Even in Philadelphia, Temple basketball is a closely guarded secret. The 14-2 Owls have sold out their 4,500-seat McGonigle Hall exactly once...in the building's 18-year history.
There are reasons. First, Temple is a commuter school, buried in North Philly, with more parking spaces than dorm rooms. By tip-off time on game nights, most students are back in the 'burbs, sitting down to dinner saying, "Great meat loaf, Mom." Second, the Owls' style of play is the sort that makes coaches fawn but fans yawn. "Holy mackerel!" gushed Toledo coach Bob Nichols, on learning that Temple had made only six turnovers in a 75-68 win. "That's good basketball!" But the team averages just under one dunk per game. Patient and poker-faced, these Owls don't deal in high fives, low fives, any fives except five-on-five.
"No, you don't see our kids slapping hands," says coach John Chaney. "Emotion has a tendency to blind one." Chaney knows whereof he speaks. At halftime of a game against George Washington in 1984, Chaney chased Gerry Gimelstob, then the GW coach, and engaged him in a pushing and shoving match.
The latest rare glimpse of Owl emotion showed at Allen Field House in Lawrence, Kans., last Thursday, when senior guard Nate Blackwell put his hands on his knees and wept after Temple had lost to Kansas 67-64. Blackwell, usually an ace in the clutch, misfired not once but twice from three-point range when a hit could have sent the game into overtime. On Saturday, however, everything was back to normal as Blackwell scored 14 points and the Owls routed Rutgers on the road 71-58.
Temple's only other loss occurred on Nov. 28 when the Owls were one second away from beating Nevada-Las Vegas, now the nation's No. 1 team. That's when the Rebs' Gerald Paddio zapped them from three-point land. "We've been beaten twice by what, by design, is the only way we should lose," says Chaney. "As harsh as I found it, I was extremely proud of our effort. We had four fingers in a five-leak dike."
Chaney has worked wonders at Temple, but not in the way the Philly hoops fraternity thought he would when he was hired away from tiny Cheyney State College (on Cheyney Road in Cheyney, Pa.) in 1982. Here was a black coach who had grown up and played ball in Philadelphia. Would the balance of power in local recruiting tilt drastically toward Temple? Hardly. Its gritty campus at North Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue lies in just the sort of neighborhood an inner-city ballplayer might hope to use his talent to escape. Thus, much of Chaney's talent is imported. His center, 6'11" Ramon Rivas, is from Puerto Rico. Mike Vreeswyk, the designated suburban jump-shooter, is from Morrisville, 30 miles northeast of Philly. Shot-blocking forward Tim Perry found his way to Bill Cosby's alma mater from Freehold (N J.) High, which is Bruce Springsteen's.
Only the Owl guards are homegrown, and they do honor to a Philly tradition that includes the likes of Walt Hazzard and Earl Monroe. Chaney got to Blackwell and Howard Evans early; both were regulars at the coach's summer camp as kids. "Me and Nate, we been there," says Evans. "We know how to win."
"He knows when I'm going to go for a steal," says Black-well, the Owls' best defender as well as their leading scorer (19.5 points per game). "I like to come behind guys and hit the ball up."
"And he knows that I'm going to be there to get it and throw it in front of him so he can score," adds Evans.
Chaney sees a bit of himself in Blackwell: "In Philadelphia it's nothing to find a small street where kids have a little milk crate tied to a telephone pole," says Chaney. "That's where Nate would be playing."
When the Owls trailed La Salle last month by 20 points at halftime, Blackwell poured in 25 second-half points to beat the Explorers 70-66. "I have a love of the game that's unreal," says Blackwell. "I refuse to be bad."
Chaney insists on keeping things simple, staying with half a dozen set plays on offense, demanding toughness on defense. A rival coach once remarked that there is no point in scouting Temple, because they do the same thing every time.
Before Chaney, Temple hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1958. His teams have now won three in three years. If the Owls keep rolling at their present rate, they might even sell out McGonigle again.