This is Part IV of the Jerome Allen Story and the finale of our series entitled, "Ivy League Hoops: Ahead of the Curve in Coaching Diversity."
With 1:39 left in the first half, Penn senior guard Miles Jackson-Cartwright hits fellow senior guard Dau Jok with a crisp pass on the wing. Jok elevates and splashes a much needed three-pointer. The crowd’s roar is thunderous as Penn pulls to within six points of Harvard, 29-35.
But the next minute and a half for the Quakers is dreadful. With 54 seconds left, Harvard’s Laurent Rivard, the city of Boston’s best three-point shooter now that Ray Allen is no longer a Celtic, curls off a pick, catches the ball and fires a successful jumper from deep.
Despite the coaching staff constantly drilling the Quakers on the importance of going over the pick with a hand up as soon as Rivard makes the catch, they fail to execute on a number of occasions. Penn also turns the ball over twice in the final 26 seconds. When Harvard’s Siyani Chambers steals the ball and assists Brandyn Curry on a layup as the horn sounds, the crowd is deflated as Penn heads to the locker room, trailing 29-41.
For the first few moments of halftime, Allen sits tranquilly in the team lounge staring at the stat sheet. He appears calm, but obviously pissed off. Harvard scored 15 first-half points off of turnovers, compared to Penn’s zero. The Crimson also held a 9-2 and 6-0 advantage in second-chance and fast break points respectively. Despite his unruffled outward demeanor, you have to look deep into his eyes to see how truly irked he is.
A few minutes later, the coaches walk into the locker room, where the team sits quietly. Allen begins to pace back and forth in agitation. Just as he’s about to speak, he pauses. His face is shrouded in utter disgust. Amid the silence, and the pungent aroma of what smells like a gumbo-like mixture of old corn chips, stinky socks and malodorous feet, he spontaneously erupts.
(Photo Credit: Penn Athletics)
“Twelve turnovers!” he shouts. “It’s atrocious. The type of basketball we’re playing is a joke. Ain’t nothing I can do but tell you the real. We stink!!! I’m tired of us losing like this because we are beating ourselves! They are not gonna beat themselves!”
As the words spill out, he becomes more incensed and exasperated. He quivers. He gesticulates wildly with his hands. Had he been on a North Philly street corner, you would have sworn, by observing his confrontational body language and raw emotion, that somebody had just said something disrespectful about his momma.
“You guys have people out there that are gonna tell you want you want to hear,” he shouts. “They’re gonna tell you, ‘Don’t worry. It’s alright.’ WELL IT AIN’T ALRIGHT!!! You guys are pissing away opportunities,” he yells.
The next sentence flies out of his larynx in a furious screech.
“IT MEANS SOMETHING TO PUT THIS UNIFORM ON!!! And you’re playing like you either don’t understand that, or you don’t really care. You have 20 minutes to prove me wrong. ”
CITIZEN OF THE WORLD
When Allen initially went to play pro ball in Europe, he did so reluctantly. He arrived in France with suitcases filled with Timberland’s, Nike Air Force 1’s, and a healthy supply of jeans and throwback jerseys.
“That was how we were rocking back in Philly,” said Allen. “When I first got there, I was like, ‘Yo! All these guys are wearing tight clothes,’" he says with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Man, they trippin’ on some other stuff over here.’ Then I went out to the club and realized, ‘They’re getting all the girls!’”, he says, giggling at the recollection.
“That threw me off. But I started to realize that the U.S. follows all of the fashion trends that initiate in Europe. Slowly but surely, I started wearing button-up shirts, tailored suits and tighter clothes on a regular basis,” he laughs.
Once firmly ensconced overseas, he was seduced by the history, beauty and culture of his surroundings. He admired how the people placed such a high value on family interaction, how they’d sit at lunch and dinner for hours, talking to one another. He’d laugh and shrug off the frustrations of his friends, who constantly complained that he was better than a lot of players who were cashing NBA checks. He wound up staying in Europe for twelve years.
Allen lived in France, Turkey, Spain and Greece, but spent the most time, of any one place, playing in Italy. He watched the waves wash ashore along the Italian Riviera, admired the magnificence of the Amalfi Coast, walked the ancient streets of Pompei, marveled at the architectural magnificence of Tuscany, took in the romantic gondolas along the grand canal of Venice and stared in awe at the Colosseum in Rome.
