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After being recruited by former coach Jerome Allen, Morris Esformes never appeared in a game for Penn men's basketball. | DP File Photo

In the immediate aftermath of allegations that former Penn men’s basketball coach Jerome Allen accepted bribes to designate Morris Esformes as a recruited student-athlete and increase his odds of admission, questions have arisen around one key issue: the qualifications of Esformes as a basketball recruit. 

Morris Esformes

The indictment against Morris’ father, Philip, alleges that Morris “would not have been designated as a ‘recruited basketball player’ had it not been for the kickback and bribe payments” that Philip provided to Allen. Philip’s attorney, Howard Srebnick, has rigorously defended the Esformes family from such allegations, stating that Morris Esformes was qualified to get into Penn on his own academic and athletic merits. 

Srebnick, who graduated from Penn in 1985, told The Miami Herald, “[Morris] scored more than 150 points higher on his SAT than I did, and I cannot dribble a basketball with either hand, much less sink a three-point shot.”

As the situation unfolds, a glaring question remains: would Morris Esformes have been recruited by Penn men’s basketball without any intervention from his father? The Daily Pennsylvanian looked to Esformes' past in search of answers.

In 2015, Esformes graduated from RASG Hebrew Academy in Miami, Florida before being admitted to Penn. 

While he was never listed on the Penn men’s basketball roster, he appeared in a July 2015 press release by the athletic department about the Class of 2019 recruits. Additionally, it is known that Esformes verbally committed to Penn in March 2014, strongly suggesting that Esformes received designation as a "recruited student-athlete."

Both RASG Hebrew Academy Dean of Academic Affairs Avi Bossewitch and Penn’s Admissions Department did not respond to interview requests. 

Various other key figures connected to Esformes also did not comment. Besides Morris Esformes and Jerome Allen, the following people either declined or did not respond to interview requests: two of Esformes’ teammates from his senior season of high school basketball, Morris’ high school head coach, the then-head coach of a rival team in RASG Hebrew Academy’s district, a Jewish Hoops America reporter, three former Penn men’s basketball assistants who were at Penn during Morris’ high school career, and head coaches at two other Division I schools that Future150 reported that Morris had been interested in. Another coach of a Division I school Esformes reportedly was interested in responded that he had never heard of him "as a recruit, or otherwise."

Esformes has a player profile on ESPN, though ESPN’s Class of 2015 recruiting rankings did not list him on their leaderboard of the top players in Florida, meaning that his player ranking was lower than two stars out of five. According to ESPN, players who have two stars "are overmatched versus the better players in the nation. These players have weaknesses that will be exposed against top competition, but have the ability to develop into solid contributors at the mid-major Division I level.”

Of the three other players in Esformes’ recruiting class at Penn to have graduated high school in 2015, all three appeared on their state’s respective list. However, it is not unprecedented for Penn to take chances on recruits who have yet to earn such credentials on a national level. Penn men's basketball rising seniors Max Rothschild and Tyler Hamilton, who both graduated high school in 2014, did not appear on ESPN’s state leaderboards in 2014. 

Esformes' high school, RASG Hebrew Academy, had a significantly weaker basketball program than the schools most Penn recruits come from. Although Esformes had solid statistics — according to The Miami Herald, he averaged 15.5 points and 5.0 assists per game as a senior — his school's low strength of schedule during his senior season contributed to it having a national ranking of 7,775, according to MaxPreps’ computer rankings.

By comparison, among the active Penn men's basketball rising seniors, Jake Silpe’s Cherry Hill East (NJ) team was ranked 736th nationally during his senior year, Hamilton’s Greater Atlanta Christian squad was 255th, and Jackson Donahue’s and Collin McManus’ Northfield Mount Hermon (NH) was 217th. Only Max Rothschild's University (IL) squad was anywhere near RASG Hebrew Academy, at 3,245.

Another potential indicator of Esformes’ skills could be his postseason honors. In both his junior and senior years of high school, he was named to the Jewish Hoops America honorable mention team.

