Tony Chennault needed to be home
Villanova guard shows good -- and complicated -- side of hardship waiver
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Two years ago, it all made so much sense. Tony Chennault would transfer from Wake Forest to Villanova, to a campus miles from the Olney section of Philadelphia he called home.
He'd be closer to his mother, Crystal Morton, whose health was failing. He'd be able to see her, watch movies with her, and simply be with her. It was the least he could do for the woman who never asked for much, who never complained about her own hardships but instead used her life lessons to teach her own boys.
He'd also be able to help his brother, Michael Jay, shoulder a burden he'd carried for as long as Chennault could remember. Jay is Chennault's stepbrother, but really he is the father Chennault never knew. It was Jay who took Chennault to the renowned street ball games at 16th and Susquehanna and the Hank Gathers Rec Center, the one who guided Chennault through his decisions, big and small, the one who took care of the family.
And Chennault would still play basketball, sliding from the Winston-Salem campus to Philadelphia's Main Line without missing a beat thanks to a transfer waiver from the NCAA.
It all made so much sense then.
Now? Now, like the whole muddied hardship waiver process, it's complicated. Chennault is glad he is home but the reasons he came home are gone. Michael Jay was killed in May 2012, shot in the back of the head in what appears to be a horrific example of senseless violence.
In August, Crystal Morton died of a heart attack.
And in between, Chennault struggled on the basketball court for the first time that he could remember.
"Sometimes the hardest part is what I came back for is missing now,'' Chennault said. "I mean, two of the most influential people in my life aren't here anymore. Sometimes it makes you wonder why."
In the immediate assessment, Chennault's story is an example of how and why hardship waivers should be granted -- to allow an athlete to be home with a family that needs him.
But life is neither linear nor simple, and Chennault's return home has not been uncomplicated.
Yes, the NCAA's approval allowed Chennault to return to Philadelphia but the chance to play immediately brought with it its own pressures. Chennault struggled trying to cope with everything -- Michael Jay's death, his mother's illness, a new basketball system, coach and teammates, and the expectations of being the hometown hero.
He struggled so much, in fact, that in April he announced he was planning to leave Villanova before changing his mind yet again a month later.
"I was just at a crossroads,'' Chennault said. "There comes a point in your life, you just gotta man up."
Chennault's story really, then, is the essence of the hardship waiver debate currently sweeping through college athletics.
The NCAA has put itself in the uncomfortable position of comparing one person's hardship to another, doling out relief and assistance like some sort of moral fairy godmother.
Why, for example, was it OK for Chennault to play immediately to be near to his mother, but Nkereuwem "Kerwin" Okoro, whose New York-based brother and father died in the span of two months, was denied the same opportunity when he wanted to transfer from Iowa State to Rutgers?
The inconsistencies are everywhere. Rakeem Buckles, who sat out last season at Florida International, was denied his request to play immediately at Minnesota with his old coach, Richard Pitino even though FIU was facing a postseason ban due to academic failings. But Malik Smith, who went from FIU to Minnesota, was told yes.
Except the problem might not be the decisions so much as the questions being asked. Instead of weighing who deserves a break and who doesn't, perhaps the NCAA should be deciding who really benefits when the hardship is real and not just a convenient excuse to transfer?
"If you're really going home for a family's problem, then do you need to play?'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We benefitted from Tony's misfortune, but if Tony didn't get to play right away, he would have been fine. I worry if people are abusing it."
Even after an entire year, Wright still struggles with his role in bringing Chennault home. He knows that, unlike some less altruistic attempts, his reasons were real and that the waiver worked in Chennault's case.
There is a point to and a need for a kinder, more compassionate NCAA. If a crisis happens, an athlete ought to be able to go home and help, to find a new landing place that is closer to his family. And there shouldn't be a punishment and to an athlete, lingering on the bench for a year can feel like a punishment.
Yet the coach can't help but feel a little uneasy about the part where Chennault played immediately. Villanova was short on experienced guards after Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek elected to leave college early. Chennault had two years' worth of playing time in the ACC, a huge boost for a very young Villanova team still stinging from recent NCAA failures.
If you're really going home for a family's problem, then do you need to play? We benefitted from Tony's misfortune, but if Tony didn't get to play right away, he would have been fine. I worry if people are abusing it." -- Villanova coach Jay Wright
Frankly, Chennault may have been hurt by his immediate eligibility. He played well for Villanova but his numbers were down significantly from his previous year at Wake Forest -- 3.6 points per game compared to 9.0 with the Demon Deacons, 1.5 assists to 2.8 and toughest of all, 18.5 minutes to 30.2 with zero starts compared to 31 at Wake.
Chennault blames himself for all of it, believes he lost his way and worried too much about outsiders' expectations rather than his coach's.
His older brother isn't so sure that's all it was. Sean Chennault played two years at Cerritos College, a junior college in California, before transferring to Waldorf College, an NAIA school in Iowa.
He cautioned Chennault that transferring would be akin to starting over, to reliving his freshman year.
"Playing immediately? I didn't think it was good. Personally I think he should have sat out,'' Sean said. "He wasn't ready mentally to come back. He rushed coming back. ''
Hell-bent on playing a year ago, Chennault doesn't entirely disagree with his brother's opinions now.
"I was nervous about getting the waiver at the time but playing immediately, I kind of struggled with the concepts,'' he said. "I don't think I really had everything down until the end of the season. If I sat out, it might have been easier.''
Here's the catch.
Chennault is happy he was home this past year and knows the dangling carrot of immediate playing time made the decision all the easier, even if the actual playing was hard.
Because if he wasn't here, what then?
Villanova officially announced Chennault's arrival on June 1, 2012.
One day earlier, his brother was killed.
A newspaper account of the murder ends simply, "Police have no motives or arrests.''
"Wrong place, wrong time. It happens a lot,'' Chennault said. "You hear it all the time. It's just different when it's someone you love.''
Michael Jay was the family rock. He lived at home and cared for his mother, got a good job in insurance to support everyone while his younger brothers, Tony and Sean, went away to college.
Now it was Chennault's turn. He spent most of his first season at Villanova trekking between his campus home and his mother's home, visiting with her whenever he could.
"I know his mom really struggled with his brother's death,'' Wright said. "Having Tony there, I think helped her so much.''
Chennault's decision was made all the more crystal clear and poignant this summer when Morton passed away.
Had he not transferred, he might have been in North Carolina already. Instead he was home that night, with her when she died.
"She was warm and loving and she was always honest with me, no matter what,'' Chennault said. "She was always there for me. She never left me. I know a lot of people who can't say that about their mothers. I'm glad I was here for her.'
Now they are a family of two, Tony and Sean. The brothers only two years apart, the ones who wound up quitting more pickup games in a fight than finishing them in peace, have only each other.
And so they are grateful, relieved that Chennault is in Philadelphia, that Sean can watch him play.
In a sense, then, the NCAA's decision to grant Chennault a hardship waiver has worked. It worked for him and his family.
And in basketball terms, it worked for Villanova.
Chennault helped the Wildcats get back to the NCAA tournament, even if he struggled himself at times.
Which is exactly what makes hardship waivers a good idea.
And what makes them so complicated.
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