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  • Reverend James Squire

Sports Is The Game Of Lovers

January 26 was the anniversary of the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, a budding basketball player who was coached by her dad. Kobe’s high school was 10 minutes from where my family lived on the campus of the Episcopal Academy. Kobe was highly regarded, and no one doubted that he would be a player in professional basketball. What no one would knew then was that he would become one of the greatest of all time. I knew that our students would talk about him, but I can never remember seeing him play. We had a “one for the ages” basketball team ourselves at our school that included Gerald Henderson and Wayne Ellington who went on to Duke and North Carolina respectively, and then to the pros. Wayne received the Most Valuable Player Award when his team won the national championship. Our team was highly ranked in the nation. These were heady basketball times.

Our school shared many connections to Big Five Basketball at the time. Bruiser Flint, an alumnus, was the coach at Drexel. Dan Leibovitz, an alumnus, was the Assistant Coach at Temple. EA parents Jay Wright was at Villanova and Fran Dunphy was at Temple, and Phil Martelli was at the Jesuit school, St. Joseph’s University, right across the street from us.

However, today I want to write more about another legend, John Chaney, who died yesterday, January 29 at the age of 89. Chaney is one of the most highly regarded coaches in basketball and earned the right to be called a legend. Chaney is known for what he did on the court but there is much more to his legendary status because of who he was.

Chaney was “old school”. He believed in virtues that some of our modern college athletes and coaches have forgotten. If you look at his entire life in basketball, there is an underlying theme that what he enjoyed most in life was lifting up those athletes who were in need. He had little time for spoiled players who did not put the importance of the team first and wanted to be pampered. There was a story in the press that if you were late to one of his practices between 5 and 8 AM, you would spend the entire practice running. My favorite story about him is not found in any publication for it was told to me by our legendary basketball coach at our school, Dan Dougherty. All of these local coaches knew one another well.

As the story goes as it was told to me, one of Chaney’s heavily recruited players came to him on an early December day and said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue play for Temple anymore. He wanted to skip the Christmas tournaments to think about it again. The athlete called Chaney later on in December before Christmas and indicated that he decided to come back to play at Temple. Chaney reportedly said, “I’m busy doing my Christmas shopping. Call me later.” He never played for Temple again.

Dan Leibovitz knows something about basketball. Dan is now the Associate Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Remember my earlier post on Occam’s razor that the simple approach will be the best. Here is another example. Dan talked about innovations in basketball. Princeton gets the award for the most innovative offense. Temple gets the award for the most innovative defense under Chaney. Dan said that Chaney was a genius. “People think of the complexity of the zone. But in basketball his genius was simplicity. We were great because of the simple things and they were non-negotiable. They were the same from the first practice to the last game.”

Each one of the coaches that I have named in this post have one thing in common. They didn’t coach basketball first. They first coached a player to be a better human being. The development of the character of their players was primary. Basketball was secondary. I have many stories about them, but I want to focus on Phil Martelli who was fired in 2019 after 24 years as coach of the St. Joseph University’s Basketball Team. He was fired after “an extensive long-term view of the success of the team.” That translates to the issue that he wasn’t winning recently. He had taken the team to 7 NCAA Tournaments. People at the college were shocked. Basketball communities across the nation were shocked as well. Coach K at Duke was the first to call Phil. The accolades poured in from all over the country to this one-time Coach of the Year. He was 65 when he was fired and is now the Assistant Coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

Martelli said that “I lost my way of life when I lost my job because it never was a job.” He was the kind of guy “who would play you as hard as he could play in a game of one on one. He is also the kind of guy that would give you the shirt off his back.”

The 2003-2004 basketball season was one for the record books. During week 16 his team was ranked #1 in the nation. His team made it to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament. This was heady stuff for this small Roman Catholic College. It was big news in Philly. He was hounded with requests for interviews. I had a strong relationship with the Jesuit Community that founded the school and were still part of the Administration and Faculty. This season was a David and Goliath story.

I don’t remember which important game it was. It was probably a game related to the NCAA Tournament. I called Phil and left a message of congratulations after a game. I received a call early the next morning from Coach Martelli who had just arrived at the Philadelphia Airport with his team. He called to thank me for the call and asked if he could do anything for me. I indicated, “If you can find time in your schedule, could you come and talk to our faculty and kids in chapel about character. I will never forget his response. “What time is Chapel?” I told him. I will be stop there on the way back from the airport. He had not been asleep at all during that night.

He talked to our school gathering in chapel about how what you do now will affect the rest of your life whether it is sports or in your daily life. Make ethical choices now so that you can live an ethical life later. I could bring the Archbishop of Canterbury in which I have done. He would not get the rousing standing ovation that Martelli got as I told the community he came to speak to them right from the airport.

Nelson Mandala said, “Sports have the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope, where there was once despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sports is the game of lovers.” People are fooled that sports is just about a player dribbling a ball or a coach teaching his team in a huddle. Phil Martelli, John Chaney, Kobe Bryant, and other players and coaches prove it is so much more.

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