There are certain stories that simply need to be told. I am sharing this one because it captures the essence of a unique Hall of Fame coach. I am not sharing it to take anything away from a great Xavier team or their best player, David West, or Coach Thad Matta. Enough time has passed, this is not intended to stir the pot. Nothing but respect here, I am not trying to start a battle on social media.
On Saturday, March 8, 2003, a Temple team starting three freshmen and holding a 9-6 record in Atlantic 10 play played its final regular season contest at Xavier. It was senior day for All-American and future NBA All-Star David West and the 11th ranked Musketeers, a team also featuring Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers, both of whom would be selected in the 2004 NBA draft. Xavier had lost its first A10 game to Richmond (coached by John Beilein) on January 7, and had proceeded to win every game since. The Musketeers were 14-1 in conference play entering the Temple game and 23-4 overall. Temple was walking into a buzzsaw in every sense of the word. David West’s jersey would go into the rafters and we were cannon fodder, as Coach would say.
In 2003, I was 30 years old. I had the good fortune to be seated next to Hall of Fame coach John Chaney that day as his assistant coach. For ten years I served Coach Chaney to the best of my ability. People ask me all the time, ‘what was it like?’ ‘what did you learn?’ ‘why was he different?’ I could write a book to try to answer those questions, and someday I actually might. Here are a few quick responses.
“You win with people.” Coach Chaney always made time for anyone and everyone. Any person in North Philly could walk into our office and find themselves seated on the couch of a Hall of Famer’s office for hours on end. Often the unannounced visitors would leave with fresh groceries that Coach had purchased at the the Italian market. Others would leave with a bottle of red wine, perhaps manufactured by Coach’s longtime childhood friend, Dr. Pinnie or the father of fellow staff member John DiSangro. If you were really lucky you came to the office when Coach brought ribs from the VFW or a bushel of crabs he had a manager go pick up from Baltimore. These discussions would inevitably become teaching sessions. Nobody could leave the Temple basketball office without understanding the game of basketball according to Coach Chaney; high school coaches, middle school coaches, faculty, writers, pastors, police officers, you name it – if you came to talk to Coach, you might end up in the team film session hearing about why this turnover was the fault of the passer, not the receiver.
“We were just different.” Five Elite Eights, hundreds of victories, massive victories over ranked “bigger” schools on the road or on a neutral floor – and never a written scouting report. As a matter of fact, the top assistant gave every scouting report for the whole season. Playing zone 100% of the time made this easier – 1) who can shoot, 2) who is a driver, 3) what are their zone offensive schemes, 4) do they do anything out of the ordinary on defense? Coach’s great Temple teams epitomized “It’s about what we do.” Temple never played a “guarantee game” with John Chaney on the sideline. Every non-conference game was scheduled to make us better and impress the committee, not some, all. Game day shootarounds – Coach would attend on the road, but only rarely at home. 5:30 am practices. Collected cell phones before games before anyone collected cell phones before games. Talk a recruit out of coming so he knows how hard it is going to be. I could go on and on.
In the interest of not turning this article into a book, I will skip some and highlight the attribute that fits this particular Xavier game.
“Coach could just see things before they happened.” Coach Chaney would proudly say, “I didn’t learn about this game by reading about it in some book. I learned by doing.” A great player at Ben Franklin HS, Bethune Cookman (at a time when racial barriers made major college basketball more unrealistic), a player-coach in the Eastern Pro League, a Phys Ed teacher, the head coach at Sayre Junior High, Simon Gratz High, Cheyney University (where he would win a Div. II National Championship) and finally, at age 50, the head coach at Temple. Coach was right, he had a wisdom built through life experiences that allowed him to just see more than anyone because he had seen more. He was like the old man playing chess in the park, who just played and played until he could beat anyone. During the final timeout of a national championship game at Cheyney he was once famously warned his point guard, “Don’t spin again. They are setting you up. They are going to turn you and take the ball away.” It happened. Fellow staff members and former Temple greats Nate Blackwell and Mark Macon both talked about this endlessly; Coach’s ability to forecast where the game was going and be right. Many coaches have a feel for the game, Coach literally had his fingers on the pulse of a game in a way that others simply could not.
All of this brings me to this Xavier game, televised regionally on ABC, where the whole country knew that Temple had come to pick up its final regular season loss in what had been a subpar season by John Chaney standards.
There are moments in your life when you witness greatness. Sometimes you can’t even describe it. Believe it or not, a blowout loss was one of those times for me. It’s when a light goes on in your head and it tells you – ‘that’s why this guy is a Hall of Famer.’
I don’t remember all that much about the first half of this game. I do remember thinking to myself, ‘David West is just ridiculous. We just have nobody on our team remotely like him.’ Believe it or not, we went into halftime down just 6, 40-34. The amazing point in this game came with about 8 minutes to play and Temple down about 16 or 17.