(The Amalfi Coast, Italy. Photo Credit: nationalgeographic.com)
He won championships, was an A-list celebrity, played in All-Star games and was revered. He made a lot of money, formed lasting personal and professional relationships and cherished the experience.
Dining at some of Paris’ exclusive outdoor cafes, he’d marvel at his life trajectory, thinking about how far he’d come from the cheese steak and chicken box meals he once ate on the streets of North Philadelphia. He also spent a lot time reflecting on his father, and the corrosive anger and hurt that he carried around on a daily basis.
“It wasn’t until I was 28 years old that I began to reconcile my feelings about my father,” said Allen. “I was over in Europe and just woke up one day and realized that I wasn’t mad at him any longer. I thought about the fact that he didn’t have a high school diploma. I realized that because he was dependant on a substance, he didn’t have any way to sustain a household. And I’m sure that he wanted to, but he just couldn’t.”
“I started to say to myself, ‘I’m just becoming a man and I don’t have everything figured out, so how can I judge him?’” he continued. “I don’t know what it’s like to rumble with that dope. I know it bothers him that he missed out on being there for me and my sister, and that he doesn’t have a real relationship with us or his grandkids. I figured out that whatever has him paralyzed like that is something that is so powerful, that all I can do is pray that one day, he’ll be at peace and he’ll be happy.”
In Europe, the level of basketball was exceptional. His skill set, and the value he placed on spacing, passing, defending and being a true facilitator who could elevate the play of others, endeared him to his teammates, coaches and fans. He competed against the likes of Pau and Marc Gasol, Manu Ginobli, Anderson Verajao, Hedo Turkoglu, Andrea Bargnani, Marco Bellinelli, Alan Anderson and Gary Neal, among many others of the international game’s best players. He was also teammates with Luis Scola in Spain. Jose Calderon was his backup.
“Playing in Europe changed the scope and my entire perspective on life,” said Allen. “I learned that the United States is not the center of the universe and realized that I had been blessed with so much. I wouldn’t change one thing about the arc of my pro career. I had an opportunity to take my wife and kids and my mom to Pompei and to see the Eiffel Tower. They’ve been all over the world.”
“I didn’t get to go to a lot of places when I was growing up and when my kids were growing up because we were very poor,” said his mom, Janet. “When I got the opportunity to visit my son and see Paris and Europe, it was amazing. I’m still smiling today about being able to experience that with him. My son has been very, very good in terms of sharing his success with me.”
MY BROTHER’S KEEPER
Allen also shared that success with the basketball community back in Philadelphia. Every summer, he’d come back home and organize workouts for other local pros, college guys and prep players that showed some promise. He volunteered to coach youth teams in outdoor playground leagues, where he was first bitten by the coaching bug. From there, he took his desire to mentor others to another level.
In 1999, he started a youth development program called ‘H.O.O.D. Enriched’.
“It stood for ‘Helping Our Own Develop’”, said Allen. “I realized that I had been blessed with so much, while some of these kids throughout the city that look just like me were never going to get out of Philadelphia, or the state of Pennsylvania, let alone the country.”
The program, whose motto was ‘Expect to be Exceptional’, combined basketball instruction with academic enrichment. There were no tryouts. Participants were required to participate in mandatory reading and math classes on Saturday mornings.
“Any kid that wanted to participate in the program could join,” said Allen. “As long as they came to the classes and were willing to put forth as much effort in the classroom as they did playing ball, they could be a part of the program.”
He had every child individually assessed and tested to determine a unique educational treatment plan for each of them. He paid for tutors to work with them. He shelled out cash to take them on college visits. He instituted a summer jobs component.
He also contributed over $400,000 out of his own personal savings to take a group of 36 city kids to Italy over the course of three consecutive summers. They traveled to Latina, Rome, Bologna, Cessenatico and Pesaro.
“That almost got me divorced,” said Allen with a somber giggle.
Some of those kids from North, South, Southwest Philly, Germantown and other impoverished areas, like former Temple player, Dionte Christmas, went on to play major college basketball. Others have gone on to graduate school.
In 2007, while still tearing up the European leagues, he did a summer coaching internship with the San Antonio Spurs, gaining valuable experience that would soon come in handy.
During his final season as a player, he became the head coach of the Snaidero Basket franchise, becoming the first person in 15 years to be promoted to a head coaching position while still actively playing in the top European leagues in Spain, Russia, France, Greece, Turkey and Italy.
