At 5:30 a.m. on North Broad Street, it is dark and dead quiet. Occasionally, a car passes. A man pushes a grocery cart with his belongings up the middle of the street. At Temple University, in a building right off the sidewalk, down a flight of stairs and near the end of a narrow corridor, there is finally a sound, one basketball bouncing. In the stillness, it sounds like thunder.
In the virtually empty arena, it's almost time for one of John Chaney's pre-dawn practices, almost time for a new college basketball season. As 6 o'clock approaches, more players walk slowly onto the court bouncing basketballs.
Chaney arrives, fully awake as if it were mid-day. The 73-year-old coach is a wiry man with sad eyes and a perpetually weary look that belies an extraordinary energy. He seems invigorated because he believes his 2005-06 Owls might be a surprise and go deep into the NCAA tournament after a four-year absence. "This time, we have guards that I think can put the ball in the basket," he says, standing at the edge of the court. "So there's a big difference in our team now."
Earlier this year, people wondered if the big difference in Temple basketball would be the identity of its head coach. Chaney appeared to jeopardize his 24th season at the school with a fit of unadulterated rage during a game Feb. 22 against rival Saint Joseph's. Chaney ordered Nehemiah Ingram, a seldom-used reserve, into the game to foul the opponents hard, apparently in retaliation for what Chaney perceived as illegal moving screens used by the Hawks to free up their shooters. To make matters worse, the tactic was premeditated: The day before the game, Chaney had warned what he might do because he wasn't happy with the officiating when the teams had met earlier.
Like almost any decision made in anger, this one backfired on him -- badly. One of the hard fouls sent John Bryant, who was attempting a shot and in no position to defend himself, crashing to the floor, breaking his arm.
Chaney was suspended for five games, returning only to coach Temple in a season-ending loss at Virginia Tech in the NIT. Some in the media called for his ouster. While he had been embroiled periodically in controversies over the years, this incident found public opinion overwhelmingly against him. His ardent supporters suggested that his actions were out of character for a man who has prided himself on being a positive influence on his players, of taking underprivileged youngsters into his program and guiding them not just in basketball but toward productive lives. After he apologized to all concerned, calling his own behavior "reprehensible" and promising to "take inventory of myself," Temple officials said that their Hall of Fame coach would return for this season, which begins Tuesday against Army in the preseason NIT, a game that could well be Chaney's 500th victory at Temple. Beyond that, his future is unclear.
"Next year," David Adamany, Temple's president, said this week, "we will sit down and I would say mutually decide on whether he's going to continue."
Adamany said that Chaney had given "no sign yet" that he would want to retire, but that the coach was "very aware" that some recruiters from other schools were using his age against him in dealings with prospects.
With that backdrop of uncertainty, Cheney observes morning practice, presumably having taken his self-inventory, now taking inventory of his players, making corrections and shouting reminders in his raspy voice, liking much of what he sees. He wants a degree of success for this team that most observers don't consider possible, and that may be what it takes for him to keep his job. But if John Chaney has answered enough questions to put himself back on the court, other questions continue to follow him: Is this really his last shot, as rumors persist? Or might he have the talent -- led by senior guard and pro prospect Mardy Collins -- to help him to a comeback like 78-year-old football coach Joe Paterno's at Penn State?
Will the St. Joe's incident forever haunt him, or has he in some way awakened to new insights that will make him even more of an inspirational figure to many? Why is he like he is, teaching the right things -- compete hard but fairly, think before acting -- but then occasionally tripping over his own precepts and flying wildly over the edge?
Without question, John Chaney is an emotional man. A familiar figure to television viewers, he paces the sideline during games, wearing his customary white dress shirt loosened at the collar and the knot of his tie often lowered to his chest. He'll shout. He'll try to stare down a game official. In the quiet aftermath, he imagines people thinking of him as "a grouchy old man . . . who seems to be always outraged and always fussing."
It's a different Chaney off the court -- not that he's less emotional, only that the emotions are different.
If he's happy, he's likely to be exuberant and animated as he was recently explaining the best way to cook a pork roast, or recounting the time a transit bus driver spotted him and stopped his bus right in front of the modest row house where Chaney and his wife Jeanne raised their three children and have lived for years. The driver exclaimed, "Aren't you John Chaney? I thought you'd be living in a mansion." All the while, the passengers were shouting to the driver, "The heck with Chaney, get back on the bus." Chaney bends over laughing at the recollection, never having aspired to a mansion and not having particularly impressed the passengers on the bus.
If he is sad about something, it's similarly apparent. Chaney has always been one to put his emotions on display. On the walls of his modest-sized, windowless office are several prints by the artist and former pro football player Ernie Barnes. The paintings depict black youths' struggles and hopes, and they all affect Chaney, like "High Aspirations," a young player soaring up toward his homemade basket. But what really gets to him is the work just to the right of his desk, "Dreams," a sleeping lad in a beat-up room with a hole in the wall.
"This one just brings me to tears sometimes when I think about it," Chaney said. "There's always something that's eating inside of me when I think about youngsters. All he wants to do, this kid, is get up out of that bed, out of abject poverty, and just go out and play. It's so simple, a life, yet we find ourselves very often ignoring dreams of young people. And that's why I put that piece up there, because that's what I feel so strongly about."
Chaney can get awfully angry when expressing his views on social ills. He sees them getting worse, and says, "It frightens me." He is almost beside himself with anguish over senseless killings in the streets of U.S. cities. "Our young people should not die," he all but cries.
