There are no sports to watch, no NBA playoffs that would usually take John Chaney deep into the night, so he’s got a friend trying to get him tapes of old classic Temple games with UCLA and Louisville and Kansas and North Carolina. Old players and former staffers call and reminisce and make sure he doesn’t need a food drop-off. His family has that covered, he tells them.
Don’t think that Chaney is retreating into the past. At age 88, he’ll often go there, but he won’t stay there.
“The people who are saving this society from being a complete disaster are young people,” Chaney said soon after he answered his phone Monday afternoon at his home in Mount Airy. “They’re out in the streets. That’s bravery. That’s bravery at its best. We have some of the most brave students and young people, who will fight to possibly their death because of this pandemic.”
This part gets him a little emotional, he said … seeing all the white faces protesting that Black Lives Matter, including in rural areas.
“I used to say to my players, you will never ever be winners in this game until you can see yourself in others,” Chaney said. “You must see yourself in others. You must understand others. You must have empathy.”
Understand what this man has seen in his life. Chaney talked about living as a child in Jacksonville, Fla., about his mother coming in and telling the children to get under the bed, there was a cross burning nearby. The fear of that night stayed with him all these years, Chaney said Monday. The KKK didn’t just appear in history books.
“Racism is a fight all the way to the end,” Chaney said.
Race also comes up for Chaney in this conversation in the context of white people who helped him, from Sam Browne, his coach at Ben Franklin High, to Peter Liacouras, the president of Temple who hired Chaney. “The first day I came to Temple, I met with Peter in his office. Peter directed me from then on to people who helped me with my life, who could advise me, help me prepare for the future. That was just something beyond getting a salary.”
Chaney thinks back to the heavy lifting of his Hall of Fame career, including getting the big boys to play Temple but also recruiting against them. “Any sport, the Top 20, they seem to be the Top 20 every year.”
Chaney laughed thinking about a line his late, great Owls assistant, Jim Maloney, said to him about those coaching legends: “Why not give them the bad players? If they’re such great coaches, give them the bad players.”
This was quickly followed by Chaney noting that he had a lot of good players himself. He just tended not to tell them that.
He didn’t see that current Temple coach Aaron McKie was at a protest this past weekend. (His daughter-in-law mostly keeps him up to speed on social-media news.)
“He does things, through his life, that shows he takes a stand quietly,” Chaney said of McKie. “He doesn’t walk around with a bullhorn saying, ‘Look at me.’ Franny is the same way. Dunphy.”
A 75-minute conversation with this man will take you from the country formed as a fight against tyranny, to students protesting at a lunch counter in North Carolina, to the current politics and a leader “without compassion.” (He said more, kept it clean, but talked of “a demagogue on the throne.”)
That said, Chaney also feels a certain remove from it all. “Us old people just find a way to sit in our rocking chairs.”
He can’t imagine trying to get college sports back up and running now after the coronavirus, all the issues involved.
“Thinking about where do we go from here?” Chaney said. “You can not play basketball without fans. To me, it’s impossible.”
But, he asks, when will everyone feel comfortable being there? “It’s going to be very interesting. To me, it’s almost a task beyond anybody’s memory.”
For a man who was never immune to taking a stand, especially when it came to fairness regarding college entrance requirements, Chaney watches it all. Maybe the NFL’s stance on Colin Kaepernick is changing and Chaney will offer credit for that, but his own never changed. “What he said in those years has come true today.”
Chaney thinks back to teaching at Sayre Middle School in West Philadelphia, how there were three guidance counselors and not just a nurse -- “we had a dentist’s chair. A dentist would come to the school.”
Now, he looks at the state of education … “We’ve come a long way and yet we haven’t come a long way. It’s unbelievable.”
Personally, he’s got people looking out for him.
“My daughter and son-in-law come by and my neighbors check me out,” Chaney said. “My daughter-in-law keeps me stocked with groceries. It’s just, I’m not able to get out and move around at all. It’s a terrible thing. My wife and I, we’re at the age of 88, nothing good ever happens.”
His voice still sounds strong.
“I’m hanging in there, like the last limb on the tree,” Chaney said. “The wind blows, I’m gone.”
The next sound you hear, Chaney’s deep infectious laughter booming through the phone. We’re talking about one of the great limbs of Philadelphia sports history. A man who has faced down tornadoes in his life, and caused one or two.