Celtics assistant Jerome Allen discusses new book detailing NCAA scandal
‘No one is necessarily perfect, but even in failure … you still have purpose’
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – If an NBA player has free time in the bubble, Boston Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen has a story to tell.
Allen, who is in the midst of his fifth season as a Celtics assistant, previously spent five seasons as the head coach of the University of Pennsylvania men’s basketball team, resigning in 2015. While coaching at Penn, he accepted $300,000 in bribes to get a wealthy Florida businessman’s son into the Ivy League school. In February, the NCAA handed Allen a 15-year show-cause penalty, which in essence will keep Allen from working in college sports until 2035.
Allen, 47, recounts the incident in his new book, When The Alphabet Comes: A Life Changed By Exposure, which will be released on Oct. 14.
“I ended up writing a book to every human being,” Allen said. “Say that you do an audit of yourself, a full assessment of not your actions, but your thoughts. If you get out of alignment with your purpose, it could cost you a lot. And so, I’m just hoping my transparency helps someone in terms of character development, in terms of choices, just in terms of trying to address the sins of your own hearts. No one is necessarily perfect, but even in failure and character, you still have purpose. That is what I am hoping people get from the book.”
Allen, a graduate of Penn’s Wharton School of Business who spent two years playing in the NBA, talked to The Undefeated about the challenges of writing the book, his experience coaching with the Celtics and more.
What made you want to write the book?
A couple of reasons. One, so many things transpired throughout the case that I just kind of got to the place where I was just, ‘You know what? I just want to give my testimony.’ And not necessarily write a spiritual novel, but the book talks about so many things from hypocrisy to judgment. There are elements of sports in it. Elements of leadership or the lack thereof, failed leadership. The elements of just the sins of our own heart. And I kept trying to give these word answers when people would ask me that and trying to sound all Ivy League-ish, and I just kind of rested on, ‘You know what, I just want to be obedient and give my testimony.’
What was the most painful part about writing a book?
The most painful part is we walk around in life and we don’t realize that it’s not really about us. We affect others’ lives. And what I mean by that is that, my decision-making, the criteria I use, should always fall back on the people that I care about the most. And obviously I think the thing that was most painful throughout all of this was how my decisions or my failure and character affected my wife, my children and the university and the organization that I had currently represented while all of it was going on.
What’s been the biggest triumph?
Coming to the realization that there’s power in accountability. I owned it. I didn’t point any fingers or blame at anyone. But the power that came from it allowed me to be transparent, allowed me to be vulnerable, allowed me to just willfully, just undress myself.
I would like to think, especially as a Black man, that a lot of times we mask so much. Me penning the story, really talking about being present in my marriage, but not having a presence and just hiding all my fears, my anxieties. All the things I didn’t really want to express, my posture hiding behind this mask. And as a result of it, kind of releasing it in a space where it should never have been released. So, I just say, that probably the best thing about it’s been that I found power to be able to just tell the truth.
Do you replay what happened over and over with the bribe?
It’s not the story of my life, but it’s a part of my life. …
I tried to pen the story from a real perspective. One of the stories in [the book] is I was a junior in college [at Penn] and we were about to play Harvard one night, and as I’m walking off the floor for pregame shooting, someone comes up to me, asks if my father needs money. And I’m like, ‘What?’ He asked me again, ‘Jerome, does your dad need money?’ I’m asking, ‘What are you talking about?’ And they say, ‘Oh, he’s outside, in front of The Palestra asking people for change as they come into the gym.’ And so, he was so high, that he didn’t realize where he was at. And for me to be on campus at an Ivy League institution inside The Palestra, for him to kind of embarrass me like that was, that judgment I’ve placed on him, I vowed to hate him for the rest of my life.
So fast-forward 20-something years later, the Wharton School of Business undergraduate degree graduation is held inside The Palestra. And my oldest son is graduating and he wins a dean’s award at the Wharton graduation. He also wins the second-highest award of the senior class that year. He goes to Penn and he kills it. And then in that same building where so many people that share my name, because I played basketball there, people stood up and cheered for completely different reasons. And then my case breaks, so that same compassion and empathy or that unwillingness to extend forgiveness towards my own father, now I’m begging for it for my own son.
And so, the book, or this exercise in my case, kind of helped me talk about the hypocrisy that, I ain’t going to say we all carry, but I was carrying in terms of just that in itself.
What was it like being Black going to an Ivy League school?
My story is such that I’m down in the projects one day and by pure coincidence, by chance, I get a chance to go to a private high school on the mainline of Philadelphia. In 1987, the school costs $25,000 a year to go to. My mom only made $11,000 a year as a housekeeper. And so, going to Episcopal Academy, that exposure to access and privilege, kind of changed my life for lack of a better way of saying.
