by Eric Dixon
Philadelphia, PA – August 23, 2021 – “All of this happened very quickly. It was at that point Chaney leaped to his feet and yelled “HE JUST WALKED”!! So the ref blew the whistle a split second later and called a traveling violation. I’m sitting there thinking my coach just complained about traveling ON HIS OWN TEAM!” recalled Mike Vreeswyk, the former Temple forward and 1995 Big 5 Hall of Fame inductee.
This was just one of the many anecdotes Vreeswyk shared with me over email and lunch near his Bucks County home. He compiled a collection of these memories initially shared as social media posts. Some were funny, while others were cautionary, but all were interesting and packed with the lessons he’d learned under legendary head coach, John Chaney, and his experience playing nine plus seasons overseas in locales from Belgium to Japan.
Through these stories Vreewyk paints an endearing portrait of Coach Chaney, the irascible, foul-mouthed, loving, caring, compassionate and dedicated “builder of men” who “saved lives by offering opportunities”. Chaney, as he did so many who played under him when he stalked the sidelines as head coach at Temple University (1982-2006), left an indelible impression on Vreeswyk, teaching him life lessons that he carried to places beyond his wildest dreams. In winning 741 games as a coach, Chaney did a great job preparing his players to win games. He probably did a better job preparing those young men to win at life.
Vreeswyk came from humble beginnings, enduring many familial hardships, including poverty that drove him to find solace and respite in the confines of the basketball court. It was his safe place after his parents divorced and his world began to crumble. This cauldron of instability and insecurity forged him into a hardworking, humble player with a healthy respect for the scarcity of opportunities and the need to capitalize on them. It would also lead him to an eventual appreciation for the man he came to love and respect. At first he avoided Chaney because he was put off and a bit fearful of his loud and often profane methods of verbal communication. However, as he said in a quote that was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in connection with Chaney’s induction into the Basketball Hall of fame, he began to be drawn to his wisdom.
“As a freshman I stayed away as much as possible because he was always arguing, fussing, and yelling at me about turnovers and defense. As a sophomore some of it started to sink in and I actually would drop by the basketball office in between some classes and occasionally in the summer. As a junior it hit me for the first time that my time in the presence of such knowledge is waning. The yelling didn’t matter anymore; I wanted to be around coach as much as possible. As a senior, pure fear set in as I spent seemingly every waking hour with him to soak up as much as I could, knowing it would end soon. And it wasn’t all basketball. Congratulations, coach Chaney, and thanks.” – Philadelphia Inquirer, 2001.
After some uncertainty as to where he would attend HS, the two-time Pennsylvania All-State honoree that broke the scoring records at Morrisville High School chose Temple from amongst 100 or so schools that vied for his services. What came next was a “shocking. . . slap in the face”. The 2000 point scorer who averaged 34 ppg his senior year would find himself nailed to Chaney’s bench his freshman season, which he finished with a poultry 1.5 ppg. “I just had to get better,” said Vreeswyk, who credited his teammates, especially Nate Blackwell, for helping him get through the difficult year.
The following year he would learn the first of the most important lessons he learned under Chaney: “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready”. Vreeswyk began his sophomore year in a familiar place, the bench. However, after a handful of games where the players in front of him were ineffective, Chaney gave him an opportunity to “earn his trust”. And “Threeswyk”, as he became known, seized it. “I worked hard and I knew I was ready”.
Another important lesson Chaney imparted to him was the importance of “Understanding one’s self. Know your strengths and weaknesses”. Another facet of that is learning how to thrive in difficult, uncomfortable situations. This lesson helped Vreeswyk endure two separate injuries he suffered in Europe in 1997. A torn meniscus and broken nose threatened to end his campaign but a willingness to endure a surgery he watched and an excruciating procedure to straighten his nose allowed him to continue to play.
A practical lesson he learned was the value of being punctual and prepared. However, Chaney was not satisfied with just making sure a player was responsible for his own punctuality and preparedness, he also insisted that he be responsible for his roommate as well. On one occasion Vreeswyk found himself darting through an airport concourse frantically in search of a tie because his roommate refused to take the dress code mandate seriously enough. Unfortunately his efforts were fruitless and his roommate travelled to an away contest in Charlotte, NC without the requisite tie and jacket Chaney insisted upon. The roommate was sent home the same day while Chaney chewed Vreeswyk out for not being able to properly assist his roommate.
“Be a good person,” he said, recounting one of the most important lessons he still carries today. Vreeswyk is active in his community and believes in giving back as often as possible. “I never turned anyone down when they ask me to speak at a camp or something” because Vreeswyk understands the impact he can have on people who have watched him over the years and he wants that impact to be a positive one.
Thanks for a wonderful article.