Upon being named interim head coach of Penn basketball in December of 2009, Jerome Allen took all of two hours to send a message.
Two hours of nonstop defense.
“It became very clear that that was going to be the emphasis,” senior point guard Zack Rosen recalls about that first practice.
Within the next week, Allen sent a second message.
As the team began to trickle in for practice, he realized that a number of injured players, many of whom were coming from physical therapy, were running late. Allen told the players who were present to line up on the baseline.
They ran for about 20 minutes straight — the amount of time it took until the last teammate showed up.
“Right off the bat, he [showed] that we’re operating as a team,” Jack Eggleston says from Germany, where the 2010-11 co-captain now plays professionally. “Everything each person does is going to have consequences, and your individual actions affect the team in a large way.”
The two staples — defense and accountability — have defined Allen’s basketball philosophy from the time he laced them up for nearby Episcopal Academy through his four years as a star guard for Penn and his 11 years playing professionally overseas.
And it’s those two staples — plus a wealth of hardwood knowledge that can’t be taught in books and an undying devotion to Penn — that made Allen a strong candidate to turn around a team that began the 2009-10 season with seven-straight losses.
In the eyes of at least one person, however, that package made Allen the only candidate.
“There was one guy who had walked the walk as a player, as a graduate, as a student — had done everything,” says Vince Curran, a ’92 Wharton alumnus who played alongside Allen for a year and now does color commentary for Penn hoops. “He was the one guy that could galvanize people, bring them back together, repair the Penn basketball family and still have the pedigree and ability to coach.”
Curran, who was brought in by Allen as an assistant for six months during that first season, can only gush in his assessment of his long-time friend. But he knows, like few do, about the personal and basketball makeup of the man who now orchestrates Penn basketball from the Palestra sidelines.
It’s a story of humility, immense success and the willingness to adopt the best qualities of those around you.
Philly work ethic
Jerome Allen was born on Jan. 28, 1973, in Philadelphia, a native son of the city he would later come to embody.
From the very beginning, young Jerome’s life was all about teamwork. Growing up in Germantown, Pa., Allen shared a home with 18 relatives. Two in particular stood out among the loving family group — his mother and grandmother.
“To witness how they just went out every day to work and to provide for their family,” Allen recalls while sitting courtside during a Friday practice. “And how on days whether they weren’t feeling well or just didn’t feel like it, how they just continued to persevere and push through … I kind of adopted that just in terms of how I tried to approach playing this game.”
So Allen took to his own grind, working for countless hours on the court and in the classroom. It was that work ethic which soon became apparent to legendary high-school coach Dan Dougherty, who doubled as Allen’s math teacher at Episcopal.
In truth, Dougherty had already known about Allen, before the youngster had even enrolled at Episcopal in the ninth grade. Dougherty had heard stories.
“When he was in junior high … if he got [to the gym] early, he always had a book with him,” Dougherty recalls being told. “Right away, that’s the type of kid we wanted, a kid who knew how to budget his time.”
That kid would go on to play three years of varsity ball for “Coach Doc,” captaining the team his senior year and earning a plethora of accolades. The 1,000-point scoring guard won titles in each of his three letterman years and was named the Inter-Academic League’s most valuable player his senior season.
But make no mistake, his success would not have been possible were it not for the defensive mindset he adopted while under Dougherty, who recorded an astonishing record of 621-285 over 36 seasons coaching Malvern Prep and Episcopal. The all-time winningest coach in city leagues’ history recalls that Allen was none too keen on playing ‘D’ as a freshman JV player, but the guard’s defensive chops vastly improved year by year. By the time Allen was a senior, he was an insatiable ball hawk, particularly effective when it came to the full-court press.
By embracing a new type of identity as a player, Allen set himself up for a seamless transition to college ball, where he would play for Penn’s Fran Dunphy, a man he would come to respect, learn from and emulate.
It didn’t hurt their relationship that they both had played for one of their role models, Dan Dougherty.
After taking over the helm of Penn basketball in 1989, Fran Dunphy did not find success immediately.
Rebuilding a team that had just one winning season in its last six was going to take time.
But the arrival of a certain Jerome Byron Allen to campus in the fall of 1991 definitely appeared to accelerate the process.
In Allen’s freshman season, the team would finish at 16-10, a seven-win improvement from the year before.
After that period of transition, Penn basketball took flight, leaving the Ivy League competition — and the record books — in its wake.
Allen, Matt Maloney and Co. went 22-5 the next year, 25-3 the next, and 22-6 the year after that.
The dominant Quakers didn’t lose a single Ivy League game (42-0) during Allen’s last three years, all resulting in titles. Along the way, the 6-foot-4 guard was named Ivy League Player of the Year twice. He finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in assists (505) and steals (166).
According to Dunphy, who called Allen the best player in Penn history at the latter’s Big 5 Hall of Fame induction, the point guard’s “quiet leadership” was “instrumental” to the team’s turnaround.
The guy who came in as the team’s best player from day one — Curran’s words — was the one who “respected the process” and carried bags and balls as a freshman. Allen was the one bringing his teammates together for afternoon pickup games at 4 o’clock during the offseason. Allen was the one sacrificing for others.
Teammate Shawn Trice, who would become one of Allen’s best friends, saw Jerome’s selflessness on and off the court.
