Temple's coach plays it his way

February 24, 1994|By Dick Jerardi | Dick Jerardi,Special to The Sun

PHILADELPHIA -- If John Chaney ever decides to get away from Philadelphia, far away, there would be only one destination. The Temple basketball coach would fly south, fly for hours. Then, would get on a helicopter that would maneuver its way onto a remote island.

And Chaney would arrive at Jurassic Park. The coach, 61, is a human dinosaur.

He is an original in a profession that has precious few men who don't sound alike, look alike and coach alike.

Chaney's teams don't play like teams anywhere, not in the '90s era of three-point madness, fast-break, damn-the-consequences basketball.

Chaney is a Philadelphia treasure. But he's not unconditionally loved, even in his own city.

There is no neutrality with Chaney. Either you believe in him, or you don't. He takes unpopular stands, does not know politically correct.

But when Chaney erupted in the media room after Temple's one-point loss at Massachusetts on Feb. 13, even his friends wanted to look the other way. What the entire nation saw on replay was Chaney threatening Massachusetts coach John Calipari, telling him he was "going to kill you", and "kick your butt the next time" he saw him.

Chaney had been trying to teach Calipari a lesson in basketball etiquette. The UMass coach listened for a moment and then wondered aloud if Chaney didn't have a few facts wrong. Chaney lost it.

And Chaney, 30 years a coach, was, for the first time, a man without a team. He was suspended by the university for last Wednesday's game at St. Bonaventure, which Temple won. That afternoon, near tears, he read an apology, interjecting Chaney-like asides.

"First time in my life I've ever been without my team," Chaney said haltingly, through the tears.

The coach said his wife had left him (he was trying to make a joke) and his daughter wouldn't talk to him. And many perceived him as a man on the edge.

Turned out he was a man who had embarrassed his family and himself. His wife, Jeanne, hadn't left him. She was at Atlantic City, N.J., on vacation. But she wasn't talking with him. Nor was his daughter.

"I don't want to talk about John," Jeanne Chaney said the other day. "But I am talking to him now."

Everybody wants to talk to John Chaney. And he will talk to anybody. His media sessions are legendary, his stories unending, his perspective unmatched.

The "rematch" is tonight (9:30, ESPN) at McGonigle Hall, the cozy 3,900-seat gym in North Philly where Temple losses are a once-a-year occurrence. Massachusetts has never won at McGonigle, and Calipari once said there was little reason for his team to show up. They had no chance.

But UMass will be there, and nothing will happen. Nothing ever happens after a giant buildup. There will be extra security behind the UMass bench. Chaney will speak to the assembled fans, and they will listen.

They will scream for Aaron McKie and Eddie Jones on senior night. They will plead for their team to win. They will go home.

And Chaney will explain what happened. Some of what he says will actually make sense. Much of it will have to be sifted through and interpreted. His hoarse voice is easily distinguished, but his tales wander, almost like his life.

To make sense of John Chaney, his outbursts, his emotions, his honesty, one must understand what got him to 1994.

Chaney was a high school legend at Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin High in the late '40s and early '50s, before Wilt Chamberlain changed the game across town at Overbrook High. But there was no place for a black player in the Big 5 or in the Atlantic Coast Conference or many other major conferences back then.

So Chaney ended up at tiny Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. To this day, his former teammates swear Chaney was the best player they saw -- until they saw Michael Jordan.

Chaney played in the Eastern League and then coached junior high and high school basketball. He was the coach at Division II Cheyney State from 1972 to 1982. His team won the Division II national championship in 1978.

Chaney became coach at Temple in 1982. Only twice have his teams, which play a ball-control, no-turnover, impregnable zone defense game from another era, failed to make the NCAA tournament. Three times in the past six years, Temple has been to the NCAA round of eight.

Two more wins and Chaney will have 500 as a college coach. His legacy will be about winning and so much more. He is a radical in the '60s sense. Consider that he came of age in the decade before the Civil Rights Act, when blacks couldn't eat at a lunch counter, sit in the front of a bus or vote without major hassles, and you have some understanding of why he is the way he is.

Chaney's message is heavy, often misunderstood. Sometimes, he is the reason. His crazy-man act has no context, his passion for his "kids" so overwhelming that many see the fury and miss the sound.

That's the shame of it. John Chaney, prehistoric though he may be, is a man with a message and style that are uncommon. He dares to be different. Some will never understand. Many understand perfectly.

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