The prior summer, in 2008, Allen thought he was done with pro ball. He was planning to open his own restaurant. He spent the majority of his time studying the restaurant business and running back and forth to Lowe’s and Home Depot, pricing and strategizing interior design options.
“I got a call from a team in Italy, and the guy was like, ‘Hey Jerome, we got a kid here from Philly who just got hurt. Can you come over here and replace him for two months until he comes back?’” said Allen. “They were in 12th place when I got there. When my time was up, they were one game out of first place, so they obviously didn’t want to change that.”
“But if I stayed, the young boy was going to lose his job,” he continued. “I knew him. He was from Philly and we were close. Had it been anybody else or a different situation, I would have stayed. I know the game. We’d started winning as soon as I got there. But I knew that the kid had his whole career ahead of him, so I was like, ‘Nah, I can’t do that to him.’”
His last game was on a Sunday. He was planning to fly back home to Philly on Thursday. Four teams called, asking him to play with them for the remainder of the season. But then, Snaidero Basket called. He’d previously played with them for four years. And they were desperate. They were struggling and had just fired their head coach. So they made a unique offer, one that intrigued him.
“They asked me to come back as the player-coach,” said Allen. “The irony is that when I retired the year before, I knew they were going to hire a new coach. I actually interviewed for the job and did well. I thought I had it, but didn’t get it. So during my last year playing, I finished out the last six and a half weeks as the player-coach. It was fun. I reduced my playing time and tried to promote the growth of some of the team’s other players. It was a great experience.”
Back in Philly, having officially retired from pro ball, he was asked to serve as an assistant coach to then-Penn coach Glen Miller in August of 2009. Miller was subsequently dismissed in mid-December when Penn started the season 0-7.
Athletics Director Steve Bilsky proceeded to name Allen the interim coach. At the conclusion of the season, the interim tag was removed from his title.
“Jerome’s talents and accomplishments in life are noteworthy and familiar to the Penn community,” Bilsky said when the decision was announced. “What isn’t as well known, until you spend time with him, is the humility that coincides with his pride. It is the combination of these qualities, plus his vision to return Penn to glory, that makes me so pleased to name him the John R. Rockwell Head Coach of Men’s Basketball.”
In his first full season as the head coach in 2010-2011, the Quakers experienced a seven-game improvement from the previous year. In 2011-2012, they won 20 games, finished 11-3 in-conference and were in the hunt for the Ivy League championship up until the season’s final game.
The last two years have been tough. Last season, they fielded one of the country’s youngest teams and won only nine games. This year, decimated by injuries, they head into the final game against Princeton with a record of 8-19.
“We don’t like to lose, but I’m extremely happy with the relationship that Jerome has with Miles,” said Ramon Cartwright, the father of senior guard and Los Angeles native Miles Jackson-Cartwright. “The thing that I see in my son in terms of the change over these four years, and my wife and I were just talking this, is that Jerome has held him accountable and forced him to be more assertive as a leader.”
(Miles Jackson-Cartwright. Photo Credit: Penn Athletics)
“We have to give Pooh props for that,” Cartwright continued. “That was a struggle because it was a stretch for Miles in terms of his personality, to be able to confront the other guys while also taking a look at his own behaviors. He held his feet to the fire and was constantly preparing him. All in all, we’re very happy with how Miles’ career turned out and the legacy that he is going to leave at Penn.”
When time avails, Allen volunteers with a group from his church that mentors young inmates at the city’s Federal Detention Center. His heart aches when he sees the teenagers and young men that are incarcerated for robbery and murder.
“When I’m looking at them, I’m looking at me,” said Allen. “Life can be so crazy sometimes, because I could have made just one stupid mistake that would have changed my life entirely. That’s why I go there, because I could have easily been in their shoes if the cards were dealt a little differently. People say, you have this Ivy League degree, but that is not entirely who I am. It’s imperative that I stay connected.”
Allen is also planning to leverage his Wharton background and professional relationships to better prepare and help others. He’s talking to one of his mentors at the university, Kenneth Shropshire, who is a Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and the Director of the Wharton School’s Sports Business Initiative, about establishing a program to assist professional athletes.
When Allen was choosing an agent in 1995, he asked Shropshire to sit in on the process and advise him. The relationship has continued to grow over the years.
“Whenever we have a conversation, I’m always late for the next thing because Jerome is extremely engaging, thoughtful and he always has some very profound thoughts to share,” said Shropshire. “I don’t know too many people who are as unique as him who have gotten this type of platform. There is a lot that he wants to do, in addition to coaching.”
