Men's Basketball

Family first: Hardships brought Chennault back to Philadelphia, haven’t escaped him since

Courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer

Villanova guard Tony Chennault transferred from Wake Forest in the offseason to be closer to his sick mother. Just months after making his decision, his brother was shot and killed.

When Tony Chennault was being recruited out of Ss. Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia, Wake Forest and Villanova topped his list of potential schools.

Chennault grew up in the Philadelphia area and knew a lot about the Villanova program. While that made the school an attractive choice, he wanted to experience something else.

“I knew a lot about the tradition at Villanova, but I wanted a different scenery than Philadelphia,” Chennault said. “In the end I just wanted to see something different and that led me to Wake.”

Chennault decided to leave Philadelphia for Winston-Salem, N.C., to join Wake Forest. He played sparingly his freshman season before seeing more time on the court as a sophomore. Chennault’s collegiate basketball career was going as he envisioned it. The whole time, though, his mother had an ailment that Chennault thought about frequently. It ended up pulling him back to Philadelphia and to Villanova so he could be with his family. Shortly after, though, tragedy struck and Chennault’s life was altered forever.

During his freshman season at Wake Forest two years ago, Chennault played 17.5 minutes a game, averaging 4.5 points and 1.9 assists off of the bench. As a sophomore, he took on a bigger role and started in all 31 of Wake Forest’s games. As the Demon Deacons’ point guard, he played 30.2 minutes a game and averaged 9 points with 2.8 assists.

Just as Chennault was coming into his own at Wake Forest, he faced a difficult decision. When Syracuse travels to Philadelphia Saturday to take on Villanova, Chennault will be suiting up for the team he passed on three years ago. Once in need of a change in scenery, Chennault now finds himself back on Villanova’s bench under circumstances he could have never imagined.

“It was very difficult leaving Wake Forest,” Chennault said. “I made a lot of great relationships with students and coaches there, but I wanted to be closer to home.

Chennault’s mother, Crystal Morton, struggles with respiratory problems, and while he was at Wake Forest, her illness weighed heavily on his mind. After his sophomore season, he decided his family needed him, and the NCAA made it possible for him to move back home without any penalties.

He learned the NCAA would grant him a hardship waiver that would give him eligibility in his first season at Villanova. Typically, a transfer has to sit out for one season. Everything was falling into place for Chennault to make the move he felt he needed to make.

But then disaster struck. Chennault’s older brother Michael Jay, one of his biggest influences, was abruptly taken away from him.

On May 31, 2012, Jay was shot in the back and head. He was immediately rushed to Albert Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia, where he was pronounced dead at 2:47 p.m. the next day.

“When Tony’s brother was killed it was just tragic and sudden,” said Carl Arrigale, Chennault’s head coach at Neumann-Goretti. “It was a senseless act of violence that no one could have seen coming.”

Jay was a mentor to Chennault, who repeatedly turned to him for advice both on and off the court. Jay’s death was surreal for Chennault and his family, but he is using it as fuel to push himself forward.

“It has been a lot to deal with off the court,” Chennault said. “My teammates have been great and my coaches have been great. I’m not getting down, I’m just encouraged to keep working harder.”

In his time of internal struggle, Chennault has relied on basketball as a therapeutic tool. During the summer he frequently worked out at his high school and reconnected with coaches and teammates of his past.

At Neumann-Goretti, Chennault was a superstar in one of Philadelphia’s premier high school basketball programs. In his senior season, the Saints went 30-1 with a 17-0 record in their league. Chennault finished his high school career by leading his team to a Pennsylvania state championship and a top-20 national ranking by season’s end.

“He has been around the program a lot since he has been back,” said John Mosco, an assistant to Arrigale at Neumann-Goretti. “High school was a great time in his life and being close to home, and here, has helped him during the hard times.”

Mosco said Chennault has used this time in his life to reshape his priorities both on and off the court.

“I see the same Tony, but I also see a more mature side of him that realizes there is life after basketball,” Mosco said. “He has the right focus in school and knows that basketball, and life, could stop at any time.”

While Chennault has adapted well to academics at Villanova, his statistics resemble those of his freshman season at Wake Forest, when he averaged 4.5 points and 1.9 assists in 17.5 minutes per game. Not known for his scoring ability or big play factor, Chennault has been noticeably tentative in the limited minutes he’s played for the Wildcats this season.

He averages just 17.7 minutes off of the bench per game, less than anyone in Villanova’s nine-man rotation, compared to the 30.2 he averaged a year ago. Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono earned the starting spot as a highly touted recruit, and has been responsible for a bulk of the team’s offensive production.

For the entire season, Chennault has been used to spell Arcidiacono and simply manage the game in his absence, which has led to low averages of 3.5 points and 1.6 assists a game, about half of what he averaged last season.

“He has handled this all great and is picking up on what we are doing,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “Right now, he allows us to get Ryan Arcidiacono some rest, but I do see him making more of an impact soon.”

Chennault is well aware of his role on the team and wants to be a leader above all else. The potential of Villanova’s young team is apparent, yet it hinges on the willingness of upperclassmen like Chennault to mentor the less-experienced players on the roster.

Less than a year ago, an inhumane crime took Chennault’s mentor away from him. Moving forward, he plans to turn the adversity he has endured into material that will help his teammates better themselves as basketball players, and as men.

“Tony’s got a big heart and has always cared,” Arrigale said. “I think a lot of kids play for the wrong reasons, but Tony, he has always played for the right ones.”

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