TThe city of Philadelphia is poorer today because of the passing of John Chaney, the legendary Temple University basketball coach, champion of the underprivileged and lion of North Broad Street, who died on Friday just eight days after his 89th birthday.
Chaney transformed what was primarily known as a commuter school on the city’s rugged north side into an unlikely national powerhouse in the 1980s and ’90s, mostly by recruiting high school players from underprivileged backgrounds who were overlooked, ignored or unwanted by the traditional blue bloods of sport. The Owls became a staple of March Madness at its peak, reaching the NCAA tournament in 17 of 18 seasons, including five races for Elite Eight. He retired with 741 career wins, including 516 at Temple, and earned induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame by the way.
The heterodoxies that underpinned Temple’s success with Chaney became familiar hits from basketball folklore during his tenure: the famous 5:30 a.m. practices, the almost pathological aversion to turnovers, the enigmatic endgame defense akin to an amoeba that confused rival coaches for 24 years and made the owls a mainstay among the annual leaders in the fewest points allowed. Those curiosities became a national fascination in 1988, when the Owls, despite playing in the little-known Atlantic 10 Conference, spent most of the season as the nation’s number one team. Whatever it was, it was working.
The program built around Chaney’s tough image became one of the toughest outs in college basketball for more than two decades – the last name rival coaches wanted to see alongside their team’s when the tournament draw was announced. of the NCAA in March. You could beat the disciplined Temple zone, but you would rarely look good doing it. For years, Chaney’s teams, dressed in their trademark cherry and white uniforms, made a kind of art out of low-possession games, never backing down, and plucking victories from more decorated opponents with a matching lunch bucket style. with those in Philadelphia. identity perfectly.
However, Chaney, a prominent player who was denied a place in the NBA due to racial quotas in effect in the 1950s, used basketball as a vehicle to fulfill a larger mission: to give hope to the underprivileged. A staunch advocate of helping the poor improve their lives through education, he was a tailor-made fit for Temple, the public university whose mascot, the owl, dates back to its origins as a night school for ambitious underprivileged youth. resources. Born into abject poverty in Jacksonville totally segregated 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 distraught upbringings, frequently reminding anyone who would listen, and the congregation only grew over time, that their greatest goal was simply to give poor children the opportunity to earn a degree.
The pre-dawn practices made a good copy, but like most of Chaney’s superficial eccentricities, they were pregnant with a deeper meaning. He was convinced that his players were more alert before dawn than in the afternoon, but he was also comforting to know that they were much less likely to miss morning classes after training. Countless former players will tell how a missed pass or failed assignment would turn into a half-hour sermon on life lessons: discipline, responsibility and tough love through James Baldwin or William Butler Yeats. Similar stories abound from his postgame press conferences, where he was prone to soliloquies in his harsh, high-pitched tone that were often more captivating than the basketball that preceded them.
In time, Chaney became a prominent figure in Philadelphia and black America in general, not because of the hundreds of games he won, but because of his fierce devotion to uplifting the underdog, and his dedication to exposing hypocrisy and mischief. injustice at the top. When the NCAA instituted a new set of initial eligibility standards around standardized tests that, in its view, disproportionately highlighted young black athletes, Chaney was one of the first to publicly denounce the requirements, known as Proposition 48 , as culturally biased and racist. No child, he said, should be penalized because they are too poor to live in a good school district. It endured extensive criticism for its stance at the time, but significant rollbacks to restrictions in subsequent years have only validated it.
Chaney not only faced these “troublesome” recruits that others had quit, despite rules that prevented them from playing their freshman year and required them to pay full tuition; they became the source of his greatest pride. Some of them, like Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie, would go on with long NBA careers. Others, like Alex Wesby and Rasheed Brokenborough, would not. But Chaney encouraged and mentored nearly all of his Prop 48 recruits until they left Temple with their diplomas.
“These are guys who, had they 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 is one of my proudest moments: fighting against something that not only had racial power but was destroying opportunity and access. Every time you destroy opportunity and access, you can easily destroy hope in young people.
“When a child has no hope, when a human being has no hope, he is bad. And for someone to legislate against the right of young people to have access and the opportunity to go to university and perform well in university is simply stupid. It’s the dumbest thing that ever happened, and it took them many years to figure it out, because they rescinded a lot of those things in later years. But how much harm did he do to those other kids years ago? “
Chaney joked that most of his career was over when he came to Temple in his 50s, having overcome racism as a player and as a coach to win a Division II national championship at Cheyney University, historically a university. black in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The opportunity to coach at the highest level of college basketball seemed like an impossible dream until the Owls called him up in 1982. The surprise appointment made him the first black coach in the Philadelphia Big 5, the informal association of local schools that include La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s. and Villanova, who play a series of all against all every year.
As the national profile of the Owls rose, the city fell unconditionally in love with the warlike coach with the dark circles under his eyes, part philosopher, part humanitarian, part poet, who stormed the sidelines in the costume of designer wrinkled and the Armani tie torn at the neck as he inspired. the fanatical loyalty of its players. At a time when a fifth of all college graduates in Philadelphia attended Temple, it was easy to feel like you had a direct connection to the school in North Broad, even if you didn’t. None of the other Big Five schools drew the same affection across the city in those years: not Penn, the Ivy League college with a largely out-of-state student body; neither Saint Joseph’s nor La Salle, lower-enrollment parochial schools closer to city limits; not Villanova, even further afield, in the leafy Edwardian suburbs of Philadelphia’s Main Line.
The temple was for the people. And because of Chaney’s naked conviction and the almost painful belief in children that society had turned its back on them, their games, as a result, were fraught with emotional risks that felt bigger, more important, more loaded with meaning. . You could feel it in the energy that crackled through McGonigle Hall on those countless winter nights when owls clashed with all concerned during their heyday; even more on TV when the Temple area would baffle the biggest giants in sport in the NCAA tournament.
Sometimes the burning passion that drove Chaney overflowed. A infamous outburst from 1994 against then-Massachusetts coach John Calipari, he led to a brief suspension. Then another when he sent a deep reservation called a “bully” to committing serious fouls during a 2005 game against St. Joe’s. But in both cases Chaney was tearful, contrite, and frank about the consequences. You can be sure that you wouldn’t want any of the episodes erased from your legacy as it would go against the unadorned, unfiltered integrity and honesty that were your core values until the very end.
More than wins and losses, it was Chaney’s uncompromising sense of fairness and justice that will endure in the heart of this city as the ball bounces. And as anyone in Philadelphia will tell you, we are all richer for his passing.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism