Sharing hoops and history

Men's basketball coachesPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo
Jerome Allen (left) is Penn’s new men’s basketball head coach, and his friend Dan Leibovitz (right) is an assistant coach.

Jerome Allen and Dan Leibovitz go back. Way back, to the days of VHS tapes, Cross Colours and Nintendo’s Tecmo Super Bowl.

They first met as freshmen in the late 1980s at Episcopal Academy (which was located in Merion, Pa. at the time), became friends and teammates on the basketball court, kept that friendship going through college and now have been reunited as Penn’s new basketball coaches.

“I remember the first day of school, being in the gym,” says Leibovitz, who at 36 is Penn’s new assistant basketball coach. “All I remember is being there from whatever time we were allowed to get in and staying there until it closed. From there, it just felt like we connected for life.”

Allen, 37, is the John R. Rockwell Head Coach of Men’s Basketball, and he says he doesn’t recall much about that opening day at Episcopal, except for the four friends he made, one of whom was Leibovitz. “It seemed instantly that we just became friends for life,” he says.

As freshmen at Episcopal, Allen and Leibovitz tried out for the varsity basketball team coached by the legendary Dan Dougherty. Both were cut.

“I definitely remember that,” Leibovitz says.

They were, of course, disappointed. But Allen says the rejection was a blessing in disguise, one that brought he and Leibovitz closer.

“I thought we became better basketball players because of it,” he says.
By their senior year, Leibovitz and Allen had not only improved, but were considered to be key parts of the best high school team in the Philadelphia region. Episcopal was ranked No. 1, ahead of a Simon Gratz team that featured future NBA stars Rasheed Wallace and Aaron McKie.

Both young men were accepted to Penn after high school. Leibovitz, in fact, has a long family history with the University: his grandfather, mother and aunt are alumni and his parents’ first date was on Penn’s campus.

“One of the earliest memories I have is coming to The Palestra in the ’80s as a ball boy, under the basket picking up streamers,” he says.

Allen, however, took some convincing to come to Penn. He almost didn’t.
“I wasn’t really aware of the significance of this university,” he says, recalling those days. “Even going to Episcopal, I knew [Penn] was an Ivy League school, but I wasn’t sold on it, for lack of a better word.”

When it was time to make his final decision, Allen confided in Leibovitz and turned to Leibovitz’s father for advice. Allen says he remembers that conversation like it was yesterday. Leibovitz’s father told Allen that the other schools that were recruiting him were fine institutions, but if Allen had an opportunity to attend an Ivy League school, he owed it to himself to continue along that path.

“God be my witness, that was the deciding factor in me coming to Penn,” Allen recalls.

Leibovitz says he pushed Allen to attend Penn because he realized the University could open doors for his good friend. “I just could see down the road how he could put himself in a position like he’s in today.”

A four-year starter from 1991 to 1995, Allen led the Quakers to a record 48-game Ivy League winning streak, three Ivy League titles and NCAA Tournament births, and was named Ivy League Player of the Year during his sophomore and junior seasons. In 2009, when Allen was inducted into the Big Five Hall of Fame, former Penn Coach Fran Dunphy called him the best player in Penn basketball history.

The Minnesota Timberwolves selected Allen with the 49th pick in the 1995 NBA Draft. He spent two seasons in the NBA before playing overseas.

Leibovitz says that all through high school and college he considered becoming a basketball coach after his playing days were over. In 1994, he began his coaching career at Episcopal. Two years later, he moved to Temple University as an assistant under Hall of Fame Coach John Chaney. Also serving as Chaney’s top recruiter, Leibovitz was named Best Assistant in the Atlantic 10 in 2005 by Street & Smith’s basketball magazine.

In 2006, Leibovitz was named head coach at the University of Hartford, a position he held until resigning earlier this year, when his and Allen’s paths crossed once again.

After retiring from basketball, Allen returned to Penn in August of 2009 as a volunteer assistant coach. In December, he was promoted to interim head coach, and in March, the interim tag was removed.

One of Allen’s first acts was to bring Leibovitz on board. Yes, they are friends, Allen says, but that isn’t why he brought Leibovitz back to Penn.
“In spite of our relationship, he’s decorated in this business,” Allen says. “Where he has been, what he has done, to me makes it a no-brainer. And it just so happens we’re really good friends.”

Once the king of Ivy League basketball, Penn has fallen on hard times as of late. But Allen says he isn’t interested in reliving Penn’s past glory. He intends to make the guys on his team better players, better men and productive citizens. “It’s not about what I did or what I experienced,” he says, “it’s about the kids that we currently have and their experience.”

Allen says he realizes how privileged he is to hold the job of head coach.
“It doesn’t happen like this all the time,” he says. “There are so many people who’ve been in this business for a number of years that don’t get the opportunity that we have been afforded. You want to work as hard as you can.”

Originally published on May 20, 2010