This may not be your typical story. You may end up followin' me around like they followed H. Rap Brown, watchin' me burn down every hamlet where the name "NCAA" is found. — JOHN CHANEY
A man's born into crazy. He's born into Black Bottom. That's low. That's lower than sea level. Shacks crouching in a hollow-outside Jacksonville. A January baby, third year of the Depression. Every time it rains hard, the kitchen shed in the backyard fills and his mama cooks in brown water up to her arthritis. That's him, down there with the tadpoles and frogs. Lower than rat level.
He's born and he blinks and his father's gone. Nobody tells him that the next man's not his real daddy, but the boy gets this smoky feeling because the old man seems icier with him than with the boy's little brother and sister, and kids talk about how different he looks, and grown-ups' conversations end funny sometimes when he walks into a room. He calls his aunt "Mama" because she's the one who takes care of him while his mother works all day and half the night, cleaning up after white folks, later sewing garments in a sweatshop.
The family moves to Philadelphia when he's 14. He arrives, skinny as a finger, wearing long underwear and a tweed suit on a 95° August day, and the city boys start laughing at him and his clothes and his drawl and his "Yes, sirs" and "No, ma'ams." He comes home one day and his aunt-mama's dead, leaving him to cook the family's dinner, rub the clothes across the washboard. Each day at his new junior high in South Philly, Dante and his boys stop him and demand the dime in his pocket, punch him in the gut, make him so scared that he gets headaches and skips his last class so he can race home before they set their ambush. So scared he's afraid to tell anyone for fear the beatings will get worse; so scared he can't try out for basketball because that will give Dante the perfect chance to corner him at the end of practice, alone, at dusk; so scared he hides on the fire escape to eat lunch. Until one day in wood-shop class, when John Chancy walks into the tool room and reaches for the mallet.
What ENTITY has the right to play God? You tellin' me the NCAA can decide who LIVES and who DIES among black folks? Education is FOOD, it's HEAT it's SHELTER! Who has the right to deprive ANYONE of that? I come from the EARTH! I know what I'm TALKIN' about! What choice are we givin' the kids who fail that SAT test? One choice! Back to the streets . . . to a slow-legged DEATH.
A man's born into crazy. He's born into alone. On game days, in his bathrobe, Temple coach John Chancy climbs the stairs of the tiny row house that he has lived in for 30 years. He passes the plaques and framed articles on the stairway wall that tell about the national Coach of the Year awards, the three trips in the last six seasons to the NCAA final eight, the nine invitations to the tournament in the last 10 years, the fourth-winningest record among active Division I basketball coaches . . . the coach whom Al McGuire has called America's best. He hasn't the heart to make his wife, Jeanne, take them down.
He enters his bedroom. He turns off the lights. He shuts the blinds, removes the bathrobe, lies in bed. He won't answer the phone when it rings. Nor the door when someone knocks. Nor his wife when she speaks. He won't eat all day. He'll lie there for hours, in hungry naked darkness. Until he's blank. Until it's simple. Until it's all whittled down. "You gotta remember how you were born," he keeps telling his players. They're young yet. They don't understand.
Work! There ain't no shortcuts! It's the ONLY way! You guys standin' around expectin' miracles! Expectin' SHAZAM! You think anybody's forgotten what you did last night. Derrick? You got two eyes and you don't know where your man is? My mama was BLIND and she knew where the sugar was!
And you, William! Not a livin' ass on your ass, and what do you do? Fake and dribble and fake and . . . man, just go back to your room and make more mucus. Aaron, you remember that shot you took down here last night? You shot a PUSSY shot! A friggin' baby. Only person near you was my mother, and she's DEAD! Don't say NOTHIN! This is MY friggin' day! And I'm not TIRED yet!
They made 10,000 John Chancy masks one day six years ago, one mask for each person entering West Virginia's arena for the game against Temple. It wasn't difficult for the marketing director to choose which photograph to use. The world almost never sees photographs of laughing Johns, puzzled Johns, surprised Johns or sad Johns. It sees two Johns. One face is suspicious, intense, opaque. "That look of his," says Bill Cosby, a Temple alum who often attends games, "it's coming at you, but you're not coming at it."
The other face is rage.
This is the man they had to pry off Tom Davis, then Stanford's coach, in 1982, during Chaney's third game at Temple. The one whose fingers they peeled from the windpipe of Gerry Gimelstob, George Washington's coach, in 1984. The one who has slugged an opposing team's doctor, dived into the stands after fans, threatened to boycott the NCAA and who received a one-game suspension a week ago for charging the press room podium, screaming, "I'll kill you!" at John Calipari because he thought the Massachusetts coach had tried to verbally intimidate the referees after a one-point win over Temple. The one who says, "I'm capable of being anything. A gorilla. An ass. A person who is afraid. I'm a person who can be out of control. Sometimes it's better to be crazy than intelligent."
When he focuses all the rage of his 62 years upon a single object, that glower has a name. One-Eyed Jack, he calls it. the look that television burned upon the national retina in 1988 as Temple was dismantling North Carolina 83-66, the deep-socketed Black Bottom stare that Chaney leveled upon the referee for an entire timeout, never entering his team's huddle.
Would it be all right, he asked the West Virginia p.r. people, if he took home a few of those masks? He grinned and tried one on. Yes, it was tempting. Imagine how much simpler life would be if he could just wear that face all the time. No one would ever know how easily he laughed and cried. No one would ever dare get close. Imagine if he could One-Eyed Jack the world.
His players set their alarm clocks for 4:45 a.m., but sometimes fear awakens them a quarter hour early. Often they rise from dreams of their coach. They trudge through the cold darkness of North Philadelphia to the gym at five, change clothes, get taped and take the floor at 5:30.
John enters a little later. Limps in pigeon-toed, flat-footed, T-shirt hanging out, one pant leg halfway up his shin. "The beaten-down dog," says Paul Gibson, Temple's director of academic support for student-athletes. "He enjoys being that." Often he carries a large bag of breads or fruit or oyster stuffing to dispense to secretaries, janitors, deliverymen or whatever waif wanders into his office after practice.
The players gather around him. Oh, what a roll call he has had during his 10 years at Division II Cheyney State and a dozen more at Temple. McKinley Walker, with a bullet in his back and one blind eye; and Gerry Mills, placed in Chaney's custody by a judge for stealing a radio; and Eddie Geiger, a seven-foot dropout, working at a car wash, who had never played high school ball; and Frazier Johnson, whose mother was a junkie and whose father went out for a quart of milk one day and never came back; and Aaron McKie, whose dad died and whose mom left him; and Huey Futch, a freshman who was academically ineligible this season and who spent his last year of high school living alone in an apartment, cooking on a hot plate, under a roof half ripped off by Hurricane Andrew. Just thinking about them can make John cry. "Always leave the door open for a lost dog," his late mother, Earley, used to say.
He starts speaking to the players in that low, raspy voice—gravel in a drainage pipe—and builds to an ear-blistering, ass-smoking, remove-the-women, hide-the-children, Sunday-southern-preacher screech. His philosophy's the secretion of his life, fresh-squeezed, unstrained, pulp and seeds still in it. Everything dire: Get BACK on defense! Your house's on FIRE, your MAMA and SISTER are in there BURNIN', get BACK! Half of it hilarious, half cemetery serious, all raw as eggs dropping on the sidewalk. Might talk 10 minutes. Might talk an hour. Might talk four—ain't TIRED yet! Might talk Massachusetts' man defense. Might talk Mogadishu. Might talk Holocaust or haircuts—No nubs! No naps! No EMBRYO HEADS! Might jumble 'em all in a bag and spill 'em all out at once, somehow finding the thread, the connective truth, that turns everything into analogy and allegory. "A message about life, every day," says La Salle coach Speedy Morris. "How many coaches give their kids that?" And then John will catch wind of the comedy in his catechism and set sail for absurdity and beyond, face shining like heaven's firstborn, spindly legs strutting the deck, hands flying up for bolts of lightning, tee-heeing and haw-hawing at his own incandescence.
His players never know what to expect. Today? Pinching, hugging, ranting, teasing, crying? Lies, laughs, torture, sugar, shame? No scoreboard, for god's sake, is going to be his master; he's likelier to be a madman after victory than after defeat. At Cheyney State he paddled his players now and then for committing too many turnovers during practice. When the Owls' ears weren't working to his satisfaction in 1988, he lined the kids up one day and screamed at their backsides.
Inevitably he'll start singling the players out, baring and brandishing each one's greatest weakness right in front of all of them. And what hurts—oh, what stabs deepest—is that the kid's greatest weakness is often the very thing that, before he met John Chancy, he prized most of all. Center with a pretty fake-right, turn-left fadeaway jumper? Houdini crap. Never want to see it again. Go STRAIGHT up! Point guard with the crossover dribble, the look-away pass, the 360-degree-baseline-glide-double-pump-off-the-glass-and-in? Give it up, son. Until you do, he'll mock you, imitate you, slo-mo you, stop-action you, scoff at the crowd going berserk, jeer at your fist shooting up, ride you to the Reading Terminal and back, honk you to your grave.
He hates complication, hates fancy, hates confusion. Pound cake! THAT'S what I want! No ICIN' on your ass! Hated it that time Cosby took him to Le Bee Fin for steak a la BUBAB and chicken au FWABWAH. He would far rather haul a bushel of crabs or a couple of pounds of pig's feet up to his hotel room, strip naked, cover the bed with towels and eat till it all runs out his ears. Can't trust those people cooking in restaurants, can't trust that world out there. Far rather spend half a day alone at the Italian market, picking and peering at six or seven of everything for each one he buys, cackling and fussing with the vendors, then taking it all home and cooking a soup or a stew, eating a bowl of it and pouring the rest into plastic containers to give away. "Just goin' back to where my mama took me," he says. "Just goin' where I'm from." He would far rather park in front of a tiny North Philly barbecue joint with bars on the windows, pick his own personal slab of ribs—no sauce, nothing to cover the essence, just meat and bone—and demolish it sitting in the car, with a German beer whose name he loves to mangle, Fassahassawassabassa, plucked from the cooler in his trunk. Then sleep on a full belly and spend the next day telling you how good his rib place is and how pathetic yours is, just itching for another argument in which he's never wrong.
That's what he wants from his players, too—meat and bone. He'll rinse every sauce off them, stick them back out there, naked as babies, and say, Here's how you make a bounce pass. Here's how you dribble. Here's where you put your left foot and here's where you put your right and this is where you turn your head and don't try anything unexpected or God have mercy on your 18-year-old fatherless soul. Because John's the man who refused to come home and join his friends the only time Jeanne tried to throw him a birthday party. John's the only one allowed to be unpredictable. He's the one who will stay up half the night whittling one jumbo perplexity into two dozen tiny certainties. "Little things are man's work," he says. "Nothin' we can do about big things, about God's work. But little things infuriate me, because there's no excuse not to manage them."
He doesn't want his point guard penetrating, because that might leave him exposed upcourt and give his opponents an easy bucket. He prefers a three-guard offense—that's three men closer to his own basket, three men better at guarding the ball. Protecting, John is, always protecting. "Turnovers are an evil," he seethes, "a wasted life." Emotion can lead to hurry. Hurry can lead to turnovers. No emotions. No hurry. "I want a Chief," he scribbles in his little black book of aphorisms and Mama-isms. "I want all my players to be like Robert Parish. One face."
He almost never plays his subs, even with a fat lead. Too scary. Never lets his players leave their areas of strength—everybody in his room! Never gives them four places to pass against a press, or three choices of defense—no, not the whittler. Gives them one. Practices and shrieks that one thing over and over until the players get it perfect, until the price of a mistake is so gruesome that it's simply not worth it. A poor boy's lesson, another Mama-ism: You GOT to make it work when you only got one.
And once he has them down to meat and bone, he holds them to the tire. No timeouts when the opponents are kicking the Owls' brains in. like that 18-0 run by West Virginia last year. Let them regain their own composure. Let them burn. No breathers in December or March. Let them play the toughest schedule in the land. No sympathy when they're standing on the foul line. You a CHICKEN! You gonna MISS it! You gonna THROW the game! That's what he yelled once at his star player as he walked to the free throw line with :00 showing on the clock, trailing by one. Better the kid hear the voice he had heard snarling all year, the father's voice, than the voices of 3,000 outsiders. The kid hit both shots. "We might get beaten athletically," says sophomore forward Derrick Battie, "but nobody's going to beat us mentally. Nobody." And when the season's final game is over, win or lose, John goes from player to player in the locker room, hugging and sobbing uncontrollably.
"He equips you more for manhood than for the NBA," says Michael Harden, an Owl from 1988 to '91. "On most NBA teams it's all free-flow. Temple players aren't used to that. They're used to structure. It becomes a habit to do what you've been told rather than to improvise. But out in society every one of them is making a positive impact. I love the man. I still find myself speaking his language. When you play for him, you have your own world, and you don't trust anybody on the outside. And after a while the worst thing's not when he yells at you—it's when he doesn't. We knew he loved us."
It might not work at Duke or Stanford, with sons of the middle class at his feet, with rolling lawns and fluted granite right outside the window. But his are the children of America's blight, and right outside the window are row houses with shattered windows and boarded doorways, crack houses, abandoned houses. stripped cars, gutted buses; crazy is right outside the window.
His are the children, often, who have never known a true father, a man like Chancy, who, day and night, is there. Who's not running off to do commercials or TV shows or radio shows or speaking engagements or clinics, like other successful Division I coaches, a man who freezes up at anything that might complicate his life, who keeps shoving away society's gravy. "I don't want any other demands on my conscience." he says. "I don't want anything on my schedule—it makes me crazy. I want the freedom to do nothing. If I speak to a group, it's going to be for poor people, and I'm going to pay for my own flight."
At Temple, a school that has attracted only one consensus All-America. Mark Macon, in Chaney's 12 years there, John's way works. Stray dogs like Tim Perry and Duane Causwell become first-round NBA draft picks, and the Owls, year after year, suck far more talented teams into the quicksand of their half-court game. "You gotta survive on the barest of things!" he roars at his players. "You gotta remember how you were born!"
A mallet. That's bare. He drew it back behind his ear that day in wood-shop class, all the confusion of his life screaming in his ears, all the world turning red—honest-to-god red, just like people say—and he was sending the mallet to a proper burial inside the brain of the bully. Dante . . . when the teacher grabbed his arm. John got five days" suspension, but guess what? Dante evaporated. Dante never bothered him again. Crazy was John's enemy. Crazy was John's friend.
He'll still drive back to the old apartment, 17th and Ellsworth, trying to make sense of it all. He'll park his ear and just sit there. He'll stare at the first-floor garage where his stepfather. Sylvester Chancy, made him wash cars all weekend, waking him at 5:30 a.m. and working him till 8 p.m. for 75 cents a day, making him start the whole car over if he missed one spot. He'll stare up at the second-floor flat that was so cold in winter, you had to go outside to warm up.
How? he keeps asking himself. How did he ever get out of where? He'll stare up at the front room where the old man would sit, late on Friday nights, the beer melting away his glacial silence, the anger at life leaking out of him; up at the kitchen, where his mother would cook black-eyed peas with hog jowls, cracking jokes, singing spirituals that turned to spitfire if you were home a minute late; up at the little back room, where the rats scuttled and the three kids slept and he would cry in bed when the Brooklyn Dodgers lost or when another Christmas passed without his getting the one gift he always asked for. Where in that apartment did the innocence come from to make a teenager cry when a team lost a ball game, to make a 16-year-old keep writing to Santa Claus and asking for a bike? Where? He'll stare at the front door and see himself pausing just before going inside, steeling himself for the whipping his stepfather is going to give him for playing basketball again. Survival, that's all the old man's head had room for. How many more years will it take for John to understand that mulish refusal to bend, to know what a black man must become sometimes in order not to turn tail and flee?
He'll blink and see himself walking back out that front door on that evening in 1951, the shoulders of his stepfather's zoot suit sloping off John's skinny shoulders, the too-long pant legs licking at the cement, the necktie wide as a bib, on his way to the Warwick Hotel to receive the award as Philadelphia's Public League MVP. See himself crouching in the toilet stall that night while everyone searches for him to pose in the banquet room for the Ail-Star photo, see himself climbing up on the toilet seat so his feet can't be seen beneath the stall door, hunching lower, ashamed of his clothes, holding his breath. Holding it like the secret his aunt whispered when he was a teenager, that he's somebody else's son, the secret he would keep behind his teeth all his life so his brother and sister would die not knowing, so John wouldn't feel even more alone.
He'll sit there in his car and feel his hands squeeze the steering wheel, and then the tears trickling down his cheeks. He'll rub his eyes and slowly drive away.
I found mistrust when I came north. I found evil. But then I found basketball, and all the fear and evil didn't matter, because I was going past them to play basketball." That's how he talks, in pulpit words, pulpit rhythms; God still wonders how He missed him.
John crossed two gang boundaries to reach Ben Franklin High each day, lunched on one-cent bags of cookie crumbs swollen by long swallows of water. Sam Browne, the basketball coach there, saw him playing ball one day early in his sophomore year, saw the dark ferocity and urged him to try (Hit for the team. Beat John for a layup? He would tackle you. "I mean that literally," says Johnny Sample, the old New York Jet All-Pro, who played in recreation leagues with Chancy. "He tackled me when I tried to beat him with the same move twice. John is the most competitive human being I've ever seen."
"All that anger in him," says his old friend, Claude Gross, "it came out in his playing. John commanded the floor. The ball was his. He used to take a tray from the catering service he worked for, load it with cups and dishes, spin the tray on the finger of one hand and dribble a ball with the other. If he were coming along today, they'd have to pay him however many millions they just gave Anfernee Hardaway, because that's how good John was."
He got nothing. The hornet was humming right inside the Big Five's nostrils; the Big Five couldn't feel it, couldn't hear it, couldn't see it. The hornet was black—and born live years too soon, before Hal Lear's and Guy Rodgers's success at Temple in the mid and late '50s began busting down the walls for blacks there and at La Salle. Villanova, St. Joseph's and Penn as well. "MVP of the city, and nobody called," he says.
He stood outside the half-built Veterans Hospital one day in 1951, his high school coach, Browne, at his side, peering up at his stepfather on the steel girders. John kind of, sort of, had a scholarship offer from a tiny black college in Daytona Beach, Fla., of which he knew nothing. A Philly kid at Bethune-Cookman had lipped the coach to this monster of a guard from his hometown . . . but would the tight-lipped carpenter let his stepson go? Browne called up to the old man, pleading. The old man slowly climbed down. Basketball . . . college . . . how did either put dinner on the table? And then a grunt. They took it for a yes.
John climbed onto the train carrying a cardboard suitcase and a couple of sandwiches. In Washington he and the other blacks were herded into jim crow cars for the rest of the trip south. He sat there, exhilarated at departing, terrified of arriving, the world rushing past his window, the train hurtling him back toward Black Bottom. The solution was simple and hard and cold, insistent as the clack of the wheels. A child is born. A game becomes his sole source of significance, his offering. His real dad never knows of it. His stepfather spurns it. His society snubs it. He can accept that judgment and let his head sag, as gravity and the motion of the train want it to, as the heads of many in the jim crow car do. Or he can stiffen his neck and brace his head, become his own judge and jury, his own scorekeeper . . . become alone.
He got off the train. His scholarship to Bethune-Cookman—a school of a few hundred students run by Marry McLeod Bethune, adviser on race relations to five presidents—would hinge, he soon discovered, on a tryout with three dozen other young black men. Twist an ankle, catch the flu, you're gone. "I killed "em," says John.
To reach the place where John Chancy sits today, you must enter McGonigle Hall, turn left, descend a flight of steps, follow a corridor, turn left again through another shadowy cinder-block tunnel and find the door on your right. "You gotta be careful who you let close," he says. "They're the only ones who can hurt you." Inside are two small rooms. One is where the secretary, business manager and two assistant coaches are crammed: the other, the size of the three-second lane, is where John sits, peanut shells on the carpet, fresh bread on the desk—TASTE this! You gonna DROP YOUR DRAWERS! "He's a kitten inside," says his secretary, Essie Davis. "Anybody can walk in here. Anybody. He enjoys people. He just doesn't want anyone to know."
A window? Doesn't need one. He would pull the blinds on it anyway. Xerox machine? What for? Voice-mail system? Please. New furniture and rugs? Somebody did that to him one night five years ago, when he was gone.
To reach where John Chaney sits today, a man goes through four years at Bethune-Cookman, urinating behind trees on road trips because most of the bathrooms along the way are only for whites. Four years of speeding tickets from cops of two-traffic-light Florida and Georgia towns, four years of "So . . . y'all Mrs. Bethune's niggahs, huh?" Four years of ripping up the NAIA, making All-America, scoring 2,000 points, but seeing it all vanish—poof, never happened—in the mainstream media. Four years of being awakened by a roommate, a premed major named Hubert Hemsley, being dragged to classes and the library, slowly becoming aware how powerful a weapon his mind is. "I was shocked," says John. "I went back to Philadelphia that first summer, and doin' nothin' wasn't funny anymore. I was a new me. Seemed like nobody at home had dreams. Couldn't wait to go back to college." Four years of watching Mrs. Bethune implore her students to double back to the poverty and ignorance they were fleeing, to offer themselves as a bridge . . . and then walking back to his dorm, hearing the first faint murmurs of the missionary stirring in his breast.
To reach where John Chancy is today, a man swallows his pride whole and moves back into his stepfather's home with his pregnant bride after graduating, because he doesn't have a cent, then accepts an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters for $350 a month because he's still five years too early, and the NBA, in 1955, has little interest in a black man. But his innocence is not done being damaged: he's stunned to learn that all the Globetrotters' tricks and games are prearranged, so he quits alter two months because the game is life and death to him.
He works three jobs—rushing from his job as a phys-ed teacher at a Philadelphia junior high to bar mitzvahs and banquets, where he waits on tables for white people, to little towns like Sunbury and Williamsport, a three-hour drive away, where he plays in smoky high school gyms on weekends in the Eastern Basketball League for $60 or $70 a game, earning enough to rent a small place in the projects. He's the MVP of a league full of black men who belong in the NBA, a perennial all-star, and every year he tells no one but keeps hoping, just as he had hoped for that bicycle every Christmas, that someone up there is going to notice him, that the universe is fair, but the call, like the bike, never comes. Some nights the whittler's knife fails him. Some Saturday nights as he parks his car in the projects at 1 a.m. after another catered wedding, he feels himself walking on the cliff edge of bitterness, knowing that the black water below can only consume him if he takes that easy step down. He closes the blinds to the sunlight in the morning and remains in bed, wishing he could incinerate hope, burn every last grain of it from his veins, save his soft heart . . . but he can't, so he's off and running again, John against the world. "Always another wall to climb," he says. "Even when there wasn't no wall."
One night when he's in his early 30's, the roads ice over and he's in a head-on collision on the way to a game, and the doctor tells him the accident has caused phlebitis, a clot in his leg. It finishes his playing career, but the insurance gives him just enough money to limp off and move his wife and three children out of the projects, into a tiny row house on the edge of the city.
To reach where John Chancy sits today, a man coaches the team at a Philadelphia junior high named Sayre to a 59-9 record, inherits a 1-17 team at Simon Gratz High and turns it inside out, kisses and curses it into a perennial power. He holds dawn practices, two-a-day sessions—Thirsty? There's no water! You in the desert! Keep runnin'!—trying desperately to torch all the self-deceptions and excuses a child can construct in 16 years. Now he's teaching health and phys ed, and he's the dean of boys; his team's the whole damn school, his duty's the whole damn ghetto. He awakes at 5:30 a.m., buys bacon and grits with his own money, sneaks pots and pans from the home-ec room and cooks breakfast in the gym for the students, hoping the smell will lure kids to school. And when that doesn't work, he drives through the God-forgotten streets, pounding on the doors of the absentees, the pregnant and the potheads, peering at the hooded eyes turning from him on the corners, choking back his despair, rounding them up and dragging them back to the fountain, the only hope, education.
