By Mike Kern
February 1, 2021
In the overall, it’s merely a blip. But sometimes, it can mean everything. Funny how life can work like that.
When it comes to keeping up with people, I’m not always the best. It’s a character flaw. I apologize. I don’t mean to be lax. It just happens. I usually have tried to talk to John Chaney, who I covered on a full-time basis from 1991 until his retirement and then well beyond, at least a couple of times a year. Some years I was better at it than others. Usually around the holidays, always at his birthday, and once or twice whenever just to check in or see what he thought of the latest news. And it was always a good thing, I think for both of us.
So you can imagine my surprise when a little over a week ago I saw something on twitter wishing John a happy 89th birthday. I was upset with myself, How could I have let it slip my mind. Yes, I’m getting older too. But still, that’s hardly an excuse. So I immediately picked up a phone and called him. And he picked up on like the second ring, which doesn’t always happen. And I told him it was the midget calling to see how an old man was doing with having another candle on his cake. And it was great. We talked for about 15 minutes, about as many topics as we could squeeze in. Just as we always have over the many years of our journey together.
He said he was in the hospital. I asked if it was Covid related, and he said no. They were treating him for a blood clot in his leg. He didn’t make it sound that serious, but then he never did. We talked about the election, and he was so glad what he called his friend Joe had won. He thought the next four years would be better. I asked about his wife, I asked about his good friend Speedy Morris, about his good friend Fran Dunphy, about his prized prodigy Aaron McKie and a few other things that all tend to blend into one. It was a fun chat. And I was so glad that I had taken the time, and that someone else had basically reminded me to do so.
And the way we left it was this: when this crap that we’ve been going through the last 10 months was over, me and Dick Jerardi, the digit, were going to pay him a visit at the house he’s live in since 1959. And we were going to bring him some food, maybe from his favorite Chinese restaurant. We were going to hang out, like we used to do, and just shoot the breeze. Laugh a lot, maybe even cry a little, and think about the world and try to make sense of some things that are just harder to understand these days. That never changed.
Unfortunately, that can never happen now. John passed away last Friday. I heard later that he did make it home from the hospital. And now he can meet up again with longtime assistant Jim Maloney, who left us way too soon a quarter-century ago, and talk some more about their dreaded matchup zone that baffled so many opponents. And my first thought when I heard the news was that I had at least had those final 15 minutes with him, even if was just over the phone. During our times I’ve spent days with him, weekends with him, even weeks with him. And it was all good. I had one of the best jobs at the Daily News. Or any paper. I got to write about John Chaney and Tiger Woods. Does it get any better. My boss Mike Rathet once told me I could never write enough about either of them, and he was right. It always made for good copy. And John at least was only too willing to cooperate. He was available just about 24/7, and not only for me. That was the way he went through his life. He was willing to share and try to help anyone who needed a piece of him. How can you thank someone for that?
So the 15 minutes isn’t what I’ll remember most. No way. There were too many great snapshots and memories along the way. Like the time he told me he was traveling Incognegro before an NCAA opener in Boise in 1998 when I asked him why he was dressed like Al Davis in sunglasses and a white sweat suit. You can’t make stuff like that up. And I have a million of them. At least. Or the time he went to a funeral for one of his players that never actually had a chance to suit up for him in 1997, Marvin Webster Jr. He had walking pneumonia. But he went anyway. Because he said you can tell someone you’re dead, but you can’t tell them you’re sick. Or the time he told longtime assistant Dean Demopoulos not to look him up in the dictionary because he wouldn’t find him there.
He gave a new definition to one of a kind. He was complicated, yet simplistic. He was old school. He was a lot of things, and not all of them were always good. He had warts. Like Goongate. But the good far outweighed the other. Even if some did think of him as the loud angry black man up on North Broad Street. And he could be that too. He understood his role. He grew up as a black kid in Florida when it wasn’t good to be growing up as a black kid in the South. But he made it. And he always wondered why he had. I remember I did a story on him once when we went to his old house in South Philly and he said he saw all the old men hanging on the corner and started crying because he knew that could have been him.
We know better. He was destined to be who and what he became. For all the right reasons. He made a difference. That’s what counts most. Basketball was simply his vehicle. He was an educator first and foremost. As Rick Brunson said, don’t listen to how he said something. Listen to the words. More often than not they usually made sense. And, as Eddie Jones said after his final game in 1994: “He taught me how to be a man. How can I ever repay him for that?”
Chaney left his mark. An indelible mark. There will never be another like him. And I was so lucky to be even a small part of that. What a ride. And I will always have that final 15 minutes. It will have to last me forever. I can’t thank him enough for taking the time. Then, and always. I feel like Eddie. How can I ever make sense of all that he gave to me. I can only hope I gave him something in return.
I will leave you with this story, which I’ve told before. In 1991, at the end of my first season covering him, Temple upset Purdue in an NCAA opener at Maryland. The next night, at 2 in the morning, I got a call in the hotel telling me that my dad was undergoing emergency surgery back home.
So I had to leave. The Owls won the next day without me, to advance to the Sweet 16 as a 10 seed. I was exhausted, but my dad was OK. I was sitting in my living room later that afternoon when the phone rang. This is coach Chaney, I’m calling to see how your pops is doing? I couldn’t believe it. Apparently he had noticed I wasn’t there and asked what had happened. I was blown away. He’d only known me a short time, and we were still getting to develop our relationship. So we talked for like 10 minutes, about both our pops, life, death and who knows what else. I know I had tears in my eyes. I’m sure he did too. That was who he was. And I don’t know if it was ever the same between us after that. We had a certain bond that was forever.
And in the end, he was able to give me 15 minutes more. The last 15. I will treasure that like I do all the ones that came before.