Of the combined 11 seniors who were chosen over Esformes for JHA’s first, second, or third team in 2014-15, none ever played D-I basketball. The only player of any age to eventually make a D-I roster from a JHA team was Cornell’s Bryan Knapp, who was a high school sophomore at the time.

Additionally, Esformes finished his senior year ranked 17th in scoring out of players on Miami-Dade County’s lower-division teams, encompassing Division 2A schools through 5A. Online searches revealed that only five of the 16 players above him have been on a Division I roster at any point, and no one scoring at or fewer than Esformes’ 15.5 points per game was ever on a D-I roster.

“I mean, I didn’t think he was ever Division I necessarily caliber," Adam Barnes, a basketball trainer who worked with Esformes in 2013, said about the student. "He wasn’t gonna get a scholarship probably. But when you’re an academic kid like he was, a lot of places will take you as a walk-on, you know, just to help out,” he added. 

“When I heard he was actually going to Penn, I didn’t think it was even anything to do with basketball.” 

These comments seem to contradict what Barnes said in a 2013 Future150 story about both Esformes and his younger brother, Jack. 

“I really like how Morris plays the game of basketball," Barnes said at the time. "His basketball IQ is extremely high and the physical tools are there. He is going to be a fun player to watch grow both on and off the court. He is as bright as they come and super strong. He will be able to create a lot of mismatch problems based on his athletic ability and his never ending motor. He will be a perfect fit at the Ivy League level, or any level for that matter. He is a solid player with a high ceiling.”

Five years later, Barnes said his prior words had been embellished, but denied that Philip Esformes paid him for the high praise of his son.

“His dad would always talk about how [Morris] got a late start and wasn’t playing when he was younger and all that stuff, so we felt kind of compelled to try to help,” he said. “Future150 is a lot different than ESPN and those sites … we were helping kids who weren’t getting huge spotlight, trying to help them out, get them into a D-II school or things like that. That was kind of the motive we had here, like ‘let’s do something nice for these guys.’”

Barnes is relevant as a potential candidate for the anonymous "Coach 1" from the same indictment in which Allen was referred to as "Coach 2". Barnes, like "Coach 1", has significant ties to Houston. However, Barnes told the DP he thought it was unlikely that he was "Coach 1" based on the timing of Philip Esformes' payment to “Coach 1.” 

Barnes also pointed out that Esformes’ academic record may have been a major factor in his recruitment. The Ivy League utilizes a system called the “Academic Index,” which ranks students on a scale from 60 to 240 based primarily on SAT/ACT scores, subject test scores, and high school grade point average. As of 2011, the hard minimum score for any Ivy League student-athlete is 176, though most candidates get scores far higher than that. 

According to a 2010 Ivy League press release, “The Team AI in a particular sport must, in general, be within one standard deviation of the Campus AI. Every athlete admitted with a low Individual AI must be offset with another with a higher Individual AI.”

With this system in place, the concept of “GPA boosters” has not been uncommon. That is, any team can offset a low team AI by recruiting individuals with exceedingly high AI’s who are stacked at the bottom end of a team’s roster, meaning this could've theoretically been Esformes' role.

According to Srebnick, the attorney of Philip Esformes, Morris Esformes has a cumulative 3.57 GPA at Penn, and was named to the Dean’s List for 2017-18. Information about Esformes' high school academic record was not readily available. 

But even if a “GPA booster” is meant to be on the bottom end of a team’s roster, an important distinction is that such players are still on the roster. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, an anonymous Penn source said that Esformes “had some kind of tryout when he was a freshman,” after Steve Donahue had replaced Allen. The anonymous source said, “I think both sides quickly realized he was not going to contribute to the program.”

Given that Donahue is not afraid to have extra bodies on a roster even if they won’t see game minutes, that realization might speak volumes to the nature of Esformes' recruitment. And if the source’s claims are true, the bottom line is a harsh reality to face: Morris Esformes got into Penn, had a chance to prove he was worthy of one of those spots, and was not able to.

Whether all of these revelations further implicate Allen is up for debate, but what is clear is that Esformes will be a key subject in conversations surrounding the program for at least the near future.

“It’s a crazy story,” Barnes said. “If it’s true, then it is what it is.”