The Jerome Allen story: A closer read

Jerome Allen was inducted into Class X of the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017. He’s no longer in the Hall of Fame now, and understandably so, But the good he did for Penn shouldn’t be shunted aside either. (Penn Sports Network video)

It was one year ago today that allegations that Jerome Allen took bribes were first reported by Bloomberg and the Miami Herald.

But the passage of time didn’t make Sports Illustrated’s deep dive last week into how Jerome Allen became guilty of bribery, wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion any easier to digest.

Most Penn basketball supporters will find it an uncomfortable read, but its revelations are simply too many to ignore.

They reconfirm what we already knew – one of Penn basketball’s most admired figures used his head coaching position for personal gain at the expense of the program.

But taken as a whole, the article’s revelations paint a far more holistic portrait than that.

Allen is and will always be more than an implicated figure on a witness stand, and his story as told by SI merits closer examination – as do the institutions and forces that shaped it. As someone who covered Allen and Penn basketball extensively for the Daily Pennsylvanian from 2012 to 2014, I thought I’d do a closer read of SI’s story, portions of which are italicized below.

On an afternoon in early June of 2013, Jerome Allen sat under a golden chandelier in the lobby of the Fontainebleau, the famously opulent hotel in the heart of Miami’s Millionaires’ Row, and waited for the man who had promised to change his life.

Ben Baskin’s lede takes us back to five months before the announcement that Steve Bilsky, the Penn athletic director and fellow Red & Blue hoops legend who gambled on hiring the near-coaching neophyte Allen back in 2013 and defended him despite a rocky 2012-13 campaign, would retire the following summer.

Bilsky told me in 2013 after a 2-13 start to Allen’s third full season at the helm that he was still confident in Allen, although he gave a time window for potential reassessment.

“I’m not saying come back to me in two years and I’ll give you a better answer, but I’m saying come back to me in two years and I’ll give you a better answer,” Bilsky said.

So Allen’s fateful turn at the Fontainebleau followed a rough season that had already darkened the program’s outlook for some Penn followers.

At that moment, Allen had a sterling reputation within basketball. His life was an inspiration to many: He had risen from the North Philadelphia projects to become a star point guard at Penn, the Ivy League player of the year in 1992 and ’93.

Is Sean Jackson chopped liver? Jackson was the Ivy League Player of the Year in 1992. Allen was Ivy Player of the Year in 1993 and 1994, sharing the honor with Columbia’s Buck Jenkins in ’93.

There’s a story that Allen likes to tell about his childhood. It starts with how he grew up in Philadelphia’s Germantown projects, living with 18 relatives in a five-bedroom house. He shared a bed with his sister until he was 15 and watched an aunt and uncle sell crack out of their home. Allen’s father was an addict and left when his son was 10; his mother, a hotel maid, raised him. While Jerome had always flashed athletic promise, he was on a wayward path. At 13, he showed up to a basketball practice drunk.

One day in eighth grade he was hanging out at the Gustine Recreation Center in the East Falls projects and sneaked into the coordinator’s office. But rather than pilfer items—like Ping-Pong balls or cans of soda—as he often did, Allen sat down and began his math homework. When the coordinator walked in, he started to yell. But then he realized what Allen was doing, saw potential and made some calls. “That one particular time, that interaction,” Allen said in court, “led to me having an opportunity to go to the Episcopal Academy.”

It’s important that the bribes that Allen began taking from Philip Esformes in 2013 do not obscure the remarkable journey that Allen made just to get to Penn two decades earlier. Allen was – and still is – a shining example of how perseverance can pay off for socioeconomically underprivileged youth, whether through basketball or otherwise.

At first Allen was bitter about his schoolmates’ privilege. But soon he recognized the opportunity he had been given, friends say, and adapted, becoming friendly with jocks and theater geeks alike. He hung out at their homes and got summer jobs at their parents’ companies. He stayed out of trouble and spent all of his time in study hall or on the basketball court, growing from a freshman who didn’t make varsity into one of the best guards in the country. “He was as great a person that you could be,” says Gina Buggy, the school’s longtime athletic director.

More than most Penn students who benefited from well-to-do backgrounds, Allen made his path to Penn happen, fitting in where it couldn’t have been easy to fit in and making himself a talent as a student-athlete that college programs couldn’t ignore.

Sixteen programs in all, some of them in top conferences, offered Allen scholarships. Instead, he chose to play for Penn coach Fran Dunphy. Back then, Allen wanted to be an accountant; a Wharton degree, he knew, would enable him to find a job and support his mother.

So Allen apparently did look to Penn as the key to financially shoring up his family’s future.

