BALTIMORE - John Chaney remembers the phone call as if it were yesterday. It was a very young Congie DeVito calling to tell him about some basketball statistics he had worked up.
"This kid was as smart as they come," the old Temple coach remembered. "He read somewhere that my philosophy was just don't commit any turnovers."
So they talked for hours about that philosophy, and through the years, the philosophy of life.
"I first met him at one of our games," Chaney said.
They became great friends.
One night, Congie called the coach after midnight.
"He was screaming, he just wouldn't stop," the coach remembered.
Congie's father had been killed in a car accident. He needed to talk. So the coach listened.
"I just tried to calm him down," Chaney said. "I don't know how I did it."
Few knew how Congie did it.
He had osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle-bone disease. He lived his life in a wheelchair.
"If you touched him hard, if you embraced him hard, you could break his bones," Chaney said. "He suffered greatly."
But he suffered in silence.
There will be no silence at Pimlico today if King Congie starts making a moving toward the top in the Preakness. The colt is named for Congie DeVito, who passed away in February at 35 years old.
"He would love this," said Terry Finley, who runs West Point Thoroughbreds in Mount Laurel, N.J.
DeVito kept bugging Finley for a job after he graduated from Temple. Congie became Finley's first employee. He did a bit of everything for Finley's company, which puts together racing partnerships.
"I got a feeling something good's going to happen," Finley said. "Whether that's good enough to win, we'll know [today]. Everything is kind of coming together. We're honoring him and everybody feels good about it."
King Congie finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes. Had he won, he would have gone on to the Kentucky Derby. But the horse did not have enough earnings, so they waited for the Preakness.
In mid-January, West Point had its company meeting in Cherry Hill. Congie came in from Downingtown.
"He had a terrible night," Finley said. "I remember his mother saying she wanted to take Congie to the hospital. He said, 'No, I don't want it to look I'm weak. I want to be at the meeting.' "
So, he went.
"He was about as brave a guy as you could ever meet," Finley said. "I know he was in pain a lot."
Chaney got a call last winter, telling him that Congie was fading, that he wanted to see the coach. Chaney no longer drives at night because of an eye condition, so Finley sent a car to take him to Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, N.J.
"I went over, talked with him and held his hand," Chaney said.
Congie used to sit in that wheelchair beside the Temple bench. He used to hang in Chaney's office for hours after games, talking hoops and whatever else came up.
"Here's an old-school, black, college coach with a 4-foot-2 white man in a wheelchair," Finley said. "Life is amazing when you think about it. They really loved each other."
On Jan. 1, King Congie won the Tropical Park Derby. On Feb. 6, the colt finished first in another stakes at Gulfstream Park, but was disqualified for fouling his stablemate.
"He was literally days away from death," Finley said. "I just remember he couldn't communicate. He raised his eyebrows. He had a real kind of cute way about him when something was amiss. That was really the last kind of thing that he communicated with anybody."
Chaney knew about King Congie. He did not know the horse was running in the Preakness. When he was told he said, "Bet a few dollars for me."
Royal Delta rallied to beat Buster's Ready by 2 1/2 lengths in the $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico. The Black-Eyed Susan for 3-year-old fillies is the companion event to the Preakness. *