Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Tony Chennault was in his dorm room at Villanova University when he took the call that turned his world upside down.
His life, already packed with as many changes as he could handle, didn’t need any more upheaval. Just a few weeks earlier, he had made the decision to transfer from Wake Forest University, where he had made himself a comfortable niche over the past two years, to return to his hometown and be closer to his ailing mother.
This was supposed to be a special offseason. Chennault was supposed to be settling into his new reality, preparing to script a new chapter to a basketball career that started in Philadelphia, and maybe never should have left. But sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.
After receiving word on the last day of May that his brother, Mike Jay, had been killed in a shooting, Chennault’s life went up in smoke. In the blink of an eye, a senseless act of violence transformed all the excitement of a new beginning, the anticipation of a fresh start, into an unending nightmare. The sleepless nights, anger, and unimaginable grief would have been too much for anyone to handle. For Chennault, who had dealt with so much already, it felt like he had lost everything.
After a time, he realized he hadn’t. There was still basketball, which for the last decade or so had often felt like a last refuge, the hardwood the only place he could be free. Getting back to it, a process the NCAA mercifully hastened by granting Chennault a hardship waiver to make him eligible to play this season, turned his life around. What he lost in blood, he found in basketball. And even though his brother is gone forever, Chennault found he had one of a different sort right there all along.
Tyreek Duren has known Chennault since the sixth grade. The two became fast friends, bonded by their similar backgrounds and, of course, a love of basketball. The pair was inseparable, first playing on the same AAU team, and later becoming classmates at Neumann-Goretti High School, where they led the Saints to a PIAA Class AAA state title in 2010. Their friendship flourished long before they hoisted the championship trophy together, and continues long after they went their separate ways, Duren staying home to play point guard for La Salle and Chennault moving 500 miles away to Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“We got even closer then, because we wound up playing with each other and winning a championship together,” Chennault told CoBL about their time together at the South Philadelphia Catholic League powerhouse. “We have a great friendship.”
“He’s one of my best friends,” Duren said. “He’s like a brother to me. He showed me how to work hard when I was at Neumann. He made me look at basketball in a different way, from being around him, seeing how hard he works. Out of any people I’ve ever met I think he’s one of the hardest-working people that I know when it comes to basketball.”
As close as they were off the court, Duren and Chennault were by no means similar players on it. Chennault was the emotional leader, the fiery competitor who became one of the best in school history despite plenty of athletic limitations. Duren, conversely, was the picture of calm, the ice to Chennault’s fire. Together on the court, they were the perfect match.
“Our program was good and these guys really took it to another level,” said Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale, who has spent the last 14 years at the helm of one of Philadelphia’s most storied high-school programs. “…They got us to No. 2 in the country ranking and all that stuff, and all the fanfare that came along with it, but with that they did it the right way. They did a great job; they did everything that they needed to do in school and in the building.
“They were both great leaders and well-respected by their teammates but they couldn’t be more different. Tony was the more fiery guy, Tyreek was the more quiet assassin. Tony’s just a guy that played hard, really wanted to win. He was a great leader, unselfish; he scored 1,600 points here and without a dynamic game, wasn’t a great athlete or a great shooter, he just was a great player overall, tenacious defender, guy that mixes it up, gets loose balls and bottom line he was just a great kid, polite kid. He never gave us a hard time, was always there doing the right thing in the building at school and I never had to worry about somebody telling me ‘Tony Chennault did this or that.’
Tyreek, you wouldn’t know if we were up 100 or down 100 by the expression on his face, whether we were up two or in the last minute of a game, he just totally was under control, his emotions were always in check. Everybody looked at him with an unbelievable calm came across our whole team basically because of the way he carried himself. And those two guys were the guys with the ball the entire time, so the fact that they were both great competitors and both did it a different way, they complemented each other really a lot.”
When Duren heard the news that Chennault was coming home, he was as excited as anyone.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Duren thought at the time. “I always keep tabs on all my guys from Neumann to see how they’re doing. I think it’s great that he’s coming back, so I can catch up with him and see how he’s doing.”
When he found out, on that last day of May, that Chennault’s brother had been killed, Duren thought it best to keep his distance. His heart broke for his friend, but like his days at Neumann, Duren wanted to be a quiet presence, to be there for Chennault without forcing him to dredge up the pain.
“I didn’t really want to talk to him right after it happened, but I sent him a text giving him my condolences,” Duren said. “Then I talked to him a week later, like a day after the funeral, just to see how he’s making out. He’s a real humble kid, he didn’t really let it get to him…he never really shows his emotions on the outside.”