Allen led the Quakers to three straight Ivy League titles and a 48-game conference winning streak, which remains a record. He forged a reputation for being humble, thoughtful, soft-spoken—so much so that reporters struggled to capture his voice on their recorders. Teammates describe him as intensely focused and disciplined. “Just determined for greatness,” recalls former teammate Ken Hans.

I can confirm that two decades later, Daily Pennsylvanian reporters were still struggling to capture his voice on their recorders. Allen was never particularly revealing and usually had little to say, and at postgame press scrums, there really wasn’t much to say following loss after loss. But Allen picked his words carefully with a quiet intensity win or lose.

On campus, Allen was revered. He was stopped so often, and became so engaged in every conversation, that friends say a 10-minute walk across campus took an hour when they traveled with the man some took to calling the Mayor.

I was glad during my years at Penn that it seemed likely that a majority of Penn students didn’t know who Allen or other pivotal figures in Penn Athletics were. The Penn State sex abuse scandal that broke in November 2011 made it clear what can happen to a university’s ethics and self-image when it associates itself too closely with athletic program leaders. For decades, people thought of Joe Paterno when they thought of Penn State, both on campus and off. That Jerome Allen, a basketball coach, wasn’t edging out Ben Franklin or William Penn as the faces of a research university anytime soon suited me just fine.

But Allen said little about his difficult upbringing to classmates and the media. He did confide in some teammates, like Cedric Laster, who played with Allen for three seasons. The two discovered luxuries they had no idea they lacked, like summer homes. “Being at Penn was opening the door to a whole new world that you on your own wouldn’t have access to,” Laster says. As another of Allen’s confidants at the time puts it, “When you come from where he came from, and see all these kids at Penn, for him it was like, Why can’t I have that?”

Penn is a place full of privilege, a fact that can be disorienting for students who get there via humbler backgrounds. As someone who got to Penn from QuestBridge’s a National College Match program for students from low-income backgrounds, I was nonplussed when classmates casually discussed hedge funds or recounted escapades abroad. But my socioeconomic background wasn’t nearly as dire as Allen’s, and I can’t imagine the degree of difficulty for Allen as he adjusted to the whole new world that was Penn.

Allen did his best to give back, tutoring in West Philadelphia and inviting teens from his old neighborhood to visit campus. When the Timberwolves selected him with the 49th pick in the 1995 NBA draft, he was able to do more. Earning the league minimum of $200,000, he would claim that he supported 15 family members and friends—a number of those who know him say was not hyperbole. He did have personal indulgences—including a Range Rover and a Mercedes CL 500 Coupe—but one NBA teammate remembers that whenever Allen passed a homeless person on the street, he would hand over a $50 bill.

After two seasons in the NBA, Allen moved overseas; for more than a decade he played in France, Turkey, Greece and Italy, developing a taste for slim-cut suits. During summers he would return to play in Philadelphia’s famed Sonny Hill League, one of the few older players who had time for the younger kids in the crowd. In 1999, Allen founded an organization called H.O.O.D. (Helping Our Own Develop) Enriched, a basketball and tutoring program for underprivileged teens. He often shared his story, stressing the importance of education. Over the course of three summers, Allen says he spent $400,000 to take 36 kids to Italy, where they played local teams, ate gelato and pizza, and saw a world far removed from their own.

“He gave us hope,” says Mike Jordan, a Philadelphia native who would go on to star at Penn. “I looked at his example as a way for me to do the right things.”

Allen may not be in the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame anymore, but that doesn’t change the fact that Allen was a much-needed ambassador for Penn basketball to many young people.

After the first seven games of that season—all losses—Miller was fired and Allen was promoted to interim coach, despite his lack of experience. He finished out the season 6-15, but Penn gave him the permanent job anyway, hoping he would invigorate fans and revitalize fund-raising by bringing back, as one person connected to the program puts it, “the Jerome Allen magic.”

“But it was unfair to Jerome,” the person continues. “He was not ready.”

It’s still remarkable that Bilsky named Jerome Allen interim head coach of Penn basketball after only seven games as a volunteer assistant, passing over John Gallagher and Mike Martin, and almost as remarkable that Bilsky then made him permanent head coach.

Allen’s coaching style was tough. Practices were long and demanding, and he would often berate players for mistakes. Some left the program. But those who stayed profess love and admiration for Allen, many calling him a father figure.

Every Thanksgiving the coach would bring his players to a soup kitchen to feed the homeless, and then host them for dinner. His wife, Aida, whom he married when he was playing overseas, would cook turkey and stuffing, ziti and corn—and Allen would instruct his players to say please and thank you.

He made sure they always dressed appropriately and took off their hats at team meals; he helped with mock job interviews, introduced them to notable alumni and taught the importance of punctuality, eye contact and a firm handshake.

