Basketball Supplement | Legendary Jerome Allen passes torch to protege Zack Rosen
November 12, 2010, 5:28 am · Updated October 12, 2010, 12:00 am·
The first time they stepped on the court together, Zack Rosen didn’t even recognize the Quakers legend standing across from him.
At a 2008 Pro-Am Summer League game, Rosen, a recent graduate of St. Benedict’s High School in North Jersey, and his squad of future Penn players squared off with a team of former collegiate stars. The soon-to-be-freshman struggled to match up with the opposing point guard, a 6-foot-4 blend of athleticism and finesse.
“He was kicking my butt,” Rosen, a 2010-11 team co-captain, recalls from a corner of the Weightman Hall gymnasium. “I was like, ‘who the hell is this guy?’”
Of course Rosen knew of Jerome Allen, but it wasn't until after that first encounter that he finally attached the name to the man. The scrawny redhead, however, couldn’t simply accept that an NBA draft pick had schooled him; that’s not who Zack Rosen is. Instead, he introduced himself and his family to the guy who had just kicked his butt. Then sought his guidance.
Were Allen not the person he is, that could have been the end of it. But the coach inside him immediately embraced Rosen and took to the challenge of molding the Quakers point guard into a championship-caliber player.
“From the moment I met him,” Rosen says of Allen, “he has expressed just an interest in bettering me as a basketball player and as a person, and when anyone does that, you gravitate to that. You tell me you’re gonna make me better, I’m gonna say, ‘How?'”
Since that meeting over two years ago, Allen has trained Rosen for a season like the one that starts tomorrow — a season of striving for a return to glory. And glory at Penn, which Allen achieved in the early 1990s, is measured in banners hanging from the Palestra rafters and rings adorning Quakers’ fingers.
“Jerome knows the player that Zack can be,” co-captain Jack Eggleston says, “and the place he can have in Penn’s history books.”
At 8:34 a.m. on a Tuesday, the shriek of Allen’s whistle interrupts his team’s brief respite. The players, still catching their breath from their last drill, plod to the Palestra sideline.
Seconds after the 18 athletes simultaneously take off, one runner emerges from the pack — Zack Rosen.
As the rest of the team staggers across the floor, Rosen strides gracefully. His trot looks effortless, but his face grimaces with each step. He finishes at least a lap ahead of each of his teammates.
After the final huddle breaks, newly hired assistant coach Dan Leibovitz reminisces in front of the empty Penn bench. Almost two decades ago, when Leibovitz and Allen were high school teammates, it was Allen leaving the pack in his dust. The two did “crazy things” to get better: jumping rope while wearing strength shoes that weighed down their feet, dribbling with specialized goggles to impede their vision and going one-on-one full court.
Yet Allen could barely find words to explain Rosen’s work ethic to Leibovitz last year.
“[Allen] told me that he was unbelievable,” Leibovitz says. “You won’t believe how many shots he gets up in a day, how much he really wants to learn. I think [Zack]'s backed up what they said.”
“I thought that nobody was more of a gym rat than myself,” Allen says, “until I met Zack Rosen.”
After their initial introduction, Allen took Rosen under his wing. During the two summers before Allen returned to Penn as an assistant, the retired Italian league all-star received nonstop calls from the 2007-08 New Jersey state champion.
“What time are we gonna work out?” Rosen would badger.
Eggleston joined the two for daily workouts in the summer of 2009, after Allen became an assistant. He could already see the connection between then-36-year-old Allen and 19-year-old Rosen.
“It’s almost like older brother, younger brother,” Eggleston says of their relationship. “They’ll joke around before and after practice, but during practice he’ll get on him, and he’s really pushing him. Maybe the younger brother doesn’t always like it, but he’s looking out for his little guy.”
The bond is strengthened by their remarkable similarities: the affable personality, the “confident humility” — Eggleston’s words — and the role they serve on a basketball team.
During Allen’s teaching moments in practice, he first pauses to give the group criticism, then often pulls his point guard aside for personal instruction.
“He played at a very high level and a very successful level so he obviously has ideas and notions — well, facts, I’d say — of how the point guard position should be played,” Rosen says.
A one-time masterful floor general, Allen understands how pivotal the point guard is on the court.
Put simply, “a better Zack Rosen means a better Penn,” the coach says.
Seated in the nearly vacant Palestra stands, player and coach are sharing a laugh as Rosen discusses Jerome Allen’s lesser-known side.
“He’s got skills on turntables,” Rosen starts off, grinning at his coach. He knows Allen’s trash-talking response will come later, away from the public eye. “He thinks he can dress. He drives a rental car that’s a stick. Still?”
Come Nov. 13, though, the stands will be littered with demanding fans, many of them alumni who miss the golden years. In those days — Allen’s days — the Palestra was the place to be on a Saturday night.
Though Rosen laughs at the notion of comparing himself to a three-time Ivy League champion, he finds motivation in the chase. For parts of 20 minutes, he glares up at the 25 banners under the ceiling, and down at his bare fingers.
“I watched those games,” Rosen says of his coach’s college years. “He was doing a lot out there.”
“It’s relative,” Allen adds, comparing himself to his protege. “I think that the impact he had on his team last season probably couldn’t have been duplicated by a lot of people.”
When one speaks, the other respectfully bows his head and stays silent. Another similarity: neither one seems to enjoy talking or hearing about himself.
It’s also clear that Allen has implanted in his disciple seeds of knowledge and secrets for success: the need to “move and motivate” people, knowing rather than thinking you will succeed, believing in "the process."
Each knows the other is the right man for the job. But why?
“He gets it,” Allen says of Rosen. “He’s a young man that is just a champion with people and is driven.”
“It started two years ago,” Rosen continues, “when a 35-year-old with kids of his own and everything else to do comes back to Philadelphia after he’s done playing and says, 'I want to help.'”
“He genuinely cares about the success of this place. He bleeds it, and that’s what this place needs.”
What Rosen needs is matching rings, one for himself and another for his mentor.