In 1994, just when Penn point guard Jerome Allen had seized control of the Ivy League, heralded freshman Sydney Johnson arrived on the Princeton campus.
Allen’s junior campaign followed a year in which he had taken home Ivy Player of the Year honors and wrestled the league title away from the Tigers, ending their four-year reign as champs.
Johnson, according to Allen’s teammate and good friend Shawn Trice, appeared on the Ivy scene with “a lot of fanfare” as the so-called “new kid on the block.”
“[Fans] thought that he could be as good or better than Jerome,” Trice recalled. “[Johnson] came in with that thought process. He took it personal.”
Things quickly got personal for the ultra-competitive Allen when teammates ribbed him about his remarkable similarities to Princeton’s newest stud.
“Sydney had the same type of build: a really skinny guy with a big head like Jerome,” Trice said. “We used to say that Sydney and Jerome were like cousins.”
Being compared to a freshman was bad enough, but a Tiger? Allen’s teammates certainly knew how to push his buttons. Johnson, meanwhile, had to live up to the hype.
“They both wanted to prove they were the best players in the League,” Trice said.
Many signs point to the Allen of 17 years ago feeling threatened by Johnson — fresh out of a private, Christian, suburban high school not unlike Jerome’s.
But at a recent practice just before the 223rd edition of the rivalry, Allen — now the coach — divulged none of this when asked about his history with fourth-year Princeton head man Johnson, who declined to comment.
Allen did not discuss the four double-digit losses he handed his Princeton counterpart during their playing days. Or the fact that, after winning back-to-back titles once Allen graduated, Johnson, the 1996-97 Ivy Player of the Year, followed him to Euroleague Basketball.
Instead, the first-year Penn coach offered a short and sweet, “He played for Princeton.”
Their paths have proven to be parallel in the truest sense of the word: identical, but on opposing sides. Because, as the coaches prepare their teams for Tuesday’s game, one thing still divides Jerome Allen and Sydney Johnson.
“I’m a Quaker. He’s a Tiger,” Allen said. “That’s something that’s never gonna change. So deep down inside, I think I bleed Red and Blue and his is — I’m not even gonna say the colors.”
Listen to former teammates and coaches describe Allen and Johnson, however, and you’d think the two really are related.
He was a gritty, long-armed, elite defender, they say. A dynamic offensive player. Unselfish. A leader, a competitor, a winner.
“You wanted to play better defense, play harder because of him,” former Penn guard Scott Kegler said of his classmate Allen. “A lot of it was not wanting to let down Jerome because he worked so hard and he was so talented.”
“His example in practice was to be first, to do things the right way,” former Princeton guard Mitch Henderson said of his classmate Johnson. “You want guys on your team to be like him.”
If anything defines Allen and Johnson, it’s the age-old rivalry. Each embodies the university he now leads.
In fact, when Penn Director of Athletics Steve Bilsky chose Allen as the basketball program’s next head coach last March, he used his rival’s success at Princeton — a 6-23 to 22-9 turnaround in two years — as a model.
“That was a very significant situation — not that their situation was exactly the same as ours, but I was very impressed with what [Johnson] had done,” Bilsky said. “All things being equal, you would love someone from your alma mater to coach because in addition to their skill, they have that pride in representing the school.”
But in order to achieve the same coaching success as Johnson, Allen had to move his players away from the Tigers-centric attitude of the ‘90s. That meant no more running the Princeton offense in practice from the start of the season. No more “defeat the enemy” mentality, as Trice called it. No more calendar circling.
For a team trying to build its way up, each game is a vital part of the process.
“Because of the history, I know how much this game means to a lot of people,” Allen said. “[But] the other hat I wear [says] from day one, we try to make sure [the players] are focused and driven regardless who’s in front of them.”
Current freshmen Miles Cartwright and Fran Dougherty claim Allen has placed no extra emphasis on the Princeton games during their first year at Penn. The first time Coach mentioned the Tigers, they say, was at Sunday’s post-Harvard practice.
Well, Cartwright reconsidered, “he does mention how much he hates Princeton.”
Whether they like it or not, the two coaches are restoring the rivalry.
“With Jerome and Sydney,” Kegler concluded, “we can bring this rivalry back to prominence. And I think that’s where it should be.”