Says Rob Belcore, who played three seasons for Allen, “I am seven years in the working world, and I’ve never showed up to any meeting anything other than early.”

Nothing to add here other than that Allen did grasp that being a Division I college basketball coach means more than coaching college basketball.

At Ivy League schools, where ticket sales and TV contracts bring in a fraction of what they do at bigger programs, fund-raising is a major responsibility for coaches. During Allen’s tenure the administration would often implore him to court donors. In his 2014 year-end review, Allen was told that he needed “to keep and maintain strong communication with the alumni for development purposes.” So he spent hours at Penn fund-raisers, working alumni inside stately Main Line houses and at backyard barbecues.

Unfortunately, being a Division I college basketball coach means doing that too. It’s easy for fans to overlook just how much glad-handing comes with Division I coaching. Thriving through the grind of recruiting trips and film sessions isn’t enough. You have to be a salesman inside living rooms, on social media and everywhere in between, representing big-money beasts that always need feeding. When the winning isn’t enough and or the relationships with program boosters sour, the coaching carousel spins again, student-athletes transfer to compete under a coach that they actually signed up to play for and a rebranding sold as a “rebuilding” is required. College basketball is a business first and foremost, and the Ivy League is most definitely a part of that.

There were other financial stresses Allen didn’t share. In the late 1990s, during his playing career, he faced a series of civil suits over unpaid debts—$5,000 owed to a car-leasing company, $13,000 to a bank, $6,700 to a landlord. And in 2011, while Penn employed Allen as its coach, the school sued him for nearly $25,000 for failing to pay off two decades of accrued interest on a loan he had taken out as a student.

It’s never good when you’re suing your own head coach. It’s never good when someone with money problems is in a position that requires them to hobnob with and solicit rich donors. This was a sketchy situation, and Penn should have known to keep a closer eye than it apparently did on Allen given the 2011 lawsuit. But more on that later.

 … Allen went back to the Esformes’s $4.5 million estate—lined by palm trees and with a full court in the back—to meet Philip for the first time. There, Esformes told Allen it was his dream for Morris to play basketball at Penn and go to Wharton. “Family for life,” he promised the coach.

The impetus for this sordid business was Philip Esformes wanting his son Morris to play basketball at Penn and go to Wharton. There was a lot of prestige to be gained on both fronts, but why? Why is the social capital that comes with being a student-athlete at an Ivy League university so alluring?

Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, said in a piece published in The Atlantic in March trying to make sense of the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, “We’ve created a crisis of access to these social-status-granting institutions … If you keep something as an extra-scarce commodity, then you will encourage behaviors by certain people, including crimes and bribery and all sorts of bad things.”

With more than 100,000 students enrolled, Arizona State is anything but one of these “social-status-granting institutions,” broadening its impact by eschewing exclusivity and the prestige that comes with it.

Adam Harris, Atlantic staff writer, writes:

How can colleges fix this crisis? The simplest way would likely be for selective institutions to stop being so selective and enroll more students. Instead of carefully crafting admitted classes—taking a little bit of diversity and a little bit of athleticism and a little bit of legacy and mixing them into the ideal freshman stew—institutions could open their doors and serve more students, Julie Posselt, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, told me. (Though USC was mentioned in the suit, Posselt was unconnected to the scandal.) Selective institutions would undoubtedly take a “prestige hit” because of that, but it could alter the way parents think about college: not as social capital to be bought, but as an opportunity for learning and growth. 

That is, in fact, what college is or at least should be about. Back to the SI story:

It was easy for Allen to get Morris admitted into Wharton—just as it was for the other coaches involved in similar schemes. While Ivy League coaches cannot offer athletic scholarships, they do create priority lists for the admissions office. All Allen had to do was list Morris as one of the team’s five recruits. There was no further oversight. As Alanna Shanahan—Penn’s associate athletic director at the time—testified in court, “I have to have basically total trust [in the coach].”

Players on that priority list are “99% likely” to be admitted, Shanahan said, as long as they are above the Academic Index (AI) floor. AI is a ranking unique to the Ivy League, incorporating GPA and standardized-test scores, with all teams required to hit a certain threshold. It is no secret that Ivy League coaches, in every sport, manipulate the AI. Often, mediocre players with high grades are recruited simply to balance out the team’s index. In one year-end review, the athletic department admonished Allen for his recruits’ lack of “academic ability.”

So Penn had “total trust” in the head coach it had sued in 2011.

