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The Gospel of John Chaney

The Hall of Fame coach, who turned Temple University into a college basketball power and presided over his kingdom in North Philadelphia for decades, died on Friday at the age of 89

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last time I talked to John Chaney was in the autumn of 2019. He spoke to me from his home in Philadelphia. I mean, where else would it have been? A king who breathes rarified air must remain on the soil that sprouted his greatest successes. He was in poor health but was still a towering presence, holding court while reminiscing on the glory days. I felt as if he was peering into my soul, trying to crack open a boy he thought was pretending to be a man. I couldn’t be a real man. Not to him, at least. I wasn’t one of his sons. I didn’t play ball at Temple University and pray at the altar of North Philadelphia’s crown jewel.

I wanted to ask him about one of his former players, Aaron McKie, who had recently taken over as head coach at Temple, the job Chaney made famous in his 24-year tenure with his brash talk, flamethrower attitude and willingness to tell anybody about themselves, at any second if he deemed it necessary. I asked him about a moment when he was recruiting McKie and went to watch him play with a broken arm. “I don’t think it was broken,” Chaney corrected me. “Just in a cast,” he laughed.

He weaved stories together with precision. He remembered the night he cussed out McKie for his complacency against a city rival—Chaney didn’t think he was scoring as much as he should have. He spoke of the days when Eddie Jones was ineligible to play his freshman season because of his grades and would drag his lanky frame down Broad Street to McGonigle Hall at 4:30 a.m. to sit in the stands and watch practice because Chaney demanded excellence.

But it was one night in the early aughts that kept coming back to Chaney’s mind. McKie, who was playing for the Sixers during the team’s glory days with Allen Iverson, made sure to return to the old Liacouras Center to give away food and clothes to those without homes during the holiday season. “One of the proudest moments of my life,” Chaney told me. “To feed some of the homeless, that was something very special to me. It brought tears to my eyes.” He would “look over the Liacouras Center from the stands to see all those people being fed,” and his face would crinkle.

I asked Chaney why a man like himself, who embodied a certain level of machismo, who roared at his enemies and his friends on his march toward glory, would crumple doing work like this. “Try to remember,” he said to me. “There has always been this great attitude about developing this area of the city into something very special.”

Chaney, who died on Friday at the age of 89, had a zeal not just for Philadelphia, but its hallowed northside where Temple was located: the tough and broken, rough and pugnacious, dilapidated nest of Black pride. And by his measure, Temple would be a reflection of that, distinguishing itself from its Big 5 brethren. Villanova University belongs to the rich and white suburbs surrounding the city. Drexel University is for engineers and architects trying to make the world better. The University of Pennsylvania’s lush gardens are hidden away from its West Philly surroundings, and Saint Joseph’s University is too far up the mainline to mirror the identity of the city’s denizens.

Temple? Temple belonged to Black folks. So, Temple belonged to John Chaney: a man who lived as an avatar of Black resilience, achievement, and daring conviction, reinvigorating the neighborhood named after Cecil B. Moore. From his living room, Chaney instilled a lesson to me that day. It wasn’t enough just to live. No, it took courage to do so, passion to walk with the conviction that your worth in the world mattered much more than the thing you did and the work that employed you.

Chaney couldn’t nonchalantly let time pass. He lived every day, fists balled up, like he wouldn’t get another chance to do it again.

Growing up in North Philly while John Chaney coached Temple offered a magical maze of assumption. Everyone thought they knew the man based on what they saw. My mother would always say Chaney was “crazy.” “He was loud, rough and nuts,” she reminded me recently. But when she met Chaney when I was a boy, she came away discovering an “exceptional man,” who was “ kind and absolutely passionate about life.”

Chaney was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1932, but he was adopted by North Philly by the turn of the civil rights movement. He was the best high school player in the city before heading to Bethune-Cookman in 1951. He was an NAIA All-American and became an All-Star in the decrepit Eastern Pro League—this was when the NBA mostly kept its doors closed to Black players—before coming back to Pennsylvania in 1963 to coach a junior high school team. It didn’t take long for people in Philadelphia to notice him—his team won 59 games in three seasons.

His next mission was adopting a one-win Simon Gratz High School team and turning them into a public-league giant. They won 63 games in six seasons and began to attract the best ballers Philly had ever seen to come up Hunting Park Avenue to play for a legend. His next stop, Division II Cheyney University, became so good kids in the city thought the university eventually named itself after John before learning its spelling. He arrived at Temple in 1982. It was his forever home—he was Mr. Owl, an everyman, who looked like every man walking across North Broad Street any morning or night.

