For decades Beulah Brokenborough lived in an old house in West Philadelphia, an angel of a woman surrounded by the blight and crime and desperation of a struggling neighborhood.
Born in 1924, she had 18 children and raised them all. When some of them fell on tough times, she took in their kids — her grandkids — and raised them too. She also saw to the children of friends and acquaintances who had likewise found drugs, despair or trouble. Then there were others, who all but wandered in seeking shelter or stability for the short haul or long.
When everything around them failed, Brokenborough held solid, a safety net in a place where safety was scarce.
“I have a big pot,” she said back then. “I just cook all day.”
They used to say Beulah Brokenborough raised 50 kids in West Philly. Maybe 60. Maybe it was more. Who could keep count? She did the best she could by being the best of us.
One of those children was her grandson, Rasheed. Beulah said she didn’t know much about basketball except that everyone said Rasheed was really good at it. She had noticed he was always dribbling a ball, weaving around her crowded house.
Rasheed was actually so good that he was going to go to college, which no member of the family had ever graduated from.
In the fall of 1994, his senior year at the then-struggling and now-shuttered University City High School, a parade of college basketball coaches were even scheduled to sit in Beulah’s humble living room and try to convince her that their school was best for Rasheed.
Kansas was coming. Pitt. Rhode Island. A bunch of local schools. Plenty more were trying to get a date. Beulah had no idea what to expect but she was 71 years old then and far too street smart to fall for much. She hadn’t been particularly impressed when some of the coaches called the phone in her kitchen, got her on the line and talked fast.
Then the first coach showed up: John Chaney of Temple.
He sat down and spent a couple of hours discussing everything but basketball. He promised he’d help Rasheed get a diploma, but only if Rasheed was determined enough to get it. He promised he’d give Rasheed fatherly guidance, but only if Rasheed was wise enough to listen. He promised he’d try to teach Rasheed how to be successful in life, but it was up to Rasheed to apply it.
He promised both nothing and everything all at the same time. He did it in the most comforting and comfortable way imaginable, a tough path of tough love for a tough kid from a tough background. Beulah had seen enough failure to know that this man spoke an unvarnished truth. No one ever said John Chaney wasn’t honest.
This here was an instantaneous connection between a Philly basketball coach and a Philly grandmother, each a legend in their own worlds, each trying to change lives, in their own way.
She told Rasheed he was going to Temple to play for Coach Chaney. Rasheed said it was just the first coach to visit, that they needed to hear more. Beulah told him to call all the others and tell them not to come. It was too late for one, who showed up anyway. They had to drag Beulah to the living room to meet him, but she would hardly even look at the guy. He left, quickly.
Rasheed didn’t play at Temple as a freshman. The NCAA said his SAT scores were too low (he needed 820 and got an 800). It said he wasn’t worthy of a scholarship. It labeled him a Prop 48, a bit of bureaucratic parlance that belied that the fact there was an actual teenager involved who was trying to beat all the odds America could lay against him.
John Chaney had spent years railing against Prop 48, which meant Temple couldn’t give Rasheed a scholarship or full academic help. The SAT, he argued, wasn’t designed for kids or situations like this. He said the NCAA shouldn’t make the road upward even steeper.
Chaney stood by his player, promising not to recruit someone else. Rasheed, in turn, stood up to the challenge. He enrolled as a regular student, using grants and financial aid to meet costs. He studied. And studied. He got eligible. He played the next three seasons, reaching three NCAA tournaments, including the Elite Eight as a senior. He scored over 1,000 points. He went onto a lengthy professional career overseas.
He also graduated, with a degree in social administration, in 1999. Everything John Chaney promised to offer, he took. And then some.
His grandmother, who passed away in 2002, beamed with pride.
“I want to tape that diploma on the side of a plane and fly it all over Philadelphia,” she said.
John Chaney’s legacy
John Chaney died Friday at age 89. He’ll be remembered for the 741 career victories, including over 500 at Temple, and the 17 NCAA tournament appearances, including five trips to the Elite Eight.
He’ll be remembered for the gruff demeanor and the willingness to stand up for his guys and for his pioneering run as a Black man in a coaching profession that sure didn’t seem to have much interest in Black men being head coaches.
He’ll even be remembered for the times he tried to strangle John Calipari.
That’s Chaney, though, a one-of-a-king character, a raspy-voiced activist, an emotional, complicated man who was unbending in his intensity and principles, on and off the court.
He was a coach who believed basketball was the simplest of games — don’t turn the ball over, don’t foul and take more shots than the other team. That was pretty much it. He so streamlined things that he would hold 6 a.m. practices to keep his players out of trouble by making them go to bed early, only to spend the time lecturing them about life, not actual hoops.
The results spoke for themselves. During two seasons in the late 1980s, Temple — Temple! — went 64-6. The Owls were cool too. In a sport that so often is centered on big Midwestern state schools located in the middle of cornfields or horse farms, Temple was undeniably, unapologetically urban.
Could he coach? Come on. The United States Basketball Writers Association once named him national coach of the year … two years in a row.
He was blue-collar in a profession where wearing Armanis had become popular. He feared no man, no situation. He loved tough schedules and real road games. He called out what he wanted to call out, whether it was right or wrong or popular. And yes, he occasionally got carried away, especially in encouraging a too-physical brand of ball.
That said, in his various dustups, he never held a grudge. He and Calipari famously clashed on multiple occasions only to host fundraisers together and become lifelong friends.
He was impossible not to respect; he went from junior high coach to high school coach to small-college coach to Hall of Fame legend. He was a grinder, a dreamer, a worker. He was given nothing. He turned it into a movement.
Even as he grew weak last fall, he reportedly spent his days canvassing Philly trying to register voters, ever pushing for a better future, even if he knew he wasn’t going to see it.
But for all the nationally televised games or Big Five classics or March Madness runs, maybe the greatest and truest sign of what John Chaney was about is back to all those living rooms like Beulah Brokenborough’s. All those rough-and-tumble situations where he connected through shared passion and purpose, showing an authenticity that wouldn’t tolerate phoniness.
He was college sports at its finest, giving rather than taking, lifting by pushing, promising nothing more than an opportunity, but then delivering on it, one recruit, one player, one overworked neighborhood mom at a time.
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