“I’m looking around the landscape at former players and guys who are close to retirement,” said Allen. “As I got older, I began to understand the bigger picture. I’m cool with driving my dirty little Toyota. If I wanted to get the new Porsche truck, I could. I mean, I can afford it. But for what, just to say that I have one?”
“I’m thinking about the long term and things like my childrens tuitions,” he continued. “A lot of pro athletes, it’s staggering the amount of money and assets that they waste. They accumulate all of this wealth in such a short amount of time, but when they’re done playing, they realize that they should have saved their money. Now, they have to figure out how to live from the age of 32 to 80 and they can’t function. So, Ken Shropshire and I are talking about putting together a financial literacy pilot program.”
Shropshire is hearing whispers from some in the Penn community, due to the team’s struggles, that Jerome Allen might not be answer as the team’s head coach.
“There are alumni and some others out there who say that Jerome is too cerebral, he’s too soft-spoken and he’s not a rah-rah type of coach,” said Shropshire. “Well, Bill Walsh was a quiet guy who didn’t yell or scream. And neither did John Wooden.”
Through the team’s struggles over the past two years, Allen takes umbrage at people who attempt to console him by saying, despite his team’s youth and injuries, that they play hard.
“The brand that we represent, there is a certain standard of excellence that is expected,” said Allen. “We’re not here to be competitive in the Ivy League. We’re here to win the Ivy League. When people say, ‘Your teams play hard,’ it’s like, ‘What do you mean by that?’ We’re supposed to compete and play hard every opportunity you get. That’s all I know. Two years ago, we lost the last game of the year for the Ivy League championship. I believe that the game is supposed be taught a certain way. The losing has not been easy, but I’m encouraged about where we can go from here.”
FATHER AND SON
Earlier this winter, Jerome Allen, Sr. showed up at his son’s suburban doorstep one day at 6 o’clock in the morning.
“I don’t know how he got up there to the suburbs,” said Allen. “He was walking around for three and a half hours until he found my house. He just showed up, and my wife told me that he was sitting outside.”
“Hey man, let’s hang out today,” the son told the father, as he walked out into the brisk cold morning and shook his hand.
Allen drove his father downtown and took him to his office. After breakfast, he took him to the barbershop and treated him to a haircut. He stopped at a supermarket and took his dad grocery shopping.
“He said he wanted some chicken, and then picked up one pack of chicken wings,” said Allen. “I was like, ‘Dad, it’s cold outside. You don’t have any food at your place. Fill this whole shopping cart up and get whatever you want. I gave him a couple of dollars, but not a whole lot, because he probably would have spent it all on dope.”
They drove around Philadelphia and talked. The more they conversed and opened up to one another, the more emotional his father became.
“He started crying, and I was like, ‘Dad, it’s okay. We can’t change the past. Let’s just enjoy the day,’” said Allen. “And we had a good day. Despite my father’s struggles, I’m lucky that he’s still alive. Which means that, as long as he’s around, there’s always hope for him. It was cool just to be able to hang out with my father. I actually felt like a son.”
The second half against Harvard was not much of an improvement. Penn lost the game, 83-63, doomed by their 20 turnovers, poor shot selction and passive interior defense. Despite the anguish of another loss, Allen was quick to praise the floor generalship of Harvard’s sophomore point guard, Siyani Chambers, who carved up the Quaker defense with his exceptional passing.
“He dominated the game,” Allen said at the post game press conference, looking slightly weary. “He played with his pace and played the pick-and-roll probably as well as I've seen [it] played this season.”
When addressing his team’s turnovers and their inability to close out some offensive possessions with quality shots, he harkened back to an earlier time and place.
“In my grandma's house growing up, she had this old record player,” Allen said. “The needle scratched and just kept playing the same bar over and over and over again. That's what it seems like. It's the same thing over and over again . . . I've been saying it all year. You're not going to win too many basketball games turning it over at the clip we do.”
As the gym emptied out, Allen stepped out of the press conference and talked to some alums, former players and friends who were lingering near the team’s locker room. After shaking hands and accepting their well wishes, he walked back out onto the floor and into a row of seats behind the team bench.
His mom, Janet Allen, was still there. They hugged. He kissed her on the cheek. Briefly, he flashed an incandescent smile. She repeated a familiar phrase, one that she's been telling him since his teenage days. It has always proven to be true.
“Be patient,” she says. “Keep working hard. Better days are going to come. Watch boy, I’m telling you.”