One day a teenager pulls out a gun and bodies start scattering, and the coach drops the soft pretzel from his hand, tackles the boy and sends the gun flying, then gets in his car and drives without knowing where or why, parks and slumps over his wheel, feels it all spinning out of control again, the dread coming up his throat, the terror that he can't master his rage and fear and turn them into something clean, the way he once could on a court. He gets crazy when he can't wedge the gospel of Responsibility into the kids' heads. "I loved teachin' high school," says John, "but an anger came over me. I heard myself screamin' more and more. Schools were takin' on the responsibility of parents and jails. I need to see daylight, to see that I'm havin' an effect, and I couldn't. I was so incensed, I wanted to fight the kids."
And still, when the offer comes in 1972 to teach and coach at Cheyney State, 35 miles outside Philadelphia, he hesitates. He never applies for new jobs—wouldn't he owe whoever hired him? And what if he should fail? As white-hot as his frustration is his fear of the unknown; oh, what a trembling child he becomes on a bumpy flight, even though he never fails to get that exit-door seat. But then he receives a letter from his mentor, Marcus Foster, the former principal at Gratz, reminding him of the power and hope in such a new position, telling him that if he can walk into a home and entice one teenager to go to his college, he can raise the aspirations of a whole family, change its cycle for generations. How can he resist?
To reach where John Chancy sits today, a man blinks back the tears when his first college recruit, the ghetto kid with the blind eye and the bullet lodged beside his spine, the first in his family ever to attend college, becomes an all-conference center and then walks into practice at the beginning of his senior year and says he's not going to play his final season, going to take the coach's two-hour sermons to heart, concentrate on graduating on time, get a good job . . . and does it. Kids like that, out there in the darkness, struggling to light a match—he can't walk away from them. He can't let them shiver. Whatever it takes, even crazy. When the proprietor of a Long Island motel refuses to turn up the heat in his players' rooms during a Christmas tournament, John asks the man to come to his room, jams a piece of wood into the index finger of a glove so it looks like a concealed gun, leaps from behind the door when the man enters, presses the makeshift gun to his head and screams, "We gel heal, you son of a bitch, or you get heat!"
To reach where John Chaney sits today, a man must have a wife who virtually never attends a game, who allows him, as Jeanne does, to compartmentalize his life, to hide from the world when he comes home, to hide even from her. A wife who uses quiet humor and patience to work around his blind spots, who has her own life, as a teacher and a traveler and a flea-market addict, and doesn't exploit his guilt that he's not spending more time with her and the three children. He must have assistant coaches who have a few of those traits too. At times he'll tell the university president to funnel his pay raises to them. Tony Pinnie and Charlie Songster at Cheyney State, Jim Maloney and Dean Demopoulos at Temple—a decade passes, and they won't leave his side.
A man must set his jaw as the team bus is getting ready to head to the airport for the Division II Final Four in 1978, and his sixth man appears without a necktie. He must leave the kid home. As he's showering a few hours before the national championship game, he hears a knock at his door, shouts out and learns it's the opposing coach, coming to his hotel room to wish him well—nobody has ever done that before. And suddenly he feels the old suspicion of anything new, of anyone who might be trying to get an edge on him, and so he bursts out of the shower naked and soapy, raising the ante, hugging and kissing the coach, leaving him covered with suds, then bids a cheery farewell and patters back into the shower, scowling. "Nothin' wrong with your last name being Trust," he says, "as long as your first name's Mis."
Nobody's going to pull one over on him. He'll croak, "Out!" at anything that's even close to the line when he's playing tennis; call timeout, for crying out loud, when he's trapped in the corner in a pickup game of basketball, and scream at the first fool who says, "You can't do that." His heart turns to jelly for all of society's losers—but goddam if he's going to be one of them. He beats that coach, by the way, who interrupted his shower. Wins the Division II national title with his sixth man sitting in his dorm, wins Pennsylvania's Distinguished Faculty Award for his work in the community, classroom and gym, but who notices? It's 1980, and the Big Five still has never had a black coach, still can't feel the hornet humming inside its nose.
