I had the privilege of covering John Chaney for his last decade and a half as the basketball coach at Temple. It was many things, but never once was it dull. And the best part of covering John Chaney was, well, hanging out with John Chaney. Whether it was back in his hotel suite after a game, sitting in the stands before one, at an airport waiting to board yet one more flight, in his cramped office following a predawn practice, or even on a shopping excursion to Barney’s for more Armani ties. Maybe the best sessions were his indelible Christmas Eve appearances on “Daily News Live,” where he did the full 90-minute show as a solo act - and then treated the folks at Comcast SportsNet to an even more entertaining encore performance once the cameras stopped rolling.
The setting didn't matter. It was about the experience, which can best be described as unique. As Chaney once told former assistant Dean Domopoulos: "Don't look me up in the dictionary. I'm not in there."
It's been almost 6 years since he coached the last game of his Hall of Fame career. But he is still around. Still being Chaney. These days you can often find him holding court at Roxborough's Walnut Lane Golf Club, not far from Philadelphia University, home of his good friend and fellow Hall inductee Herb Magee.
"You see where they hung that big sign up [to commemorate Magee's enshrinement]?" Chaney has been known to bellow. "Well, go ask him how many times he beat my ass?"
He lets out a laugh, knowing the answer will forever remain zero, and that he'll never let Herbie forget it.
He's gone through life very much on his terms, something that isn't going to change just because he turned 80 this weekend (which, of course, he doesn't want anyone to know. "If they know where to find me, I'll have to move out to Flourtown," he explains). Still, it seemed like as good a time as any to catch up once more with a bona fide Philly original.
It's mid-afternoon and "Coach," as he's still almost always referred to, is playing cards with the usual suspects in the Walnut Lane clubhouse. When the weather turns, they'll venture out to the course, although for Chaney that usually means playing the first seven holes. Occasionally, he might play them twice. He rarely crosses the street to take on the other 11, since it's hillier over there. At least that's his story.
He's actually not a bad golfer for someone who didn't take up the game until he retired. Once, during a grudge match, he and a handpicked partner were taking on my colleague Dick Jerardi and me (otherwise known to Chaney as the Digit and the Midget). He somehow saved par with a blast out of a bunker that rolled to within a foot of the cup. Even he had trouble believing it. But there's the other stuff that comes with playing with Chaney, too. Like the time a guy in an adjacent fairway yelled at him to get off his cellphone, and Chaney responding by letting him know exactly what he thought about that suggestion.
Anyway, when it comes to cards, the stakes are more or less an afterthought. They play for quarters, and there are few raises. They're all on fixed incomes, after all. They play Tonk, a version of gin rummy, and pinochle, but generally it's poker, in various forms. Chaney's been known to bring food for the masses, from sandwiches and soft pretzels to cheeses and pizza to pretty much you-name-it. It's part of the reason for showing up. This is their barbershop.
"Doc, would you stop looking at his cards?" Chaney implores. "Didn't we tell you about that?"
Doc is a mortician. I've been told he also digs graves. Makes perfect sense, even if you're never quite sure what's real and what's not with this group. They take the cards seriously, but only to a point.
Eventually, phones start to ring, reminding folks that they have places to go. Off they head until the next time. But not before they ask me to sit in for a few hands. In the penultimate game, I catch a fifth ace on the final community card to trump Chaney's five kings.
"You believe that?" Chaney huffs. "Don't come back. Who invited you anyway?"
When I ask if we can finally talk, he huffs some more. "OK, but you'll have to come with me." He has places to be, errands to run. Along the way maybe I can talk him into finally doing that book.
"Shut up," he says, not for the first time.
Turns out Chaney has to take a loaner car back to the dealership, where his wife's ride is being serviced. It's still a BMW. He still has two.
John can get philosophical, without much prodding. And the stuff he says can make you laugh, cry, or get angry, sometimes from the same sentence. And if you get past the bluster, he'll make you think. Rick Brunson, one of Chaney's favorite Temple players, once noted that if you listen to what Chaney says and not the way he delivers the message, you'll find a whole bunch of truth.
"I wish I could have become a lawyer or a judge, somebody who could change how people live, who set the rules," Chaney says. "That's the only thing missing from what I really wanted to do. That's so important. You look at the Republicans. They get up there and when they do answer a question, it is the most ridiculous I've ever heard. And the people in the audience clap. I mean, what kind of world is this?
"Poor people have a tendency to inflict harm on each other," he continues. "And I don't see an end to it. That's pretty sad. We're a society that cannot find a medium, a middle ground, for everybody. That's frustrating, man. If people could just once rule this world with their hearts, instead of their minds, there would be no problems. If I had a magic wand, I'd go about [getting rid of] every bad person in this world, I swear to God. That's the way I feel. There's a lot of people without a heart.
"When I turn the television on, then I become very pissed off. Especially when someone goes on the air and tells a lie. That drives me out of my mind. And I can't go through the television to tell them that."
