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 them all in the '80s. Why am I the last one left? Is it because the worst is waitin' for me? Or because I'm privileged? Am I left here to be special? Or to be tortured? I don't understand. . . ."
We sat in a car, in the dark, in the cold, three years ago. Vapor was coming from John Chaney's mouth, tears from his eyes. Me, I was just scribbling for all I was worth.
Maybe the answers to his questions have come, finally. Maybe Temple's 65-year-old, raccoon-eyed philosopher was spared to handle the horror and heart wreckage of the past 15 months.
August 24, 1997
The latest piece of it came in a dead-of-night phone call last week. Marvin Webster Jr., Temple's 18-year-old sophomore center and the son of former pro Marvin Webster, had just died of a heart attack in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., after helping a friend move into a dorm room. There were no previous signs that his heart was abnormally large, a condition known as cardiomyopathy. His death came less than a day after Carol Henderson, wife of Temple radio play-by-play announcer Don Henderson, died of cancer. Which occurred just one week after Temple athletic director Dave O'Brien's nine-year-old son, Michael, died in a car accident.
Seven months earlier, Ennis Cosby—the son of Chaney's old buddy Bill Cosby and the kid whom John, at his summer camps, played one-on-one for the sneakers on their feet—was murdered on a Los Angeles roadside. That happened just a month after Victor Harris, a paraplegic who was one of Chaney's closest friends, put a gun to his head and committed suicide. Seven months before that, one of Chaney's players called screaming: Jim Maloney, John's assistant coach for the previous 14 years, had died of a heart attack driving home from work.
On Monday, Chaney arose early, wobbling from a case of walking pneumonia, to fly to Greensboro to deliver yet another farewell. Once more everyone at Temple marveled at how he leads his players and colleagues directly at death, and then through it. No, nothing at all like the way he leads them through a basketball game: no ranting or raving, no arms or necktie or shirttail flapping. He understands that control freaks and structure gluttons like him are sad jokes if they don't learn when to let go, lie down and just feel.
So he drives death around in his car, pulls over on roadsides and cries. "You need to keep cryin' and cleansin'," he rasps. He admits his fear of death, his complete confusion. "I'm afraid," he says. "Sometimes I wish I'd died first so I wouldn't have to cry so much. Marvin was just a puppy, the finest kind of kid. But you can't try to understand death. There's no evaluatin' it, no puttin' rhyme or reason on it. With death, the questions are more important than the answers."
He spits humor at it. "I hide from it," he says. "I'm like the kid puttin' the pillow over his head thinkin' no one can see him—and his ass is stickin' out." He turns it into a seed, helping to start scholarships in the deceased's names and watering them with his money. He goes to the memorial services and unfurls the best damn eulogies anybody there ever heard.
Last season he kept an empty seat beside him on the bench in honor of Maloney, a man so devoted to Chaney that he walked behind him scribbling almost everything John said into notebooks for a decade and a half. Chaney found himself calling to Jim during games, then clenching his hands between his knees and bending over till the stabbing stopped.
He hurries from house to car to office and gym more than a 65-year-old should, but that's because he doesn't want to meet anyone else whom he might grow fond of just in time for the person to die. "Limit your friends, and you can limit your cryin'," he says. For years he has spoken of retiring, and his eyes are so full of world-weariness that you wonder if this fusillade of death might finally convince him it's time. But, no. It has the opposite effect. Taking the kids through the tunnel is what takes Chaney through the tunnel, and now he needs the kids more than ever.
So here, John—at the risk of giving answers when questions are more important—are the replies to the ones you posed three years ago, about why you alone were spared in your family: Yes, yes, yes and yes. Yes, because the worst was waiting for you. Yes, to be special. Yes, to be tortured. Yes, to be privileged.