ATHENS -- Van Chancellor sits on the back of the bus, dealing out cards in a cheating game of spades with Dawn, Sheryl and Lisa. Another 60-year-old Mississippian male might feel self-conscious as the coach of the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team instead of the men's, or annoyed that it takes so long to get his players out of the locker room because they spend so much time on their hair and makeup, "trying to look pretty, and that's just a coldhearted fact," Chancellor says, laughing through a sorghum accent. But Chancellor is enjoying his luck, because unlike some men's coaches he could name, there's one thing he doesn't have to worry about. His players may cheat him at cards, but they won't cheat him on the court. So he just slaps the cards down and grabs the jackpot.
Chancellor has hit the jackpot as a coach, with what may be the best U.S. women's team yet. Led by those old loyalists Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley, the U.S. women reached the semifinals with a 102-72 victory Wednesday over Greece and are closing on a third straight gold medal. It's a position Chancellor never envisioned himself in, because he never envisioned himself as an Olympic coach in the first place. "I never dreamed about it, because I don't believe in dreaming about the impossible," he says.
Tina Thompson battles Greece's Anastasia Kostaki for position in the U.S. team's semifinal victory.
(Photos Adrees Latif -- Reuters)
Imagine you were so poor growing up that you had to use a broom handle to keep the stove door shut, and so country that you got religion from a traveling Gideon Bible salesman who picked you up hitchhiking in a pouring rain. Imagine your background and coaching credentials were so humble that you like to joke, "I wasn't even my wife's first choice." Imagine you were a high school gym teacher who was offered $18,600 to coach the women's basketball team at Ole Miss back in 1978, and you were so glad to get the job that your only question was, "Do I have to wash the uniforms?"
Once, Chancellor tried to cross over to the men's game. In 1986 he had the temerity to apply for the men's job at Ole Miss. They turned him down. The school searched high and low, looking to hire anybody but him. For a day or so, the administrators relented and said they might give him the job, only to think better of it. For two weeks, Chancellor thought his career was ruined, that he would always be a hard-luck guy on the outside of the mainstream game. He doesn't think so anymore. "When I didn't get that job it broke my heart," he says. "But if I had gotten that job, I'd have been fired by 1992. Or I'd have a bunch of NCAA violations. And neither of those are any good. If I wasn't a women's coach, I wouldn't be the Olympic coach."
When Chancellor recovered, he set out to make the most of the new opportunities in the women's game, taking the Houston Comets, starring Swoopes and Tina Thompson, to four WNBA titles. That earned the notice of USA Basketball, which invited him to take Team USA to China for the world championships in 2002. He brought home the gold.
When the call came offering him the Olympic job, he was home in Houston with his wife of 37 years, Betty, and their grandson, Nick. They watched him as he held the receiver to his ear.
"Why in the world is Grandaddy crying?" Nick asked.
Chancellor was the first male to be chosen as head coach, and on the face of it, he wasn't necessarily a compatible choice, either. When Chancellor first started working with the U.S. team, his accent baffled some of them, like Staley, a Philadelphian. "I needed a translator, to be honest," Staley says. But Chancellor has forged an impressive U.S. team, one that is winning by an average of almost 30 points in this tournament. He's also forged an obvious bond of affection with them, sitting in the back of the bus and laughing uproariously over their hectic card games. They love him. And they imitate him. Jordan, Swoopes's 7-year-old son who has been traveling with the team, mimics Chancellor's antic gestures on the sideline as he jabs two fingers at his forehead, urging them to think. They imitate his homespun sayings -- "I'm not the federal government, and I don't run an equal-opportunity offense" is one Chancellor favorite. And that voice, gravel floating in syrup.
On the sideline, however, Chancellor is clearly the boss. Bossing this team is not so easily done, because the players are all stars from one end of the bench to the other, and veterans at that. The first thing Chancellor made clear was that he wouldn't be stroking any egos. "The one thing we're not going to worry about is who's happy," he told them. "They didn't put me in charge of keeping people happy. We're not going to play people based on who's happy and who's unhappy. As long as the coach is happy, that's what matters."
Midway through the fourth quarter of their quarterfinal game against Greece, Chancellor motioned for three of his starters to take seats on the bench. There was no point in risking an injury with a 30-point lead, but the trio showed some long faces while accepting their towels.
"I know you aren't happy," Chancellor said. "Now sit down."
They meekly shuffled toward their seats. "No point in arguing with him," Staley said.
"He tells you like it is," Staley says. "He doesn't care if it hurts your feelings or not. He's straight with you, but that's what you want as a player: honesty."
Chancellor's job is made infinitely easier by the fact that he has a core of players who, like him, have had to fight for every break and advantage. And who make unselfishness the guiding ethic of the team. Staley, Swoopes and Leslie have now played together for their country for 12 straight years. They attend every training camp -- three of them this spring as well as a 13-game exhibition tour -- and play consistently for their country, even in non-Olympic years. To them it's still the preeminent goal, and the struggling WNBA secondary. Anyone searching for an explanation as to why the U.S. women's team has fared so much better here than the men's doesn't have to search hard. It's very simple: They work at it. Give them some financial support, couple it with a little good old-fashioned want-to, and bingo: You whip the world by 30. "It's a point we're trying to prove," Staley says. "If we can beat the very best in the Olympics, why can't our rich country embrace it in the form of a profession?"
Chancellor has been warmed by their unselfishness. During the 2002 world championship game, he only played Tari Phillips for 38 seconds. Phillips is a member of the New York Liberty and arguably one of the best post players in the WNBA, and she had to sit there on the bench, waiting for a half-minute of playing time.
"And after the game, she kissed me on the cheek," Chancellor said.
So Chancellor has decided that being the coach of the women's team is the best job in the basketball. Imagine that every time you led your team on the court, you knew exactly what you were going to get from your players. Imagine you didn't have to worry about what they would give you, because game in and game out and year in and year out they've given the United States their whole hearts, whether it's Leslie powering in her usual 20 points, or Yolanda Griffith hauling down a dozen rebounds to no acclaim, or Swoopes shutting down the leading scorer, or Tamika Catchings marking up every category of the box score. Chancellor just may be the luckiest coach here.
"What's enjoyable to coach is when you say, 'Run the five play,' and they run the five play," Chancellor says. "I say, 'Run the three play,' and they run the three play. I say, 'Give the ball to Lisa Leslie,' and they give the ball to Lisa Leslie. The thing I like most is getting them to do what I want them to do."
On Friday, the United States will meet Russia in the semifinals, and while Chancellor couldn't guarantee the outcome, he knew this much. "I know this team is going to play like I want them to play," he says. "That's one thing I know."