“He texted me a lot, and he called me with his condolences for me and my family, just making sure I was alright,” Chennault said.
On the inside, the tragedy was killing Chennault. The pain will never fully leave him, but he knew he had to find an outlet for the gamut of emotion threatening to swallow him. He found it three weeks after his brother’s death, when the NCAA granted him a waiver to forego the standard one-year waiting period for transfers. Chennault was eligible to play this season, his fresh start fast-tracked at the most opportune of times. The healing, then, could finally begin.
“It’s a blessing,” Chennault told CoBL in June, just after he learned of the decision. “I’m getting back to where I belong.
“I felt like it was a good opportunity, but you never know. Things don’t always go how you like it, but fortunately I got it, and God bless for that.”
For Chennault, the waiver was much more than a chance to play a year earlier than he expected. It was also an opportunity to honor his brother, to pay homage to his memory by doing what he knows Mike Jay would have wanted him to.
“He got through it strong,” Duren said. “I think them allowing him to play helped him get that off his head. He knows his brother would have wanted him to keep his head on straight. Him being able to play right away, that helped him out a lot.”
The NCAA’s decision had another consequence, one that might have gone unnoticed initially, but now is all either can think about. For the first time in three years, Chennault and Duren are set to be on the same court together. This time, however, it will be against each other, an unfamiliar feeling for the pair that spent most of their careers on the same side.
For some, like Arrigale and his staff at Neumann-Goretti, Sunday’s Big Five battle at Tom Gola Arena is a no-win prospect, or a win-win, depending on how you look at it. One of his former charges will be victorious, while the other will suffer defeat at the hands of one of his closest friends. Stuck in a precarious position, Arrigale just hopes to see both play like he knows they can, like he witnessed time and time again in a high-school gym years ago.
“It’s hard,” Arrigale told CoBL. “You don’t root for a winner. You hope they both do well, and you hope it’s a good game and a good finish. So it’s hard, because anybody that sees me, it’s always, ‘who are you rooting for today?’ and I honestly say I hope they both score 20 and have no turnovers and both have 10 assists. If the game could end in a tie that would be great, but it’s not possible.
“It’s actually hard watching them because I live and die every play. I don’t watch their games like I watch other games. When I watch other games I have a tendency to focus on the whole thing and when I watch my ex-players play I have a tendency to watch them and not pay attention to the rest of the game. I’ll be living and dying with every dribble and every pass that they make and every shot that they take.”
“Those guys,” he finished, “both meant the world to our program.”
For Chennault, who had scarcely set foot outside the city until he started his collegiate career a world away, Sunday’s Big Five battle means everything. He grew up with the intra-city rivalry, reveled in the pageantry and passion the City of Brotherly Love put on for its constituents. After a brief sojourn, he’s a part of it for the first time, ready for his name to join one of college basketball’s most storied histories.
And what better way to begin his Big Five career than with a win over the Explorers, and the close friend he’d love nothing more than to beat?
“It’s more of bragging rights,” Chennault said. “It’s the Big Five. When we see each other in the summer and play pickup games, you want to have those bragging rights and you want to play the right way for Villanova. We want to beat La Salle on Sunday.”
When Chennault and Duren hit the Gola Arena floor on Sunday, dressed in different uniforms but carrying the same friendship, it won’t be like it was in high school. The fierce rivalry, and three letters written on Chennault’s shoes- JAB, his brother’s nickname- will be strong reminders of how much things have changed. But that doesn’t mean it won’t feel like it, if only for a second. The duo accomplished so much together on shared floors, reached such heights to which it would only be natural to want to return.
“The guys that was at Neumann with me, we still talk about high school every time we get on the phone together, how you wish you could go back to those days,” Duren said. “That was the funnest days of our life.”
Still, Chennault knows there’s no room for friendship or nostalgia in the biggest game of the season to date for the Wildcats (3-2), who have dropped back-to-back games. With a road trip to Vanderbilt and a clash with Temple looming, Chennault’s squad needs a win in the worst way, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. Afterwards, they’ll have all the time in the world to be friends.
“We don’t try to talk about the game,” Chennault told CoBL. “I know we’re going to try to compete. When we’re on the court, it’s not friends; we’re trying to take each other’s heads off. That’s the respect we have for each other. But off the court, we’re going to be the best of friends.
“…Our relationship is bigger than basketball.”