The Temple Owls awaken at five in the morning to practice. Their coach is a tough, loquacious street guy who could spot Jesse Jackson two slogans per primary—Winning Is an Attitude; Be the Dream—and whup him going away. Temple, located in Philadelphia, plays in a conference called the Atlantic 10, located somewhere in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for all anyone knows who has tried to find an alternative on television to the Big East. And sometimes the Owls are nagged by a member of the Temple board of trustees who also happens to be the richest man in show business. "You guys shoot as if the target is moving," Bill Cosby told them one night in the locker room.
No longer, however, can Temple be regarded merely as another quaint, workaholic outfit living off its storied names (Guy Rodgers '56, Hal Lear '58, Dr. Cliff Huxtable '??) and a recent reputation for turning up every year in the NCAA tournament.
Last week, when they journeyed to Las Vegas, the previously unbeaten Owls (14-0) not only outwaited, outpatterned and outplayed the deeper, more athletic UNLV Runnin' Rebels, they also unleashed a freshman of such tender brilliance and luminous skill that to expect anything less of him than sudden stardom would, in this city of stars, have been folly indeed.
Mark Macon is the Temple kid's name, and against Vegas he put it in lights—19 points, five rebounds and controlled passing, not to mention one-on-one juke embarrassments. He played, in the words of UNLV assistant coach Tim Grgurich, "like he was on cushions in the air." The 6'5" Macon did everything, in fact, except win the game for the Owls. He might have succeeded in that, too, if, with two seconds left, he hadn't let a desperation three-quarter-court lob pass fly through his hands. He was supposed to catch it, whirl and fire in a 25-foot miracle, or so said his coach, John Chaney. Wait a minute, Coach. You mean that was actually a set play for Macon, a. freshman? "Who else?" said Chaney.
February 1, 1988
Instead it was the Rebels' own miracle play, a 12-foot jumper by Anthony Todd just seconds earlier, that gave UNLV its only lead of the game since the opening basket—and the 59-58 victory. And that result might never have eventuated if, another few seconds earlier, Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian hadn't second-guessed himself in midscream and decided against calling a timeout after a missed Temple foul shot.
Rather than face one of the confusing Owl zones that had silenced UNLV's half-court offense all afternoon, Tark immediately realized the only way he would beat Temple was to have his guys run before the Owls could stop and think. At that point the Vegas meal tickets, Jarvis Basnight and Gerald Paddio, were out of the game, with five fouls and muscle cramps, respectively. Of the five Rebels on the court, four hadn't even played basketball last season and the fifth had been in junior college. And so Tark told his school of little sharks to keep moving, and Todd, a transfer from Lamar, stuck the winner over Temple's bulwark rebounder, Tim Perry.
"I thought he'd miss; he'd been missing all day," said a chagrined Macon. (Actually Todd hit 3 for 6.) Owl guard Howard Evans was more bitterly accurate in his assessment. "We let a nobody beat us, just like last year," Evans said.
In last season's edition of what has almost instantly become a wonderful rivalry full of color and contrast, Vegas had nipped Temple 78-76 in the season-opening NIT when Paddio, then just another juco transfer, nailed seven three-pointers, including the winner at the buzzer. But that Vegas contingent was ranked No. 1 much of the season and made the Final Four; this edition has more guts and character than famous names. Seventeen and one after Sunday's win, they're yet another nifty example of the dog-eyed Tarkanian's dogged defensive teachings.
In truth, the Rebs had no business winning this game, and the reason was Macon. He essentially controlled the proceedings by himself. Imagine, now, an 18-year-old in his first game against a Top 20 team, with 19,000 Vegas Gucci-boosters at Thomas and Mack Center cackling all over him.
Even Macon's lackluster shooting—he missed 13 of 22—didn't diminish his performance. After the Rebels rallied from 12 behind to 47-49, he stripped Paddio clean for a fast-break layup with 8:08 left to play and followed with two more buckets, one off a creative juke move. When a pair of Vegas three-pointers cut the Temple margin to 58-57, the Owls got the ball to Macon one last time to make the game-clinching play. He almost did, drawing the defensive attention before delivering a sharp entry pass to reserve center Duane Causwell, who was fouled with 17 seconds left. "The play we wanted," said Chaney.
The play UNLV wanted, too. The Rebels would settle for anything but Macon on his own. When Causwell missed the front end of the one-and-one, Tarkanian momentarily whirled his arms to get a timeout but then waved off his own signal, leaving it to Todd's jumper to make the strategy pay off.
Temple's first loss was, like the 14 victories before it, another in a series of stolid, laborious efforts—"men at work," as Perry defines this approach to the game—characteristic of Chaney's coaching philosophy. In Biblical terms: Thou shalt not turn it over, else thou shalt pay with thine hide. Against Vegas's superior quickness, the Owls made only eight floor errors, dropping their average to an amazing 9.1 a game.
Simple. Uncomplicated. No frills. Disciplined. In 5½ years under Chaney, Temple has become the college hoop equivalent of the old Green Bay Packers. "You don't even need to scout 'em anymore," says Tarkanian. "You're prepared to stop everything they do. Then they go ahead and do it anyway."
The Owls' style and ethic not only reflect their coach's personality but also the history of Temple, a school whose founding charter written a century ago reads in part, "intended primarily for the benefit of Working Men." In 1982 Temple found Chaney, then 50, working less than an hour west on Route 3 at little Cheyney (no relation) State, where he'd become a guru among black coaches and had once won the Division II national championship.