He coached 769 games at Temple, with the first losing season of his career coming in his first year. He vowed it would never happen again. It didn’t; he finished with 516 career wins at Temple and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. This was John’s gospel. If he promised you something would be one way, worry would never enter the mind. Chaney would rather die than break a promise and would scowl if he couldn’t keep it. His word meant his life, and the fire in his voice ensured how serious he was about it.

People who came into Chaney’s orbit soon learned that. A small school in a tough neighborhood like Temple cannot compete at the level it did without provoking. Chaney dared the predominantly white reporters who covered his team to attend his notorious scrimmages in the heart of North Philly. McKie remembered when he and Jones fell asleep at the top of the bleachers while watching one of Chaney’s early morning practices. Chaney yelled so loud he jostled them from their sleep—McKie joked that the rafters shook from Chaney’s growl. When the Owls won, Chaney would hand out the expensive ties his salary afforded him to members of the press. I’m sure by now ink-stained reporters like Mike Jensen, who covered Chaney for the Philadelphia Inquirer as long as I’ve been alive, should have more than two dozen. When the college newspaper at La Salle University wrote that coach “Speedy” Morris should be fired for stinking up the joint, Chaney wrote a letter to the editor, defending Morris and asking the student who wrote the column what they could possibly know about the game of basketball. A writer at the paper told me Chaney told the guy to retract the story or he’d “graduate from La Salle disingenuous.”

And, of course, he threatened to kill John Calipari. In 1994, no. 8 Temple lost a buzzer-beater to no. 13 UMass on national television. It was barely a basketball game, resembling more of a fistfight. Chaney took exception when he saw Calipari briefly talking to an official as he exited the Minutemen locker room before the postgame press conference. Chaney couldn’t stand a competitive edge. He quit the Harlem Globetrotters because the games were rigged. Chaney wasn’t afraid of danger or consequence. He once tackled a school shooter while he was teaching teenagers. Calipari, an upstart coach at the time, was going to learn the game, even if Chaney had to give the lesson himself.

“For you to ride [the officials], I won’t be a party to that,” he yelled in front of reporters. “I just got my ass blasted for giving them hell down in West Virginia. And here you did a hell of a job riding them today. Three class guys, and you pick them out here and single them out.” Calipari tried to defend himself, but it didn’t matter what he was saying. You listen when Chaney talks. “Shut up, goddammit!” Chaney spat back. “I’ll kill you! You remember that. When I see you, I’ll kick your ass. Kick your ass! You’ve got a good team and you don’t need that edge. That’s why I told my kid to knock your fucking kid in the mouth!”

Chaney later apologized for the outburst, which became the defining scene of his career: Little John—as “Big” John Thompson, the late Georgetown head coach used to call Chaney—charging a podium, oblivious to the white reporters in the room, willing to whip a man’s ass for what he thought was just. Yeah, Chaney sent his kids after yours. Yeah, Chaney cussed like a sailor. And, yeah, Chaney might just try to fight you if you step out of line. To many observers, including the press, it was a frighteningly grotesque show of power. To many in Philadelphia, it reinforced that Chaney was our guiding light.

He was a fierce advocate for the importance of education for Black students and decried the NCAA’s “Prop 48” rule, which disproportionately kept Black athletes from the field of play. Chaney understood how the standardized tests on which Prop 48 was based unfairly treated Black students. Last year, as the country was engulfed in another national reckoning about the racism ingrained in its soil, Chaney defended those marching in the streets—he would have joined them if his health allowed it. “The people who are saving this society from being a complete disaster are young people,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer last June. “They’re out in the streets. That’s bravery.”

For what felt like my entire life, there was no better brawler on behalf of the Black athlete than Chaney. He made the entire country believe in the excellence of Black boys forgotten by major universities, industries, cities, and the rest of the world, reminding them that there was promise pent up in their bones and talent stored in their bodies, enough to dominate a game of basketball, enough to be something to the world he so yearned to be better. He was a tutor of Black life to a Black neighborhood, a Black city that always felt like it was too small, too scruffy, too indifferent to be noticed. He turned Temple University, and in part Philadelphia, into the center of the sporting community. He was one of us. Hell, he was us. He lived and died as a god walking on broken concrete under cherry banners down North Broad Street, begging the world to crack him in the jaw just so he could see the blood run from his nose and laugh because he was alive.

It’s hard to explain, but I like to think I experienced the love Chaney had for his players by being a resident of a place he loved so dearly. I was never one of the scores of sons he coached. But for a moment in time, while I heard him spin a tale and a rhyme, that was enough. Our society has long done away with the kings of yesteryear. I was merely delighted that he took the time with me, as he did with countless, to share a piece of the king’s gold.