Friend and mentor to many
Last 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 can tell stories. A couple of them he made us promise to make public.
Such as the time when the Hall of Fame called in 2001 to tell him he was an inductee. “I was in the shower. The phone rang and I hung up the phone,” believing it was one of those annoying robocalls, said the coach. “The phone rang again and I hung it up. Then the [Hall of Fame] president called me and I hung it up on him.
“Somebody else called and said, ‘Coach, this is the Hall of Fame calling.’ I said I don’t care what you say, I’m not giving you any more money.”
Being a HOFer didn’t earn him any brownie points among his longtime buddies either, Chaney continued. “Two of my friends were riding around in the car and they heard [the HOF announcement],” he recalled. “One of them said, ‘John Chaney? He’s not a hall of famer. He’s one of us.’”
His buddies never let him get on a high horse and often ribbed him, but Chaney admitted it didn’t bother him. “That was my delight,” he said. “When you think you are so high and give it everything you got, your friends can keep you humble.”
The second story Chaney wanted me to report was what got him to leave Division III Cheyney State after 10 years for Division I Temple, one of Philadelphia’s “Big Five” schools that didn’t even recruit him as a high school star decades earlier. A former city public school superintendent who left Philly for a job out west advised him to take the job, which would make him the first Black coach in the Big Five.
It took the Temple president and a dinner invite to finally clinch the deal. “[He] filled me up with lobster tails. Who wouldn’t say yes after lobster?” he said chuckling.
During our final minutes in what would prove to be his last interview before he died in January, Chaney sidestepped his legacy, his influence on the game. On his longtime friend John Thompson, a fellow HOFer and former Georgetown coach who died earlier last August, “John and I were so close to each other,” he stressed. “Our minds were always on trying to make things better for our kids.”
Two of college basketball’s greatest coaches, C. Vivian Stringer and Dawn Staley, both saw Chaney as both friend and mentor.
“He didn’t just make us all better, he made us the best at who we were trying to become,” declared Stringer on Chaney. “John didn’t just say inspirational things, he did inspirational things on a daily basis. He lived his life in accordance with what he believed. He didn’t just pay lip service.”
In paying homage to him after his death, Staley wore an unbuttoned black sweater, white dress shirt and a loosened black tie—Chaney’s trademark game day apparel. She as a youngster attended basketball camps co-ran by Chaney and Stringer.
“I have every voice mail” Chaney left for her, said Staley, the South Carolina coach. “I wanted him to leave a voice mail. Once I heard the voice mail, I would call [him] back.”
She said each voice message was a mini-lesson, and Staley admitted she’s glad she saved them. “We don’t have him anymore, but I have the nuggets [of his wisdom].”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.