Chancellor in charge

Dan Wetzel

ATHENS, Greece – He's 60, grew up on a cotton farm in Mississippi and blurts out the craziest country sayings you ever heard in a uniquely Southern drawl that can't really, truly be called English.

It's not the pedigree you'd expect from the coach of the USA women's basketball team. But here is Van Chancellor, two games away from winning gold with a group of young, urban, hip players who love him to death.

"He's crazy," laughs captain Dawn Staley. "He told me the other day, he's been married to his wife 42 years. She's been happy 25 of them."

Chancellor doesn't take himself, or too much, too seriously – failing to get back on defense being a notable exception. Other than that, the WNBA Houston Comets coach usually is looking to have some fun.

That means playing a lot of cards; his favorite is Tonk, a knock rummy game popular down South. And telling jokes. And enjoying watching all these young women try to figure out this old man.

"I'll never think about [how] I am 60 years old and they are 22 or 25," he said Wednesday after the United States dusted Greece 102-72 to advance to the semifinals. "I just live. I just coach. I am a pretty easy guy off the court. Only when I lose to them in cards do I get in a bad mood.

"When we leave, me, Lisa (Leslie), Dawn (Staley) and Sheryl (Swoops) are going to get in the back of the bus and play cards. Now they don't have any trouble realizing I am the coach. They ain't going to be disrespectful.

"They may claim I am cheating, and I might be, but I ain't going to let them know it."

Chancellor's stories are twice as funny if you can hear him tell it.

"I just liiiiiive," he says. "I just cooooouuuch."

It is not uncommon at international press conferences for players to have to help out baffled translators who, after listening to Chancellor's answer, don't know where to begin.

"We need a Van-to-English translator," says USA Basketball's Caroline Williams.

Chancellor has managed to get his message through for a long time though. He started as a girl's high school coach in 1966 at Noxapater (Miss.) High School. He led Ole Miss to 14 NCAA appearances in 19 seasons. In 1997, the WNBA formed and Houston came a calling. His Comets won the league's first four titles.

The guy is an exceptional coach, which sometimes gets lost in the humor. Instinctively wary this spring that veteran Katie Smith's knee might not hold up through the Games, Chancellor gave extra practice time with the starters to rookie Diana Taurasi so that she might be ready, just in case.

Wednesday, with Smith out with that knee injury, Taurasi was comfortable and poised.

And he is plenty demanding. Unlike Larry Brown on the men's team, he has had no problem shortening his rotation, egos be damned.

"One thing we [will] not do is worry about who is unhappy as long as the coach is happy," he said. "And I'm happy."

"He's got a great balance between having a good time and being serious and getting to work," said Team USA guard Sue Bird. "Even on the court he can be funny at times. But he really knows when to do which."

Chancellor once applied for a men's college head coaching job, but now is thankful he got turned down.

"If I had gotten the job in 1985 I would have been fired in 1992," he laughed. "Or gone on NCAA [probation]. I am a women's basketball coach. And that is what I do."

He is the first man to ever coach the United States' women's Olympic team. It works because he knows women.

"I'll give you a case in point," he smiled. "Tomorrow after practice I have planned everything to allow them enough time to look really nice so they don't have to come over here [to watch the men's game] in their practice stuff.

"That's coaching women's basketball right there, son. In men, they wouldn't care. In women if you don't understand that, you're wrong."

The players know their coach too. Realizing that a happy coach makes for a happy practice, Swoops, Staley and Leslie – his card partners – decided to throw a game to get off easy.

"I won at cards yesterday and they cheated me. I said, 'Boy I am so happy, let's go to practice.' And when we got out later they told me they had cheated me.

"Can you believe it?"

The city women got one over on the ol' boy. Just this once though.

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