The man who transformed Atlantic City basketball is a soft-spoken former recreation-league coach who couldn’t decide if he wanted to teach geometry or attend law school.
Gene Allen chose to teach mathematics to special-education students because he figured he could make a bigger impact in the classroom than with a law firm. He never planned on altering the history of one of South Jersey’s most visible programs.
But that’s what happened. Once a program known for great players, supportive fans and post-season frustration, Atlantic City has become the quintessential tournament team – tough-minded, patient, balanced, resourceful in pressure situations.
Atlantic City (24-5) will make its third appearance in the state championship game in nine years under Allen in Sunday's Group 4 final against Elizabeth at Rutgers University.
"We've had some pretty good players," said Allen, downplaying his role in turning Atlantic City from a team known for March misery into a team known for March madness.
Atlantic City always has featured great players, from Walt Montford to Willie Glass and Bobby Martin and Lou Roe, just to name a few of the top athletes who have worn that Vikings' jersey and thrilled the legion of fans who have followed the program with near-religious fervor for years and years.
But here's a hard truth: Atlantic City wasn't known for tournament success. In fact, the Vikings sometimes seemed cursed by bad breaks in post-season play, from Shawnee's dramatic victory over a previously undefeated Atlantic City team in 1992 to all those tough losses against archrival Camden.
Allen grew up in Philadelphia but moved to Atlantic City as a teen-ager. He said his "heart and soul" has been with Atlantic City basketball for years, even though his parents made him attend Holy Spirit.
"I had to listen to my parents, Allen said. "But I used to go to so many Atlantic City games."
Allen was an assistant for a few years under former Atlantic City coach Joe Fussner, who led the Vikings from 1988-95. Allen also spent about a dozen years as a recreation coach, gaining a reputation as a mentor with a soft spot for many of the city's disadvantaged youngsters.
But since taking over the varsity program in 2004, Allen has become something else: A big-game coach. His teams have won four South Jersey Group 4 titles; that's the same number the Vikings won in the 80-plus seasons before Allen became their coach.
He led Atlantic City to its only state title in 2005. His Vikings on Sunday will make their third appearance in the state finals since 2005, tied with Haddonfield for the most by a South Jersey team.
"I think our league has a lot to do with it," Allen said of the Cape-Atlantic League. "We played so many of what I call, 'possession games' in our league. That prepares us for the state tournament.
"Our kids want to run up and down. But that doesn't work in playoff games. The teams in our league, like Holy Spirit and Middle Township and St. Augustine and some others, they don't let us do that. We have to find a way to win these possession games against them."
Allen is being modest. The Cape-Atlantic League has been strong for years, and opponents have long tried to slow down the Vikings.
What's happened under Allen is that the Vikings have learned to flourish in those kinds of games, which has led to post-season success. His teams are 25-8 in tournament games since 2004. This year's team has won 19 of its last 20 with balanced scoring, depth and a commitment to man-to-man defense.
"We were 5-4 and coach asked us what we wanted to accomplish," Atlantic City senior guard Martel Johnson said. "We all said, 'State championship.' He said, 'OK, you want that you have to pick up the defense and guard people for 94 feet."
These Vikings win close, low-scoring games. They are 7-0 in tournament games since Feb. 25, counting two wins and a title in the Cape-Atlantic League tournament. The average score of those games has been 52-47, and two have gone to overtime.
That always has been how you win in March, especially in Group 4 -- with diligent man-to-man defense, with offensive execution in the fourth quarter, with clutch free-throw shooting.
That never was Atlantic City's reputation -- until they hired a math teacher who taught them the score.
-- Phil Anastasia