February Contents |
Can Come True
Two former Palestra partners
are playing in the NBA
By Noel Hynd
IT IS NOT UNUSUAL for Penn alumni to pick off good jobs after leaving the University, but two members of the Class of 1995 have done it in a higher profile fashion than most. Jerome Allen, W'95, and Matt Maloney, C'95, two mainstays of Penn's basketball dynasty of the early 1990s, have gone on to greater and more prominent things in -- where else? -- the National Basketball Association.
Allen started his rookie season with a fair amount of playing time at point guard for the Timberwolves -- as much as twenty minutes some nights -- and occasionally started for coach Bill Blair. But after clocking 279 minutes in the first 27 games, he saw only 83 minutes from January 1 onward, after Blair was replaced as coach by Flip Saunders.
"[Jerome] did a really good job when I was there," Blair said recently. "But when I left they went with Derrick Martin, instead."
Last summer, Allen became a free agent and, to the surprise of no one, landed on his feet -- in Indiana, which had earlier been interested in him and where Blair had by then been hired as an assistant to coach Larry Brown.
"Larry Brown is a teacher of the game, and I call myself a student," says Allen, a Philadelphia native. "[A] lot of guys can't do the simple things. I just try to listen and be attentive."
Indiana has used Jerome almost entirely in a defensive role, primarily as a back-up for Travis Best, but he has been playing regularly again. As of January 6, Allen had appeared in all 30 of the Pacers' games and logged 401 minutes. Those who watched him on the court at Penn are not surprised at his tenacious defense. Something else about Jerome's game looks familiar this year, too. He again wears the number 53 he wore at Penn in honor of his mother, who was born in 1953.
A key improvement in his professional play this year is his increased accuracy from three-point territory (17-35, .486). Indeed, Allen is second on the team (behind Reggie Miller) in three-pointers, even though playing a primarily defensive role and coming off the bench.
"I felt coming out of college, fundamentally, I was sound enough to play in the NBA," Maloney has said. "But there's a lot of things to learn about the league. I was fortunate to have a coach in Grand Rapids, Brendan Suhr, who taught me a lot. He let me make all the mistakes and learn from them."
There couldn't have been too many mistakes, for Maloney had caught the eyes of NBA scouts by mid-season of last year, demonstrating, as Coach Suhr phrased it, "the toughness, the courage, the defense, the positioning" that any smart coach would want on his team.
Those qualities also fit into the overall category known as "fundamentals," which is what one would also expect from the son of a coach. Maloney's father, Jim, who passed away suddenly last May 3, was the long-time assistant to John Chaney at Temple. Jim taught his son well, on the court and off, and it has shown this season.
"My father established himself as someone who was respected," Matt commented recently. "If I can be the legacy he left behind, if I can put that on the floor, it will be a tribute to him."
Signed by the Houston Rockets in September, Maloney was one of a crew of "no name" reserves to join an NBA club whose two championship seasons in 1994 and 1995 are all that have interrupted the Chicago Bulls' six-run for league supremacy.
"Just Who Are These Guys?" asked The Houston Chronicle in an October headline. Certainly, no one needed a scorecard to identify front-court regulars Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, all future Hall of Famers and all three recently chosen as among the Fifty Greatest NBA players of all time. But the anonymity of the new back-court players even carried into the Houston dressing room, where the following conversation was overheard this past October.
Drexler: Hakeem, can you believe those new point guards?
Olajuwon: I know they can play. All of them.
Drexler: Do you know who they are?
Fate then played a strange hand. Starting point guard Brent Price went down with a broken arm just before the current season began, and Emanual Davis, the other "starting" guard blew out a knee for 1996-97. Maloney then stepped in and won the vacant starting position from the other reserves.
What followed was fairy tale stuff. Matt found himself as the Rockets' starting point guard on opening night and responded with 8 points and only one turnover in a 96-85 victory over Sacramento. In the next game, while Charles Barkley was accumulating a spectacular 33 rebounds, Maloney contributed 17 points and four assists, getting all five of his field goals from the three- point range -- no shock to Palestra fans.
Suddenly, the Rockets were on a roll, amassing a won-lost record of 12-1 and 17-2 to start the season. Maloney was on a personal roll as well. Against Portland, Maloney sank a game-tying field goal to force overtime. Against Boston he scored 21 points and made two game-turning steals against Washington. There were some clutch buckets against the Golden State team that had cut him a season earlier.
And then there was the first game against Philadelphia as a Houston Rocket, a game that began with a Maloney-to-Barkley-to-Maloney-for-3 and concluded in a 123-108 clubbing of the 76ers. Maloney ended the evening with another 21 points, tying Barkley for the team high score -- and contributing five to a new Houston club record of 16 treys in a single game. By December, USA Today was referring to Maloney as "the surprise rookie of the season." Through January 6, he averaged 10.2 points per game and was the one Rocket to start each of the club's 32 contests.
"He can play. He's tough and he can shoot," commented Olajuwon, who was by then more familiar with his new point guard.
Coach Rudy Tomjanovich echoes many of the same thoughts. "The kid has toughness. It's like big brother, little brother out there."
One of the big brothers phrases things in an earthier fashion. "I tell [Matt] if he messes up we're going to waive his butt," Charles Barkley jokes -- maybe.
Not that Maloney ever gets a night off playing defense. In one three-game stretch he successfully guarded potent scorers Kenny Anderson (Portland), Nick Van Exel (Los Angeles) and Mark Price (Golden State).
"It's a good experience just to go out there and defend these guys," Maloney commented recently about such match-ups. "[Defense] is something I've worked on my whole life."
"It's technique," observes Tomjanovich, "but also smarts in knowing when to back off a guy to negate some quickness. But then it's also guts. Matt doesn't quit. He just keeps fighting."
Maloney's success in his first few months in the NBA has generated a generous amount of newspaper attention, particularly in Houston and Philadelphia. But Matt tends to let his confident game and his belief in himself do the talking. He also lets the fundamentals of life and basketball that he learned from Jim Maloney carry him. While he says it's "great" to be on a team like Houston, he adds, "I've always been on a winning team. And I'm just playing basketball still." No matter how impressive the results have been, in other words, the basics don't change. It's still fundamentals.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that Brent Price, whom Maloney replaced, is odds-on to reclaim his starting job after the broken arm heals early in 1997. "[Price is] making too much money just to sit around," comments Dale Robertson, a basketball writer for The Houston Chronicle. Price also owns the league record for consecutive three-pointers made.
Conventional wisdom is often wrong, however, which might be one reason why, at this writing, Maloney is still a starter for the team that figures to have a title showdown with the Chicago Bulls in June. Dislodging him from a starting position will definitely not be easy. With the team off to a 24-8 start with the current line-up, why tinker with success?
"I'm willing to play as many minutes as they want me to play," Maloney commented recently. "Whenever they call me, I'm going to be ready to respond."
Said like a true professional. And like former teammate Jerome Allen, after leaving the Palestra, Matt Maloney is giving Penn hoop fans another fantastic encore.