On the same day that SI published this story, I got the latest Pennsylvania Gazette in the mail featuring an in-depth interview with Penn admissions dean Eric Furda in which he was asked to explain what Penn learned from the revelations surfaced by the Operation Varsity Blues investigation and whether Penn had implemented any policy designed to safeguard itself from “these kind of abuses” in the future.

Furda said that Penn was “unfortunately … a little bit ahead of the curve of Varsity Blues” because of Allen, already looking at “our processes and our systems and our safeguards and our checks and balances, to make sure that something like this does not happen again.”

“We need to show that there are repercussions,” Furda added. “ …But the bottom line here is there is still some implicit trust between our department and the people in those departments.”

It makes sense that there should be some implicit trust between schools and their coaches, but there’s still plenty of reason for concern that men and women in the high-pressure, high-turnover profession of Division I college basketball coaching might abuse their positions like Allen and many other coaches have.

So Penn needs to be more transparent about what specific policies it has implemented or updated since it learned of the Allen-Esformes relationship to ensure that another such relationship doesn’t happen again. That transparency should begin with Penn releasing the results of its investigation into the Allen bribery allegations, first announced by Penn Athletics only three days after the allegations were first reported in July 2018.

The Daily Pennsylvanian reported in October that Penn Athletics was in the “final stages” of an internal investigation conducted by hired outside legal counsel.  Just because the investigation has been internal doesn’t mean its results should be kept a secret. The alumni and students who support Penn basketball should know what the school found over the course of its investigation, what the scope of that investigation was and what steps it has taken to prevent future corruption.

Earlier today, the Daily Pennsylvanian

Penn Associate Athletic Director of Administration and Strategic Communications Kevin Bonner did tell the Daily Pennsylvanian Thursday that Penn Athletics “continues to fully cooperate with the NCAA regarding the Jerome Allen case. As the case is still being processed, we are unable to comment further at this time.”

“Penn thoroughly reviewed everything surrounding the situation, and as soon as we’re at liberty to proceed forward, after that part of the trial at least, we will,” Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun told the Daily Pennsylvanian in February.

So we’ll see.

“ … (Morris) had an AI score of 211, the second-highest for any recruit in Allen’s tenure as coach. But, Allen said in court, he could have found a better player with the same AI “from anywhere in the country.” Allen also gave Morris one of the team’s two Wharton spots that year, which Penn coaches often use to lure their most prized recruits …

As Allen and Esformes’s relationship progressed, the coach began to bring four of his players down to Miami with him, Quakers who had rough backgrounds similar to his own. They’d stay at the mansion, hang out and play basketball with Morris—often at the two-story facility Philip had built down the road, replete with an indoor court, weight room and kitchen. At times Allen ran them through what amounted to a typical Penn practice.

This became a somewhat open secret among the Quakers. Still, Allen feared their agreement was getting too public. He often pleaded with Esformes to tighten his circle.

In court, Allen recalled being alarmed when one of his assistants at Penn asked why he was in Miami.” 

Instead of giving that Wharton slot to someone that actually helped a struggling program, Allen apparently looped in several players into his self-defeating corruption, flying to Miami on a nearly monthly basis when he could have been connecting with prospective Penn student-athletes.

Baskin’s story ends with Allen on the witness stand saying he holds himself accountable. But Allen’s own story doesn’t end there.

Allen was sentenced to four years of probation, six months of house arrest, 600 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $202,000 fine and an $18,000 forfeiture judgment to the U.S. government.

He’ll continue on as an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics and aim to live up to his promise to his family, made in a statement last October, to be a better man.

Part of his story going forward will be what response the Penn community has in store for him. Allen has already been purged from the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame, something that the Daily Pennsylvanian lobbied for in an editorial in March.

But Fran Dunphy, Miles Jackson-Cartwright, Dau Jok and many others in the Penn community have come to Allen’s defense since the admissions scandal broke, praising his character and leadership.

Decades before it called for Allen to be wiped away from the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame, the Daily Pennsylvanian in 1995 ran a story – notably sans quotes from Allen – about his impact at Penn. Its title: “Jerome Allen Born to Lead”.

Some of the quotes, by most accounts, still hold up even on the back end of Allen’s scandal.

“He’s a very good leader,” said teammate Matt Maloney. “He’s just a terrific guy. He’ll help you out any way he can.

“He’s the most caring person, the most sharing person I’ve known,” said teammate Shawn Trice.

“He will always have a special little space in my heart,” said coach Fran Dunphy.

One passage of the story does not hold up at all: Teammate Eric Moore figuring Allen would quickly earn enough money to retire on.

Allen betrayed much that was dear to him for money. Forgive him anyway. Life is too short to not appreciate all the good that Allen brought to Penn as a leader of men.

Allen has asked those he let down for pardon. Let receiving it be a greater part of his story too.

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