Our interview with HOF Coach John Chaney just before Christmas last year is believed to be his last such interview before he died. He passed away on Jan. 29. The following are excerpts from our one-hour phone chat.
“To be in John Chaney’s presence … was to be in the presence of animate authenticity. Chaney was an institution,” wrote Philadelphia Inquirer’s Marcus Hayes last week after the basketball world learned of the coach’s passing. “Like [John] Thompson and [Nolan] Richardson, Chaney will live forever through the lives he so deeply touched, and through lives he never knew he touched.”
Because of COVID-19, the closest I came to be in the coach’s presence was my telephone.
I first spoke with Coach Chaney in Kansas City in 1997 after his team lost to Minnesota. He shared his thoughts on the death of his Godson, Ennis Cosby, who was killed by a robber while changing a flat tire on the side of a California highway.
The second time was at the 2011 NABJ Convention in Philadelphia where he was honored by the Sports Task Force, along with several other hometown notables, including former champ Joe Frazier.
The third came just before Christmas last year.
I called him at first to see when the best time was to interview him, and Chaney said why not now. He talked, and I listened for an hour, afraid to interrupt his thoughts. The only interruption came several times when his phone rang—its ringtone was the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive.”
He told me that he wished the world recognized him equally as much as a teacher. “I’m very, very proud of and very rarely mentioned is that I was voted ‘Teacher of the Year’ and ‘Coach of the Year’ (in 1978) while I was at Cheyney,” he stressed. “[That] was something that is overlooked most of my life.”
Chaney was born in Jacksonville, Fla. on January 21, 1932, and grew up in Philadelphia. He was that city’s public school ‘Player of the Year’ in 1951, but none of Philly’s Big Five schools (Temple, Penn, Villanova, St. Joseph, and La Salle) recruited him, mainly along racial lines. He instead attended Bethune-Cookman, an HBCU, and was an All-American there.
He was good enough to play in the NBA, but the league had a strict Black quota system then. Chaney’s pro career consisted of the Harlem Globetrotters, and the old Eastern League, where he was a two-time MVP.
But Chaney is more universally known for his coaching—he became a Division I coach at age 50 when Temple came calling and hired him in 1982. Before that, he coached a decade at Division II Cheyney State, where he won the 1978 national title and posted a 225-59 mark. Before that, he coached at the junior high and high school levels in Philadelphia.
Chaney led the Owls to the post-season every season except his first, reaching the NCAA regional finals five times, and winning six Atlantic 10 titles.
He also was a fighter, not in the physical sense but for people, especially young people. Never bashful, his anger was often misunderstood, Chaney fought against a college system that historically set up biased and discriminatory rules and regulations against Blacks, limiting their access to education, and in the old Proposition 48, Black athletes’ eligibility.
“Every era is faced with challenges that athletes and coaches stood up for,” said the coach. “Blacks needed education. Many of our youngsters were coming from backgrounds [where] schools were underfunded.
Next: Chaney talks more about his unapologetic coaching life.