Now an assistant coach under Dunphy at Temple, Trice remembers playing against Northwestern and shooting 9-for-9 from the field. Seven of those buckets came on easy looks around the basket, thanks to unselfish plays by Allen.
Trice says, with a laugh, “He would do all the work, and I would reap the benefits.”
It certainly wasn’t the first time that would be the case.
When Trice would spend the night at Allen’s home, rounding out the number of people under one roof to an even 20, it was Allen who slept on the floor so that Trice could have the comfort of a couch or bed.
Whether it meant curling up in a corner to sleep or curling around a pick to find his teammate rolling to the basket, Allen always put others before himself.
“Despite his great talent, his humility is what continued to make him a better player,” Curran will tell you.
Allen’s growth in that regard, and his journey, was not done yet.
The pantheon of hoops
Selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the 49th overall pick in the 1995 Draft, Jerome Allen made it to where few Ivy Leaguers have gone before — the NBA.
Suiting up alongside a fresh-faced, 19-year-old Kevin Garnett, Allen played 41 games for the T’Wolves, averaging 8.8 minutes per contest. Despite being released that summer, Allen was fortunate enough to find his next stop with the Indiana Pacers, where he would play under a Hall of Fame-worthy coach in Larry Brown.
It was another brief stint — 51 games played — but a formative one at that. One doesn’t just come under the wings of Brown, if even for an instant, without learning a thing or two.
The man affectionately called “LB” — the only coach to have ever won a title at both the NCAA and NBA levels — is known for teaching his players how to play suffocating defense.
Allen had heard it before — from “Doc,” from “Dunph”—but it continued to be drilled into his ever-developing basketball mind.
“All three of those guys stressed that … if you defend and are consistent in your effort on the defensive end, you’ll always give yourself a chance to win,” Allen says while his players undergo a conditioning drill.
He took that lesson, frequently imparted but rarely embraced, and began a wildly successful 11-year playing career overseas.
Making stops in France, Turkey, Italy, Spain and Greece, the worldly Allen played for some of the top European clubs.
He made two Italian All-Star teams and was a key contributor on a Tau Ceramica (Spain) squad that included the likes of current NBA players Luis Scola, José Calderón and Andres Nocioni.
Allen said his head man at Tau, Dusko Ivanovic, is the fourth main coach he has tried to take “a little bit from” in his current role at Penn.
The mere mention of Ivanovic and his practices still elicits a shake of the head and a “whew!” from Allen nearly a decade later. He recalls that Ivanovic used to begin each practice with a one-on-one, full court defensive drill.
A continent away, Allen had heard the same message loud and clear.
As if that weren’t enough, he also had a crash course in all things defense (and offense) while serving as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs’ summer league team in 2007, learning how to scout and break down game film for one of the NBA’s most successful organizations of the last decade.
Put together, Allen’s experience dating from his days at Episcopal through the present cannot easily be put into context. The list of coaches and teammates he’s been exposed to reads like the entrance to a future corner exhibit of the Basketball Hall of Fame — Brown, Garnett, four-time NBA champ Tim Duncan, Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson.
Along the ride, he has indeed pieced together bits and pieces from those around him — who wouldn’t? — but as Penn’s coach now, he’s the one doling out hardwood nuggets.
The Jerome Allen brand
Running through a routine layup and shooting drill, senior point guard and captain Zack Rosen is not satisfied with the team’s effort.
“Call names!” he says, demanding that his teammates yell out to whom they’re passing the ball.
“Outlet!” he shouts later.
Rosen, arguably the fiercest competitor and best leader in the Ivy League, reminds many of Allen.
Trice sees it. Dunphy sees it. Heck, anyone with two good eyes and an appreciation for the game can see it.
“The way he runs the team, he sacrifices for everybody else,” Trice says of Rosen. “I would say he’s an extension of Jerome’s philosophy as a leader.”
But Trice is quick to point out that Rosen isn’t the only one who emulates Allen.
He says “the entire unit has taken on his personality,” when it comes to accountability and intangibles.
More than that, the team has also been shaped by Allen’s experiences abroad.
While the team doesn’t adopt an exclusively Euro-style philosophy, many of the team’s sets have a unique flair to them.
“A lot of our offensive concepts he has brought and tried to mix and blend on the college level, especially when it comes to spacing,” assistant coach Rudy Wise explains. “He’s really big on having space on the floor to be able to let actions take place and open up, and that’s indicative of his experiences.”
Trice, who has to scout Penn each year, concurs.
“From his days over [in Europe], they do a lot of different sets where they have a set, a counter to the set, and then they have another counter to the set … It’s more of a planned, structured approach in the sense of they may run two or three plays in one possession at a time.”
The complex playbook is all part of Allen’s plan to right the ship for the program. In his first full season last year, the Quakers finished at 13-15, a seven-win improvement from the year before. This season, the team — infused by a highly touted freshman class — looks like a darkhorse in a league as competitive as it’s been in years.
The final product surely is not there yet, but Allen and staff are trying tirelessly.
“We want to get to a point where we’re a defense-first team,” assistant coach Dan Leibovitz says, minutes before Allen leads the team into a film session. “We’re a ball pressure, denial team that’s disruptive in the half court and makes the extra effort.”
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