John Chaney remembered: Mike Kern reflects on 30 years of memories with the Temple basketball great
As Temple beat reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News, Mike Kern spent more time with John Chaney than anyone. Here, he looks back at how three decades with the legendary coach changed his life.
Isn’t it funny sometimes how things happen that are destined to change your life, forever, only you have no clue whatsoever at the time.
Thankfully, welcome to my world.
In 1990, I had been at the Philadelphia Daily News for eight years, the first six or so as the suburban high-school writer. I was coming off my first year covering colleges full time and I was the beat man for Villanova basketball. Not a bad gig. Rollie Massimino and the Big East and all. But then we lost our Eagles guy, and Kevin Mulligan was going to move from covering Temple to that. So my boss Mike Rathet, a great boss, called me in to tell me I was going to move from Nova to Temple. He said more stuff would happen at Temple. I wasn’t so sure. I looked at John Chaney, and wondered aloud if that was really for me. But Rathet was convinced. And my professional career was never the same in all the ways that he envisioned. Don’t you appreciate foresight?
Not that there was anything wrong with Nova as Jay Wright would later prove, when I was also covering him. Hey, I was a lucky reporter. What can I say? It’s all about the relationships. At it’s core journalism is a people business. And I had some great people to work with. Chaney is at the top of that list. Might not even be close. More things did indeed happen on North Broad. And I was there to chronicle it. The good, the bad and the whatever. It was a journey that would take Chaney to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2001. And well beyond. In the process I gained a friend. You couldn’t make it up. I had the best job at the paper. Maybe any paper. I covered John Chaney and later Tiger Woods. As Rathet told me, early and often, you can’t write enough of either. But especially John. And he once again was right. Trust me on this.
I was there for the Calipari game. I was there for GoonGate. I was there when he beat No. 1 Kansas, and No. 1 Cincinnati. I was there when he lost to Seton Hall as a two seed when he had perhaps his best chance to get to a Final Four. He did get to five Elite Eights, and I was there for the last four of them. They were some rides. So was the whole journey. You just never knew when something was going to happen. You just knew it would, someway somehow.
Like the time he said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made more money than the postmaster general. Or the time he told us he was traveling "incogNegro." And of course he was. Or the time he explained how he had defanged the fans at Dayton whom he had criticized for voting for George Bush in 2000. The words were barely out of his mouth when I knew I had my lead. Or the time he bellowed, “Who are these guys,” a line from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," after his underdog team had found a way to advance to another Sweet 16. You really had to be there.
Or the time he greeted me at the door of his hotel room wearing only a towel and showed me the Bruno Magli shoes he had bought and offered me some chicken that he was keeping warm in his coffee maker. Honest. Or the time he gave the coat off his back and a few others to his right-hand guy, director of basketball ops John Desangro, and told him to take them over to the Reading Market and give them to the homeless man he had just been talking to over there. Or the times he would answer the phone in his closet of an office in the basement of McGonigle Hall. Or invite you in to trade for his trademark expensive ties, the ones he had given you in the first place.
And to think I didn’t want to be part of that. What did I know? It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I really wish he had done a book with me. We almost did, several times. But he would always find a reason not to, and I had to respect that. If it was anything like the many "Daily News Live" Christmas Eve shows that he treated Philadelphians too it would have been a classic. And it still might be. Hey, you never know.
John passed away last week, one week after celebrating his 89th birthday. He celebrated it in the hospital. We spoke on the phone and he told me he was suffering from a blood clot in his leg. But I was told he made it home before he left us. It brought back a flood of memories. Indelible images. Like when he told me he would go back to his old home in South Philly and look at the men on the stoop or the corner and cry. Because that would have been him. He overcame the odds, after growing up in Florida when it wasn’t a good time for a black boy to be growing up in the South. And after he’d made it, he spent most of his life trying to lift up others who needed lifting. In many ways it was truly that simple, even though it sure seemed complicated. He could be that kind of a soul.
I usually would talk to John about two or three times a year. Always at his birthday. But this year I had forgotten. Until somebody tweeted him a happy birthday wish. I immediately gave him a call. And he immediately answered, which wasn’t always the case. I told him it was "The Midget," his affectionate nickname for me. And we caught up, for like 15 minutes. I always worried about him, but he sounded relatively good for a man his age who suffered with diabetes (as I do). Anyway, the way we left it was that me and Dick Jerardi ("The Digit") would come visit him when all this pandemic stuff was finally over. Maybe bring him some food from his favorite Chinese restaurant. And we would share stories as only he could. And it would be good.
But we’ll never get to do that. It’s OK, because at least I had those final 15 minutes. Just as I had so many 15 minutes and days and weeks with him in the past. It’s such a big part of my life. And I can never thank him enough for the opportunity. He opened himself up, and the glimpses I got were inspirational, enlightening, even confounding. Yet never did they get boring. And never did I not look forward to them.
I received a lot of texts in the past few days from a lot of good people offering me their condolences. And I heartily was touched by them all. They said they were sorry for my loss. And to each one I replied back: It’s everyone’s loss. He was that kind of treasure. There will never be another quite like him, in so many ways. And Philly, he was all ours. Embrace that, and his memory. I know I will. Until the time I get to see him again.