You all know that I've been covering Penn basketball for a while now. Of the many great names whose pictures adorn the walls of the Palestra, the Quaker who has always interested me more than any other has been Jerome Allen.
I never saw him play in person. I've seen highlight clips here and there, particularly of Penn's win over Nebraska in the 1994 NCAA Tournament. But there is almost an entire generation now of local college basketball fans who only know Allen from the history books.
After spending two years in the NBA, Allen played most of his professional career in Europe. But after this past season, he decided it was time to come home. So he moved back to Philadelphia and became an assistant coach at his alma mater.
Yesterday afternoon, just a few days after his wife gave birth to their fourth child, I finally met Allen for the first time. We sat down for a pretty lengthy interview, which you can read below.
From where I sat, he seemed quite excited to be back in Philadelphia and at Penn. Given the Quakers' struggles in recent years, perhaps that energy might give the program a bit of a boost. We'll see.
Q. What made you decide to come back now?
A. Well, I knew at the latter part of my career that coaching was definitely something I wanted to do. As my career started to wind down, I tried to learn as much about the field as I possibly could while still playing. So I did an internship with the [San Antonio] Spurs' staff on their Summer League team out in Las Vegas [in 2007]. That really propelled my interest even further.
From that point on, I said, this is something I really want to get into. I finished playing, and spoke with Coach Miller, and he said there may be an opportunity. And I said, well if there is, that is something I'd like to consider.
Q. You had quite a run in Italy.
A. Yeah. I spent the bulk of my playing career in Italy, and played more or less eight years in the country for four different teams. My youngest daughter was born in Italy. So I've been blessed with so much - the game has taken me all across the world. I'm appreciative of not only the process to get to that level, but I'm more appreciative of the journey that I was able to partake in.
Q. A lot of Ivy League players have gone on to play in Europe - including another former Penn guard, Ibrahim Jaaber, who plays in Italy now. Did you get a chance to talk to them while you were over there?
A. Absolutely. I had the chance to play against and with Mason Rocca, who played at Princeton, for two years. I played against [former Penn guard] Michael Jordan, I played against Ibby. So to see those dynamics unfold was something special.
One year, Vince Curran, who was a senior when I was a freshman and now does the radio for the Quakers, he came over to visit and we were playing Ibby's team at the same time. So it was a kind of a Penn reunion. And the team that Ibby played on had a guy who played at Temple [David Hawkins, from what I can tell - J.T.], so we kind of turned into a Big 5 reunion.
It was kind of special, especially coming from this university, to see guys do well at the collegiate level and then have opportunities to play at the next level.
Q. You said you were with the Spurs for a while. What was it like learning from Gregg Popovich?
A. For the month or so I was there, "Pop" wasn't around, but he was "there." What I mean by that is that he was traveling, getting ready for Tony Parker's wedding at the time - they had just come off winning a championship. But he and R.C. Buford, they do such a good job of molding the environment, the culture, the Spurs brand, so that [Summer League] head coach Don Newman just did a really good job of implementing their brand of basketball. And although [Popovich] wasn't there, I had the feeling that he was there because things still went according to plan.
Q. What has changed around here since you left?
A. Even if you just look at 40th Street with the new high rises, the movie theater, the Marathon Grill and all the other retail outlets there - Huntsman Hall [the main Wharton School building] used to be the school bookstore. Steinberg-Dietrich [the main Wharton building before Hunstman Hall opened] is no longer the Steinberg-Dietrich I knew it to be.
And just all the [athletic facility] development going on here with the Penn Connects plan. It's exciting. I'm a little bit in awe. But as I'm in the moment, I just try to take it all in and just say that this is really how things are supposed to evolve.
You can imagine - the first day I set foot on campus was 18 years ago.
Q. From what I've heard, you've done a lot with current Penn guard Zack Rosen since you came back. Can you talk about what that's been like?
A. Prior to my accepting the position, what I normally did in the summertime was find a core group of local guys and work them out during the summer. Zack Rosen and Jack Eggleston and a couple of other local kids would call my phone every morning to make sure I was up and was going to be on time. They really had the thirst for trying, wanting to get better.
One of the things I give these guys credit for is the fact that a lot of people want to get better, but not everyone has to get better. Those guys made the commitment that they had to get better. I just tried to share what I know about the game. I learned some things from then and I would hope that they learned some things from myself.
Q. I want to go back in time a bit to the Nebraska game in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, which was Penn's last win in the NCAAs. It's probably what a lot of people around my age know you for best. For the people who weren't there, what was that day like?
A. It was unique in the sense that it was the first time in my career that we went past the first round in the NCAA Tournament. But it was more unique in the sense that everyone took part in it. What I mean by that is that it wasn't just the 15 players we had, it wasn't the four coaches we had, the four managers we had. We were in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island in New York, and if there were 12,000 fans at that game. Penn probably had 8,000 fans there.
To be able to share that with so many people was the best feeling that a player could ever have. To really be able to do something and know that other people were sharing in the success. My own mother ran on to the court. I asked her what she was doing on the court and told her to get off the court and she said no.
She felt like she won the game also. The 8,000 fans we had there were cheering, going crazy. They felt like they were playing defense and making assists and making threes. The game of basketball is so special in that it touches so many people. That's really what stands out in my mind about that game.
Q. What do you think it's going to be like to walk out on to the floor of the Palestra as a coach for the first time?
A. I'm quite sure that it will be a little funny, but I've been in that building so many times after my career here ended that I imagine it just being what it is - me having the opportunity to help our guys get better. My playing days are long over with and I try to leave them where they are, which is in the past. I try to focus on how I can help put my stamp on what coach Miller is trying to do here.
Q. Along that line, I have one more question. When the Temple game comes around, you're going to have Fran Dunphy, Matt Langel and Shawn Trice on the other side of the floor. Have you thought about what that is going to be like?
A. I mean, my best friend is LeShawn Trice [his actual name], who was my roomate at Penn. I will treat it as if we were in the gym playing pickup ball and I had to play against those guys. I want to win. And then after the game, we can laugh and joke and talk. But Temple is obviously on our schedule and it is a game we are going to prepare to win. It is a game that should be a difficult one but I hope we come out on the positive side.
Then after the game, I think my relationships with Coach Dunph and Matt Langel and LeShawn Trice and Coach [Dave] Duke will still continue, but we're in this business to win games.