Coach Chaney called a timeout and emptied the bench at a point when Xavier was rolling, with their best players on the floor. I will never forget what he told the team on the floor, comprised of other freshmen, walk-ons and deep reserves. “You can do whatever you want on offense, but at soon as they cross half court with the ball – I want you to foul.” A bewildered team looked to the assistant coaches for clarification, as is the norm under a set of circumstances like this, we all shrugged and said, “Just do what Coach told you to do.”
I remember a few of these guys actually making big shots, although few and far between. The 16 or 17 point lead was growing. Temple committed a season high 25 fouls. Xavier kept marching to the line (they shot 32 free throws altogether). The clock kept stopping. The crowd kept moaning. I remember ABC’s play-by-play announcer David Sims throwing his arms up at our bench as if to say “what are you doing??”
With about a 27-point deficit and what felt like the eyes of the world on me as the person seated next to Coach, I began to wonder if I should say something to stop the bleeding. Finally, with about one minute to play, I mustered up the nerve to ask Coach in a very passive and respectful way, “Coach, do you think we should stop fouling?” Again, I will never forget what Coach said.
“I know what I’m doing. I’m setting the stage for the tournament. We’re going to play this team again and next time I plan to beat them. I want them to think it will be easy.” Those were his exact words.
Coach was fully aware that win or lose, we would be the 2 seed in the Eastern Division the following week at the A10 Tournament in Dayton. He was also fully aware that Xavier, who had clinched the top seed in the West weeks ago, would be our second round opponent. So we lose the game 96-65. Xavier is elated, Temple is a bit confused and dejected, but also refocused (we had won our last 6 games) and maybe even a bit rested. To further set the stage, Coach says in the press conference, “This is the best team we’ve ever had in the Atlantic 10. This team is much better [than the Camby-led, Final 4) UMass team of 1995-96. They’ve got all the ingredients.”
Wednesday, March 12, 2003 – Atlantic 10 awards banquet.
Xavier deservedly brings home the hardware after the season. Sato and West are first team All-Conference, with David West beating Jameer Nelson out for Player of the Year. No real drama, no big surprise. Until, David West accepts the award and in no uncertain terms announces to every team and every coaching staff, something like, “All of you are here to compete for second place.” He was good enough to make a statement like that. I sort of got it, but if you want to motivate a couple kids from North Philly and Washington, D.C. – tell them they have no chance. You could hear the chatter on the ride back to the hotel that night. I remember freshman Mardy Collins, and his normally laid-back personality talking in a whole new tone.
First we have to beat Richmond. When you play zone for 40 minutes, you don’t really want to play against John Belein. That particular team had shooters (Mike Skrocki, Jeff Myers and Pat O’Malley were best), and two guys who beat you in other ways (Jamaal Scott and Tony Dobbins). I remember we played our 1-1-3 defense for 40 minutes, and it worked. We won 66-52 on Thursday, and we get our shot at Xavier.
Xavier. We had a full house, as is the tradition at Dayton Arena, but this time around the locals were behind the Temple Owls, who could knock off the rival Musketeers. This would make Dayton’s path easier and Xavier’s life miserable – an easy sell. Thousands of red-shirted fans would chant “Let’s Go Temple” during the pregame introductions and throughout the game. Temple, coming off a 31-point loss exactly a week ago and roughly 50 miles away, would hold the team who had scored 96 to only 57 points and win 63-57. David West, surrounded in the heart of our zone would score 12 points. My visual for the game was a young, skinny Mardy Collins shooting a dagger over David West after he switched out on a pick and roll, then talking trash to him. It was like standing up to the bully in the playground, but knowing the teachers were nearby. Mardy knew he would never play against David West again, in college any way.
There is no Cinderella ending to this story. The same young Temple team would have to beat Dayton, and the same fans that rooted for them against Xavier to make it to the NCAA Tournament. The Flyers, the 2 seed in the West and 23-5 entering the final, would prevail 79-72. Even in defeat, it was as proud as I have ever been of a team.
Takeaways. Would anyone do something like this today? I have my doubts, but as I stated before, Coach Chaney was just different. He didn’t care what his administration thought about this kind of loss, he didn’t care what the fans in the arena or on TV thought. Psyche of the team? They’ll be fine. Embarrassed? He didn’t know what that meant. Coach had a plan and he had the foresight to see that there was tremendous value in the second game against Xavier, not the first. Did the players even realize what Coach was doing? Junior David Hawkins, after the second Xavier game said, “We were at rock bottom and knew it couldn’t get any worse. We started getting on the same page and played the way coach wanted us to play. Now we’re playing John Chaney basketball.”
There are moments in your life when you witness greatness.
John Chaney, Hall of Famer.
Thanks for the memory.