Chaney was no stranger to Philly. He'd grown up on the south side, gone to Ben Franklin High, 10 blocks from the Temple campus, played against Lear and Rodgers and, during summers, teamed up with a young giant named Wilt Chamberlain. There were few blacks playing in Philadelphia's Big Five in those days, so Chaney went off to Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., to re-emerge later in the Eastern League, where he played 10 years and reinforced his reputation as a dazzling ball handler as well as a nasty sonofagun.
"Mean?" says Chaney. "Yes, I was mean. Nobody took the ball off me, and after a while the defense was too scared to try. I deny I ever got stripped. Once somebody tried it and ended up with a broken ankle."
Chaney's playing career ended with a head-on auto collision one rainy night on yet another road trip. But as a coach he retains a competitive intensity that becomes evident just moments into any Temple game, when his unmistakable voice—a rusty needle scraping across an album of Greatest Foghorn Hits—booms over the court.
If that weren't enough to attract attention, his clothing resembles that of a victim of a sudden Delaware River flood. But even that sight is an improvement over Chaney's disheveled ensemble, complete with hunter's hat, worn on those cold mornings when the Owls wander into McGonigle Hall at 5:30 for practice and doughnuts.
Somehow it works. In the past four seasons Temple has won 25, 26, 25 and 32 games and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament each year. "The morning practices aren't that bad anymore," says junior forward Mike Vreeswyk. "It gets us up, gets us to class on time. The rest of the day is for study. Then we're free. We're sure not going to stay out late either. Of course, the man says this is best. If Coach says a flea can pull a plough, we say hitch him up."
Temple president Peter Liacouras—who last week greeted the team at the Las Vegas airport, sporting leather pants, wisecracks and soul shakes all around—knew what he was getting when he hired Chaney. At Cheyney State, Chaney's first recruit had been a kid who played with one blind eye and a bullet in his back.
Says Lear, Chaney's boyhood opponent, "John is basketball's Knute Rockne. Such a motivator and competitor. He couldn't stand to lose the race to the water fountain."
Possession is ten tenths of Chaney's law. Ball possession. "Control is my opiate," the coach says. "It's like I'm driving my car [the ball], and I'm not letting you steal it. You're not even going to dent it. I'm driving it into my garage [the lane]. And then I'm going to park it [score]."
Such homey analogies endear him to his players. As a junior at Buena Vista High in Saginaw, Mich., Macon saw a videotape of one of Chaney's practice lectures. "I fell in love with him," says Macon. "Coach Chaney and my high school coach [Norwaine Reed] were so much alike it was eerie. And when I visited Temple I was even more impressed. I wanted to leave the Midwest and see the world, anyway. This place has the same family atmosphere as high school. The guys on the team just grabbed me, took me under their wing and walked me through. I do everything they tell me."
They must have told him to take over. Seldom has a freshman guard on such a good team been given the respect and responsibility that Macon has gotten at Temple. "People ask why we allow Mark to do so much," says Chaney. "No one asked why Kansas threw the ball to Wilt the minute he stepped off the plane. Mark's our breakdown guy. He can beat you creating, with the dribble or the pass. He knows the game. He's simply the best at his age I've ever seen."
Macon is Chaney's first national-marquee recruit and the coach couldn't have fashioned a truer model of his ultimate Temple weapon if he'd molded it himself. Macon's defensive fundamentals are sound: He covers his area within Temple's shifting, matchup zone with rare man-on-man skills. He's composed under pressure: His more seasoned teammates confidently went to him with the Jan. 14 game against La Salle on the line and he scored the winner with 18 seconds left. Macon plays with virtually no emotion: Chaney has stringent rules against high fives, woofing, pointing or flashy dunks.
"You can't play on a high all the time. Handshakes are as good as high fives. Emotion isn't lasting," says Macon, sounding a lot like the boss.
At one of those ungodly dawn practices recently, Chaney was all set to get started when Evans, Temple's senior co-captain and the Owls' career-assist and free-throw-percentage leader, asked if they might wait. "Mark hasn't finished stretching," Evans told Chaney. "He thinks we all should stretch some more." They did.
"We could see Mark was a great player the first week," says Evans. "He sees the game in slow motion, like a pro in a college situation. The best part is he's humble and team-directed. Everybody here knows his own role; as Coach says, we 'stay at home.' We do what's best for Temple. Mark picked that up quick."
Moreover, Macon brought his own motivational tools with him, along with an almost mystical serenity. Since the ninth grade, Macon, the son of a Saginaw autoworker, has collected philosophical sayings—example: "Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal"—that now adorn his dorm room wall. "I tap them every night before bed," he says. "It's a ritual. To give me a boost, keep me on track, remind me of the way to go in life. Like my stretching time. Coach calls it meditation but it's more visualization. I want to keep it confidential, to maintain the upper hand. Mental is four to one over physical. When your mind runs out, your body's gone."
But this body has only just begun.
In Macon's spectacular college debut, which occurred in full view of John Wooden at UCLA, he created the game's first score with a steal and notched the first basket of his career with a marvelous running hook. After Temple's 81-76 victory, in which Macon had 22 points, seven rebounds and four steals, Chaney said, "He's something in the process of being. He's something that's happening."
What happened Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas was nothing short of a revelation, despite the Temple loss. For one thing, the prayers of U.S. Olympic coach John Thompson (a bosom buddy of Chaney's) for a floor leader have been answered. And, for another, "It was a stepping-stone for us," said the wise young Owl. And one giant step for Mark Macon.