Villanova transfer Tony Chennault trying to gain strength from brother's slaying

Posted: August 16, 2012

THIS WAS supposed to be an offseason to remember for Tony Chennault. The Neumann-Goretti product had come home, mostly to be there for his ailing mother, but also to maybe reinvigorate his basketball career at the place he'd nearly chosen to attend 2 years earlier.

Then, on the last day of May, several weeks before he found out that the NCAA would grant him a hardship waiver to make him eligible to play for Villanova this season, his world changed forever.

The junior point guard was in his dorm room with some of his new teammates, watching Game 3 of the NBA's Western Conference finals. That's when he got the phone call. Before Chennault heard the news, he had a feeling it wasn't going to be good.

He just had no idea.

"It was from a real close friend, who we consider family," he recalled. "I knew something was [wrong]. He kept asking where my mother was at. Finally he said, 'I can't hold back, my man. You're brother's been shot . . . And he ain't moving.'

"Then my whole body shivered up. I shut down. I was like, 'Where? What do you mean?' "

He got a ride to Albert Einstein Medical Center near Broad and Olney, not far from the house he grew up in. That's when he was told that 29-year-old Michael Jay, his friend, mentor and father figure, was in critical condition.

The next afternoon, the family made the decision to remove him from life support.

"When I got in there to see him, I could actually see the bullet hole in the back of his head," Tony said recently at the Davis Center on the Villanova campus. "You could tell he was trying to run [away] . . . We weren't going to let him live like that. He didn't deserve that . . . It was like a movie. I didn't know it was real until I got to the hospital.

"They said some guy with a bandanna and a hoodie just came up and let off 11 shots. I don't know the whole story, but I assume the target wasn't my brother. People knew he wasn't involved with that stuff. But he had people who were still his friends from Day 1. There's a certain bond. You hear about situations all the time where the person they're looking for, they wind up shooting someone else. Wrong place, wrong time. Just senseless violence."

The crime remains unsolved. Chennault's mother, Crystal Morton, who's been experiencing respiratory problems, still can't talk about it. Tony - who spent the last two seasons at Wake Forest, where he started as a sophomore - is trying to move on as best he can. But how does a young man prepare himself for handling something like this?

"Honestly, my brother was the glue to my family," Chennault explained. "He had a good job with an insurance company. He helped my mom a lot, so me and my brother [Sean] could go to college. You think about all the memories you had, all the little things, and sometimes you'll just stop and go, 'Dang, I miss him.' He was so happy. I've always had sympathy for people who've lost loves ones like that, but you never think it'll be your family. I never lost somebody before. Now I know the pain, the sleepless nights, the moods where you just don't want to be around anyone. But you just can't stop living. So every day, I'm pushing myself, trying to use it as extra motivation.

"Sometimes it seems like the only time my mind is free is when I'm playing."

Sean, who went to Ben Franklin, just graduated from Waldorf College, an NAIA school in Iowa. Their father is Anthony Chennault, who in 1981 was the Daily News' Player of the Year at Frankford. He and their mother separated a while back, and Anthony made another life for himself in Europe. But he attended the funeral.

Michael had a different father, who, according to Tony, was stabbed to death the day Michael was born.

"Eventually, he beat the odds, if you think about it," Tony reasoned. "He was doing something positive. Where I'm from, not everyone does. Not too many people go to college from around my area. People look up to me a lot for that, not just because of basketball. There are places in Philadelphia that are a lot worse than my neighborhood, where you see stuff like that all the time."

When it hits you, it forces you to grow up even faster.

"My first thought was, 'Wow, this poor kid,' " Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. "I know transferring wasn't easy on him. Then this. But he hasn't missed a beat. He's just taken care of business. He lost his role model. I talked to him about the fact that there is no answer for this. It becomes part of you. It's another responsibility you take on. But he's been an inspiration to all our guys.

"I don't know about his maturity level before this happened, but he's a strong-minded kid. He checks on his mom all the time. Then he's back here doing whatever he needs to get done. He never uses it as an excuse. He just gets it.

"I was at his house right before it happened, with his mom out on the street, people coming out. They were so excited [Tony] was home. It just didn't seem like the place where something like that would happen. I thought maybe [Michael] was somewhere else. That was such a great day. Then, just a few days later, I got the call. Ever since, I feel for everybody there. I talked to Michael throughout the process. He was everything you wanted a guy to be."

And he was always there for the two who looked to him the most.

"He never missed a game," Chennault said. "He made a lot of sacrifices. He had the same relationship with Sean. At first, I didn't like basketball. He was a big Knicks fan. Big Eagles fan, too. His player was Patrick Ewing. I just remember him telling me, 'You can be really good. Just stay on the right track and you can do special things with basketball.' He was real proud. As I got older, I began to understand what he meant. It could take you places.

"He just had that gift of bringing out the best in other people. With him, it was all about community. He wanted to give back so much to the place he was from. It's sad to think he can't do that anymore.

"We just had a big cookout [on Memorial Day]. He wanted to throw another big one at the end of summer. The last conversation we had, I didn't even tell him I loved him. I didn't know . . . The funeral was hard. Just seeing him lying in the casket, knowing this is it, the last time I'm ever going to see him. He was my biggest cheerleader. And my biggest critic, also. I was in shock then. I'm still in shock. I can't believe it."

Everyone grieves differently. There is no manual. There are images, both good and bad, that will never leave him. No words can ever ease his burden. He must find his peace from within, wherever that takes him.

And unless you've been there, you can never appreciate the process.

"As times get worse, people just do whatever they can to survive," Chennault said. "I guess if you've got to rob a bank to make ends meet, that's their mentality. But if you handle stuff yourself, that just escalates more violence. I came to the point where the guy that killed my brother, he knows what he did was wrong. I don't know nothing about him. The way I look at it is, eventually karma will come back around. It's not going to bring my brother back. I know that for a fact."

Tony will write Michael's nickname, Jab, on his sneakers. And he wants to start a foundation in Michael's name to help kids get scholarships. It can't erase the wounds, but it's something.

It's how he was taught.

"Most athletes don't start doing stuff until later, but why wait?" Chennault said. "When I'm not in the gym working out, I can be a young entrepreneur in my spare time. We'd talked about that. I feel like a part of me is playing for him now. I just made a promise that I'm going to be the best I can be, by doing everything extra. Sometimes you go away, you get away from being the player you were. He'd pointed that out to me. I'm realizing that now. My whole life, I just outworked people. I never was the most talented guy, I never jumped the highest, never shot the ball the best, never was the fastest. But I had the most heart, played with the most pride. I outthought people, outsmarted them. I was always going that extra mile. I have to play to my original strengths . . .

"People don't care what happened. It didn't even make the news. But insurance fraud makes the news. It makes you think. I can't take things for granted anymore. The hardest thing is just knowing he's never going to be there.

"I'm a guy who holds things in. Sometimes you just need to let it out. If you let it build and build, suddenly it explodes. You have to take ownership of what you're doing. It gives you perspective. You find out a lot of things, about yourself and others . . .

"We had dreams, you know. Eventually we were going to start taking vacations with each other down the line, become business partners, someday just sit on the porch and talk about when we were kids. Or maybe even talk about our kids. Unfortunately, we're not going to have that opportunity, because of this tragic incident.

"I feel like God has a plan for all of us. The one thing I learned is you can't escape death. Everybody has a due date, whether you like it or not. When your time's up, that's reality. I hate to sound like that, but I know that now."


Contact Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com.

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