, part humanitarian, part poet – who stormed the sidelines in the wrinkled designer suit and Armani tie ripped open at the collar and inspired the fanatical loyalty of his players. At a time when one-fifth of all college degree-holders in Philadelphia attended Temple, it was easy to feel like you had a direct connection to the school on North Broad even if you didn’t. None of the other Big 5 schools inspired the same citywide affection in those years: not Penn, the Ivy League university with the largely out-of-state student body; not Saint Joseph’s or La Salle, parochial schools with smaller enrollments nearer to the city limits; not Villanova, even farther afield in the leafy Edwardian suburbs of Philadelphia’s Main Line. Temple was for the people. And because of Chaney’s naked conviction and almost aching belief in kids that society had turned their back on, their games as a result were freighted with emotional stakes that felt bigger, more important, more loaded with significance. You could sense it in the energy that crackled through McGonigle Hall on those countless winter nights when the Owls took on all comers during his heyday; even moreso on television when Temple’s vaunted zone would baffle the sport’s biggest giants in the NCAA tournament. At times the burning passion that drove Chaney boiled over. An infamous 1994 outburst against then-Massachusetts coach John Calipari led to a brief suspension. Then another when he sent in a deep reserve he called a “goon” to commit hard fouls during a 2005 game against St. Joe’s. But in both instances Chaney was tearful, contrite and forthright in the aftermath. You can be certain he would not want either episode wiped from his legacy, as it would go against the integrity and unvarnished, unfiltered honesty at his foundation. In the end it was Chaney’s uncompromising sense of fairness, equity and social justice that will endure in the heart of this city. And as anyone from Philadelphia will tell you, we’re all richer for it.

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