Our conversation takes some risks
Second in a series
Our interview with Hall of Fame Coach John Chaney just before Christmas last year is believed to be his last such interview before his death. He passed away on Jan. 29. We continue with excerpts from our one-hour phone chat.
John Chaney and John Thompson both were giants in men’s college basketball. The two men often had the loudest voices in the room, unapologetic of their words and who they said them to.
But unbeknownst to many of us is that during their coaching years, Chaney, Thompson, Nolan Richardson and George Raveling—often seen as “the big four”—annually held court with Black reporters at some undisclosed location during the Final Four. “I’d miss my plane back home,” Chaney chuckled during our conversation, “talking with the Black Press, getting them to understand some of the needs and some of the things that were necessary for our kids.
“We’d stay up all night,” recalled Chaney. “There were so many reporters, and they became great reporters in the business.” We learned that among the attendees were Michael Wilbon, now on ESPN, and William C. Rhoden, a veteran sportswriter who now directs the Rhoden Fellow program sponsored by ESPN’s The Undefeated.
“We had a room filled—some would be sitting on the floor. The topics were always about athletes, and trying to get them to be successful…not just talking about the successes of the coaches… There were no arguments. I wished somehow we had filmed those sessions. Those were so great days.”
Among others, here are three things Chaney was famously known for, not necessarily in this order: His teams played a tough zone defense; the infamous storming in on John Calipari’s post-game press conference after a defeat; and holding early morning practices. We bravely asked him about all three.
Temple’s matchup zone gave opponents fits. Coach Chaney said he was influenced by fellow Philly guys such as Jack Ramsey, who coached both in college and the NBA. He saw Houston play zone to defeat UCLA at the Astrodome.
“The most important thing in basketball is [that] you can afford to be not as good offensively but you got to be damn good defensively,” he explained. “Every kid you get can be taught to play defense.
“It requires a great deal of work with angles in playing [his] defense,” noted Chaney. “We play a 2-3, a triangle and two. There were five or six zones that we play. I felt it was better for us,” he stressed.
What’s the backstory on Chaney’s confrontation with Calipari, then at UMass, after a game in 1994? If it happened today, it would go viral on social media.
“They won by one point,” Chaney replied. “He was in the [press conference] room saying some things that were not right. But I saw him [earlier] walking to the room where the officials were. That’s something coaches don’t do, go into their room. I think that precipitated [the incident].”
Then, caught on television, Chaney angrily stormed the room and went after Calipari, only separated by players and others. But not before being heard that he was going to kill him.
“I just went off and should have handled it better,” surmised Chaney. “I should have taken him to a dark alley and beat him up.”
I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, and I was afraid to ask.
Next week: Chaney explains why he held practices at sunrise.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.