My senior year of high school, I got 16 Division I scholarship offers, 11 for basketball, five for football. And the one school that didn’t offer an athletic scholarship was a school I decided to go to. So, we talking Villanova, Wake Forest, NC State, UMass, Hampton, Temple, La Salle, St. Joe’s, Duquesne, all of these schools. But I had an opportunity to go to Penn and to get into Wharton. And it was because of a family at Episcopal Academy that I chose to go to Penn. Dan Leibovitz, who is the associate commissioner SEC [Southeastern Conference] for basketball now. … His dad pretty much told me, ‘Jerome, you went to Episcopal Academy to go to Penn, not Wake Forest, not Temple, not UMass.’
I didn’t really understand the magnitude of getting a degree from Wharton. And now fast-forward, I go to Penn as an athlete, being on an Ivy League campus from Philadelphia. I grew up 25 minutes from Penn’s campus and I had never been on campus. I didn’t even know where it was at. One time, I had a football game at Franklin Field and didn’t even realize that I was on Penn’s campus.
And so, just the aesthetics of this campus, being a Black kid from Philly, being a city kid and this being a city school, but trying to navigate the space the right way was something that I relied heavily on [then-Penn men’s basketball] Coach [Fran] Dunphy for. And he taught me how to be not only your champion on the court, but a champion with people. So, it was kind of a weird experience. I could get into some of the frat parties, some of the football players’ parties. I had friends who looked like me that if it wasn’t announced that they were Penn students, sometimes they would struggle to get in those same parties. So, I wasn’t too far removed from all of that.
How did you connect with Brad Stevens?
I was the coach at Penn, he was coaching at Butler. We had played one another in the CBI tournament. … They beat us. Brad was like, ‘Would you be interested in coming to [Butler’s arena] Hinkle next season?’ Just a mystique of those two buildings, The Palestra’s history, Hinkle’s history, sure. So, the following year we go out to Indianapolis, play at Hinkle and they get us again. …
[Stevens said], ‘Your young guys are good.’ And you don’t really be trying to hear that as you’re walking down the line after losing. But I told him that when the season was over for both of us, I was going to come out to Indianapolis, spend some time with him and just talk, because I figure Butler could make it to two Final Fours as a mid-major, Penn could. I just had to figure out what was the secret sauce, whether it was recruiting or something. And so, we spent some time together in the offseason … and talked about job opportunities and what we both said no to. … Three weeks later he takes the Boston job. … So, lo and behold, it’s kind of where our relationship started and everything else kind of took course.
How do your two years in the NBA as a player help you as a coach now? (Allen played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets from 1995 to 1997.)
I draw from my playing career a lot in terms of how I try to just be the best assistant I can possibly be. In terms of servicing this group and helping Brad push the organization forward. The combination of me just playing in the NBA and also playing in Europe, just a fusion of all, not only just the styles, but the cultures and just people, kind of allows me to draw from my own cultural capital to try to touch whoever it is I need to touch.
The league today is obviously completely different than it was back then in terms of not so much understanding, but just the style of play, and the objectives. But at the end of the day, you’re trying to play good defense, trying to rebound the ball, trying to score at the other end, not turn it over. Just how you get to those objectives has changed.
What makes this Celtics team a championship-caliber team?
We always talk about just spirit, chemistry. I say, this is a genuinely one through 17, a group of good guys that they all allow themselves to be led. Even when there is some uncertainty or confusion, they still allow themselves to be coached. … And Kemba [Walker], Jayson [Tatum], Jaylen [Brown] and [Marcus] Smart and [Daniel] Theis, and Brad Wanamaker, keep going down the list of guys who at certain spots, whether it was during the restart or throughout the season, have given us what was needed at that time. So, I’m confident in the group. Obviously, we proved that we can beat anyone in this league, but they’re humble enough to realize that they can be beat by anyone as well.
What do you think about the chances for Black assistant coaches to get one of those coveted 30 head coaching jobs?
I’d be lying to you if I said it’s not something that I think about. Whether it be personally or whether it be just the overall state of the hiring practices. I think white or Black, there are a lot of good coaches out there. I’m blessed. I have a great job and I really don’t have anything to complain about. There are millions out there who would die to be in my position. But with that being said, I am aware of the things that plague the advancement of others in terms of them having opportunities to see if they could succeed or fail in certain positions.
I’m not that naive to think that there are some systemic things that plague this industry as well. And so, I champion for the best candidates. But I do believe that there are others out there that look like me, that have worked their tails off to put themselves in a position to be able to fight for one of those coveted positions.
If a Black student would ask you, should I go to an Ivy League school to play basketball, what would you tell them?
I wouldn’t hesitate. And I would say that, outside of who you’re going to marry, it’s probably the most important decision in your life. And my youngest son and I, we talk about it all the time in terms of, he thinks he’s going to be the first fifth grader ever to go straight to the NBA. But just in terms of what’s important, and I just wish more, especially those that look like me, would put themselves in a position to let that be the foundation that sustains them in life.
I’m a pro-Ivy League guy in terms of what those brands represent. Not only what they represent, but the network that you could be burst into on top of just those intellectual incubators, what they’re producing, how they’re going to sow into you in terms of just equip you to pretty much be able to do whatever it is you want to do in life. We get so caught up in just the whole athletic prowess, but it’s 0.000001% ever get an opportunity to play the game for a profession.