Chaney has lived through many of the problems he laments. He grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., with his mother, stepfather, stepbrother and stepsister. He remembers his mother working long hours in white people's homes across the river, "making $3.50 and car fare a week." He recalls his own home in a low-lying area being flooded sometimes by heavy rains. "There were frogs in the house," he exclaims. "Frogs!"
When he was in ninth grade, the family moved to Philadelphia where his stepfather, a carpenter, could find more work. Two positive things happened for young Chaney: He took up basketball on the Philly playgrounds, and before he was done, had encountered just about every available hoop legend from Wilt Chamberlain to the pickup-game stars who would never be known beyond their neighborhoods.
Chaney learned the game as a point guard at Ben Franklin High, under the tutelage of a coach he calls "my great white father," Sam Browne. Chaney was the public league player of the year in 1951.
"When I got out of high school, my dad said you've got to get a 9-to-5 job," Chaney said. "That was what was expected at that time. But Sam Browne came out to see him -- he was up on a ladder. Sam Browne is talking to him, up on a ladder!"
Browne wanted Chaney to go to college, and his stepfather agreed. But he was blocked from most Division I schools, which then took few black players. So Browne directed him to Bethune-Cookman, which meant a return to Florida that Chaney wasn't happy about at first. But he fell in love with the school, and took from it a principle: "You're in it to learn and you depart to serve." He was an NAIA all-American in 1953 even as he ran into Jim Crow at almost every turn.
And he did at the next level, too. Just like the big colleges, the NBA of the mid-'50s took few black players. He tried the Harlem Globetrotters but didn't stay long; he was interested only in playing the game with all seriousness. He then went off to the increasingly forgotten hardscrabble weekend Eastern League of dreamers and the dispossessed.
That meant riding with teammates in cars for hours over often-icy roads to get to games along the Pennsylvania-based circuit. Chaney played mostly for Sunbury and Williamsport, making the all-star team six of his 10 seasons. His career ended one night as the result of a head-on car crash. He was in the back seat, his leg was crumpled, and he spent a month hospitalized with phlebitis. He settled on his day job, as a junior high school teacher.
Then came the long coaching climb to Temple, rung by rung, from junior high, to Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High, to Cheyney State, near Philadelphia, for 10 seasons, including the 1978 NCAA Division II national title. He didn't start at Temple until 1982 when he was 50. He ranks fourth in victories among active Division I men's coaches, and has led Temple to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament five times while building a reputation as an educator. His early-morning practices throughout the season are designed primarily to give his players the entire day for academics.
So for someone whose path has offered both perspective and an appreciation for education, how can a game become so important that he sometimes loses control?
"I don't know how I transfer some of that over into athletics or into a game situation," he said. "I think the times that things like this have happened on a basketball court have come as a result of a situation which erupted that I thought wasn't right. I should have shown more restraint because, very often, I find myself, when I have a chance to reflect, I'll apologize and show contrition and hope that people understand."
He's had to battle through life, and the fight has made him caring and combustible.
The St. Joe's game was not Cheney's first ugly occurrence. Periodic outbursts have long threatened to turn attention from the good he has done. In 1984, for example, he lunged at former George Washington coach Gerry Gimelstob and scuffled with him at halftime of a game, later apologizing. During a bizarre postgame news conference in 1994, Chaney angrily threatened the life of then-Massachusetts coach John Calipari, bringing another Chaney apology.
These days, Chaney said the two are quite friendly and talk with each other regularly by phone, and that Calipari, now the Memphis coach, called him after the St. Joe's incident offering encouragement. Chaney said he had a great number of similar calls at the time, including former players "who have a tendency to call me, especially when I do something stupid, or get in trouble, or shoot my mouth off." He said one call came from former President Bill Clinton.
Still, Chaney does not expect "closure" on the matter anytime soon. "It'll come back up a thousand times," he said, largely blaming sports talk radio in Philadelphia for keeping it in people's minds.
But those close to Chaney anticipate that any continuing fallout will not affect his coaching. "He has tough skin," said Mark Macon, Chaney's only consensus all-American at Temple and now an assistant coach with the Owls. "He's been through all kinds of adversity."
Although not a close friend, GW Coach Karl Hobbs is grateful to Chaney and believes he will rebound from his troubles with a good team.
"For me, clearly, he's a pioneer for a lot of us young African-American coaches," Hobbs said. "Because of the stance that he took back in the early '90s when there was a big push for hiring more African-American coaches, and he led the charge for that. And so to a large degree, he's responsible for me being in the position that I'm in now."
Chaney certainly doesn't sound as if he is planning to retire when he describes conversations he has with parents of his recruits: "You've got to go into homes and tell them the truth. 'I don't know how long I'm going to be there, but I'm hoping that I'll be there and see your kid graduate.' But I can't control if I get sick. I'm a lightning rod in some cases. Somebody might fire me. They might say, 'Well, Coach, it's time for you to go anyway.' "
He has two preoccupations: "I'm a little bit more concerned about the lives of our youngsters than anything else."
And? "If I could find a way to get to the Final Four, I probably might let somebody else coach the team."
He laughs at the thought. He laughs even harder at a particular vision he has of himself in retirement:
"I'd sit in the stands and keep the pressure off me. That would be outstanding. I'd like to be in the stands saying, 'That's not right, what you did then. I tell you, you have no business coaching.' "
He isn't serious about turning into a heckler. But he is entirely serious about how much he wants to make the Final Four. He could never sit back of his own volition if he didn't reach that goal, could he?
"Not till I get there," he whispers, leaning forward across his desk, all kidding aside.