He begins developing a vice. Eventually he'll tear out his closet door and have an extended clothes rack installed to fit all the $80 silk ties, the $120 shirts. Many will go for years unused in his closet, or he'll give them away five minutes after losing a game in them, or let them get so rumpled and untucked, you would never dream that anyone designed them. It's being able to buy the clothes that matters, not wearing them. It's final liberation from the Warwick Hotel toilet stall.
At last, in 1982, Temple offers to make him the Big Five's first black coach. He's 50. He won't have to straighten out a whole student body anymore, as at Gratz, or three or four classrooms of kids, as at Cheyney State. Just 10 to 12 kids a year, just one team. A man's born into crazy, and he keeps whittling.
He has crossed the moat, scaled the walls and found himself inside the palace, inside the system that all those years rejected him, and when they ask him if he would like to sit in the more spacious, easy-to-reach offices just inside the front doors of McGonigle, he just blinks at them. "My deepest-seated fear," he says, "the thing that would go against every fiber in my body, is that I would ever leave the common people. That I would ever become a high-and-mighty jackass."
Pigeon-toed, one pant leg up, he walks down to the dungeon.
So there they are. There's Arthur Ashe's head on the screen one night five years ago on Nightline, coolly arguing in favor of the NCAA's decision to take a year's eligibility from incoming freshmen who don't score 700 on their SAT's and average 2.0 in core curriculum, and to make them pay their own way during that ineligible first year. And there's Ted Koppel's head, quietly quoting statistics indicating that the new legislation is compelling the underachievers to produce better grades. And there's John Chaney's head—no, it's not his head, it's all heart—gushing metaphors about racism and stigmas and closed doors and crushed dreams, leaving Ted and Arthur blinking. You can't argue with John. To refute his argument is to refute his life.
He missed the civil-rights movement—survival was all his head had room for in the '60s—but, Lord, he's not going to miss the train now. He's a member of the executive committee of the Black Coaches Association, which is holding the boycott blade over the NCAA's neck, and he'll let the blade drop if things don't change soon. "Sure, graduation rates will rise under Proposition 48—what else are they going to do after you lop off the bottom?" he cries. "Do you only perpetuate yourself? Is that the only goal of higher education? To educate the educated? I wouldn't have passed that SAT test coming out of high school. Where would I be? Can an SAT measure heart? If a kid can't read in 12th grade, it's because he didn't learn in first grade! That's where our society needs to start! But we gotta keep the window to heaven open for poor kids! We gotta keep that hole open in the sky!"
He forces all of his players to attend an hour-and-a-half study hall every afternoon, with tutors looming over them. He runs them ragged if they cut a class and refuses to speak to them, even if they're in the NBA, if they stop pursuing their degrees.
"Sure," says Paul Gibson, "a lot of people argue that he's racist, that he's selfish, that he's pushing for a rules change that'll help him recruit 6'10" black kids and win basketball games. But look at the kids he takes under Proposition 48. They're not the Jason Kidds. They're not highly sought players. He takes guys who aren't going to make a great difference in his program. It puts so much pressure on him to prove his point, to get them to graduate. He takes on all the problems of their backgrounds. He's totally involved. It beats him up. It wears him down. By the end of each season, his eyes are drooping and the bags under them are getting deeper and deeper, until you wonder how much more John can take."
I just want to stay in the bedroom sometimes. A place where there's no more horror. I can't hear too many more problems, because I'm a sponge. And the pain of people who suffer blisters me raw inside. I'm just not sure anymore. Seventeen-year-old blacks shooting babies. . . . Crimes with no motive, no meaning, no remorse. What am I gonna tell kids, what do they have to look forward to? They have no dreams today. Dreams are shattered.
You know, when you're young, it seems like so many things goin' on in the world. When you're old, seems like just two things happenin'. Birth and dyin'. My sister, my brother, my stepfather, my mother. . . . I buried than all in the '80s. Why am I the last one left? Is it because the worst is waiting for me? Or because I 'm privileged? Am I left here to be special? Or to be tortured? I don't understand. . . . I'm just gonna disappear someday. I know myself. I'm nothin' but an exclamation point, and one day I'm just gonna shout it out . . . Excuse me! . . . while I disappear.
He climbs out of bed. It's game day.