Now, that might make for a hit reality program.
"Getting old is tough," he says. "There's no question about that. I'm not as agile as I used to be. You only come this way one time. And you find yourself in a situation where you begin to ask questions. Did you do all you could do? I'm a person who doesn't look back. I used to teach my kids, it's always tomorrow. A lot of people don't do that. And they find themselves suffering for a long time. I just can't go there. I'm resigned to who I am now, and where I am.
"A lot of young people today have lost hope. I don't think I'd want to be a young person today. If you don't have hope, it's over. You don't have alternatives. For those that are not educated, it becomes worse. Then it turns to the first law of nature, which is self-preservation. And that means they go out and create big problems for themselves and their families. How do you change that, when the people involved in politics don't [care]?"
There were those who wondered how Chaney would handle retirement. Apparently, it mostly agrees with him, the exception being when it comes to what he calls "winning time."
"When March and April comes around, and it was time to fuss and cuss, I think I get into some anxiety," he admits. "But all the other stuff, the recruiting, the traveling, I don't miss that. I miss the fellowship and the camaraderie, the love I had for the kids and the love they had for me, what we built. Every year when we started practice, I used to put a lot of crap on the board, like, 'Beware, El Tabasco is coming.' I was the hot sauce. I was going to be tough on them. I looked forward to that.
"I'll watch a game, but I like to be by myself because I see stuff going on that's against my religion. I came from an era where floor balance was very important, and leadership by a point guard. When Temple beat Duke, I called Fran [coach Dunphy] and asked him how the hell Juan [Fernandez] could make those passes behind his back. Not one, but two. And Fran said he was thinking about me when he did that. Said he thought about taking him out after the second one. With me, there wouldn't have been no second time.
"I remember my mother sent me out for eggs and bread. On the way home, I stopped to play some basketball. When I came to look for my eggs and bread, they were gone. My mother tore my butt up. Damn right. You turn your meal over? You'd better believe that was my last turnover. And that in itself was my basis for my philosophy, when I developed a chart for how to measure your chances of winning."
We stop at a Chinese restaurant in Chestnut Hill, CinCin. He has a list of go-to places. This is one of them. He has others for crabs ("I only get those real big ones"), lobsters, pasta, steak, cold cuts, bread, produce, barbecue, ribs, soup, sausages. He has the basic food groups covered. You'll never go hungry with Chaney at the controls.
He used to be a regular at the Italian Market and Reading Terminal. Now, not so much. But he still gets around. He greets the owner and heads straight to the bar, since he's mainly interested in takeout. And where he's less likely to be spotted. Still, it takes only about a minute for someone at a nearby table to come over and start a conversation. No problem. Chaney is more than willing to take another trip down memory lane, over the one drink he allows himself. It goes well with the spring-roll appetizer, even though the hot mustard does induce a brief coughing spell. "I forgot how strong it is," he apologizes. "But it's good. They make it. None of that stuff coming out of a packet."
As we're leaving, he pops the big question: "Do you want to follow me back to my house?" It's like the bat cave. I've never been.
Chaney lives with his wife, Jeanne, in the same modest Mount Airy rowhouse that he purchased about 50 years ago for about $11,500. He paid in cash, with money he'd saved while playing in the Eastern League. He never left, probably because he never had a good enough reason. If not for all the pictures and awards that dominate the decor, you wouldn't know who lived there.
It doesn't take long to find our way into the kitchen, which turns out to be his true domain. And I learn something new: Chaney once worked as a cook for a caterer. It shows. I look under a pot lid, where I find cabbage and ham hocks. "Go ahead and try it," he insists. There's also a tomato-based crab/gumbo sauce. "Now what you do is, put some okra in it and serve it over white rice," he instructs. "I'm going to give you a shrimp, and you can stick that in, too." He proceeds to produce something about the size of a catfish. "These cost like $4 each," he cackles. "Just cut it up." I begin to realize we're merely on the opening course.
"Does your wife like fried okra?"
And almost before I can answer, he's adding some to what's becoming a bulging doggie bag.
"How about these?"
He pulls another package out of the fridge. They're Kobe beef ribs. "You know how expensive these are?" He packs three for the road, and then pronounces his collard greens to be worthy enough that "it'll make you want to slap your mama."
Before he's done, I'm also dealing with pickled jalapeno peppers, two thick slices of ham, a bottle of specially brewed Guinness and a box of corned-bread mix. Not shockingly, he offers tips on how to prepare it. There are also the sausages, which he got shipped up from Florida, where he spent time as a youngster and later went to college. They have sage in them. "That's how they do it down South," he exclaims.
I can feed two families. We might not have to cook for a week. Nobody seems happier about this than Chaney.
So I suggest that instead of doing that bio, maybe it could be about cooking, with, of course, the appropriate color commentary.
"Shut up," he laughs. "Now, get out of my neighborhood."
For a full list of the winningest coaches in NCAA history, click here.