At some point, early in a career, no matter the career, we are asked to do something that pushes us out of our comfort zone. It’s then when we realize we’re either in or we’re out. We’re either on the right path or the wrong one.
Even the greatest salesmen had to make that first cold call, asking a stranger for money. Even the most accomplished surgeon had a day, early in med school, where opening a cadaver either deepened their commitment or made them change their minds. You like to sing? Hitting the high notes is a lot easier in your car than at an audition.
So it was for me on the morning of Dec. 13, 1986. I was a sophomore in college with a vague notion that I wanted to be a sportswriter someday. I’d covered some secondary beats at the campus newspaper at St. Bonaventure — men’s soccer, men’s and women’s swimming, baseball — and somehow had lucked into the gig as the Bona Venture’s sports editor that semester. But basketball was king in Olean.
Our regular writer was sick, so I got to fill in that day, first college basketball game I would ever cover. The visiting team that night was Temple, which was 6-1 (the only loss by two to mighty UNLV at Madison Square Garden), would go on to finish 32-4 (ranked as high as fifth) and was coached by a man who was already an almost mythic figure, John Chaney.
The Owls were holding a shootaround that morning, so I had to interview Chaney. And he already had a reputation for being irascible. This was long before he would threaten — quite literally — to murder John Calipari (with whom he later became tight friends). It was a few years before I would see him publicly berate a referee named Murph Shapiro with as withering a postgame rant as I’ve ever witnessed (“Fine me! Reprimand me! No good referee makes that call!!”)
Chaney would have been 54 at the time, looked every second of it. I always thought he actually looked like an owl, and years later, after I got to know him a little bit, I told him that and he laughed a throaty laugh and roared, “Why the hell do you think they call us the Owls? They named the damned mascot after me!” But that was later on.
In the moment, I was 19.
And I was scared out of my mind.
And John Chaney saw that. He clearly sensed that. He patted the chair next to him. The shootaround was still going on, and my mouth was dry and I started to wonder what in the world had ever made me think this was the way I could make a living, asking coaches with .800 winning percentages about the ins and outs of basketball.
And the thing is: In the years since, I’ve seen plenty of coaches and managers and players make that moment unbearably excruciating for young reporters. Sports, after all, is a kill-or-be-killed, survival-of-the-fittest deal. You ask the wrong question at the wrong moment, you’re going to get a face full of eff-you. Thirty years along, you laugh those moments off.
Thirty seconds in? It can destroy you.
“Don’t be nervous, son,” John Chaney said. “I don’t bite. I swear.”
And for the next 20 minutes, Chaney answered every question, even the idiotic ones. I wish I could tell you he offered some life-changing insights, but I don’t recall a word: I was in a nervous fog, and was just happy to remember to hit “record” on the tape recorder.
That night, a Temple player named Nate Blackwell hit a jumper, late, and the Owls staved off an upset attempt by the Bonnies, 68-66, and silenced a pretty rabid gym of 5,240 people, and afterward I couldn’t wait to take part in the postgame press conference, which was more crowded than usual. I waited my turn. Asked a question.
“Well, Mike …” Chaney began. Again, I don’t remember what came after that, mostly because I was catatonic with disbelief that he remembered my name. But I can assure you, there has never again been a moment when I wasn’t 100 percent sure I was capable of doing the job.
John Chaney — who died Friday at 89, who made the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002, who won 741 games in 34 years at Temple and Cheyney State, who won the 1978 Division II title and made five Division I regional finals, and influenced and inspired thousands of athletes and non-athletes alike — saw to that for me. Godspeed, Coach. And thanks.
Funny, there sure seem to be more and more folks taking note of the present standing in the Western Conference playoff picture of the Dallas Mavericks — whose 2021 first-round draft pick the Knicks have possession of.
There is a wonderful story in the present Sports Illustrated by L. Jon Wertheim paying tribute to the great Pete Axthelm, who passed away 30 years ago next week. Axthelm was a popular TV personality who was only about three decades ahead of his time understanding the marriage of sports and betting. Before that he was one of the greatest sports writers who ever lived, and all you need for proof is to read (as I have, 30 or so times) “The City Game.” It’s almost incidental that he’s also a Chaminade man (Class of ’61).
There is no more heartbreaking story in sports around here right now than the horrifying death in a car accident of Uniondale High’s electric sophomore basketball player Jo-Jo Wright, all-Long Island as a freshman last year. Godspeed to him, strength and peace to his family.
How long do you suppose Billy Martin would have lasted on Twitter?
Whack Back at Vac
Bryan Goldhammer: The NBA stinks. There are maybe six good teams. The other 26 are all easily beatable at any time. As bad as the Knicks are, they are in the middle of the NBA. The Knicks are not getting better but the NBA teams are sinking all around them.
Vac: Go, New York, go New York, go!
Bruce Welsch: Most everyone is clamoring for the J-E-T-S to do whatever it takes to get Deshaun Watson. Except me and a few others. With all the holes on the roster and what the Jets would have to give up for him, I don’t think it’s worth it. And the Texans with a better roster were 4-12 with him. What am I missing here?
Vac: I think it would be a blast to watch Deshaun Watson play every week around here. But I also think most Jets fans would prefer a team that’s 30 percent less easy on the eyes of parlaying all their assets turns them into a consistent playoff team for 5-7 years, and I do think that’s the choice on the table.
@richsloan: Hank Aaron hit No. 715 on my 10th birthday. I had 9 p.m. bedtime on school nights. Of course, Dad let me stay up for that one more at-bat. Very grateful for that memory.
@MikeVacc: And I’m grateful for the many, MANY of you who shared your memories of April 8, 1974. We talk about unity a lot these days. What’s more unifying than shared sports memories?
Robert Lewis: Now that the Yanks shop at Wal-Mart how much longer before they realize that Costco is cheaper? This is where the Mets used to go.
Vac: Wow. Talk about a tough room …