Allen and Leibovitz: Penn pals forever

Posted: January 13, 2012

JEROME ALLEN and Dan Leibovitz made a bet for 20 dollars. They were teenagers on summer break from Episcopal Academy, two boys from different lives connected by basketball. Allen lived in Germantown, needing to take the 23 trolley and the 65 bus to school each morning. Leibovitz lived in Bryn Mawr and drove a black Jeep Cherokee.

Allen didn't think Leibovitz could survive a summer week in the Allen household, where the only air conditioning was a cold towel on the forehead and the home was more crowded than the refrigerator. Leibovitz accepted the bet. He sweated on the couch in the back room of the house. Allen and Leibovitz took the subway together to work in the printing shop at Pep Boys, where Leibovitz's father, Mitchell, was an executive. The boys punched the clock, did their duties and never went upstairs where "Mr. Lebo" worked. Leibovitz survived the week, won the bet and earned Allen's respect.

"That's the beauty of the game," Allen said. "You have a young man from Germantown, a young man from Bryn Mawr, who may or may not have ever crossed paths, and just the game allowed us to see what we had in common from a human being standpoint."

The two lifelong friends - "like brothers," is how Allen's mother describes them - now work together at Penn, where Allen is the head coach and Leibovitz is the assistant in the office a few feet away. Leibovitz left an established head coaching job at Hartford to serve Allen, an otherwise head-scratching decision that was made for the same reason a boy from Bryn Mawr would spend a summer at a Germantown rowhome.

This is what friends do. It's why Allen can tell you the exact date he first met Leibovitz - " September 8, 1987" - and goes through his desk to find a photo that he says will encapsulate the friendship. It's Leibovitz sleeping in the back room during that summer, winning the bet that mattered only because it was another week the friends could spend together.

"You couldn't ask for a better situation from my standpoint to have someone you've known for over 23 years, long before you thought about being in this position," said Allen, the third-year Penn coach whose Quakers open the Ivy League tonight at Columbia. "Someone you share meals with, share rides with, share locker rooms with, road trips together, played Sonny Hill basketball together. I spent the night at his house, he spent the night at my house."

The reason Allen remembers the date the two met is because it was his first day at Episcopal. The school's gymnasium was kept open from 4-6:30, and both Allen and Leibovitz attended. Allen walked in with a white and light blue jacket, and the two clicked. During the next 4 years, they continued playing everywhere they could - for Dan Dougherty at Episcopal, in the Sonny Hill League, recreation leagues, at Gustine Lake Recreation Center.

"I was the only white guy in every gym," Leibovitz said. "That was my world. And I loved it."

The friendship stretched beyond basketball. Leibovitz' mother would make the boys eggs on Saturday mornings. They went to a Digital Underground concert at Penn's ice skating rink. They spent time working at the Pep Boys print shop so they could earn enough money to buy sneakers on Chelten Avenue shopping trips.

"We were just two kids having fun, not really caught up in positions, wealth, Main Line, Germantown," Allen said.

Allen was a standout basketball and football player at Episcopal and received 16 college scholarship offers as a senior in 1990-1991, including from schools in the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference and four of the Big 5 schools. He wanted to play at Temple, for John Chaney, and Massachusetts, where John Calipari coached. Penn was interested, although Allen didn't give it much thought. One day, Leibovitz told Allen that Leibovitz' father thought Allen couldn't pass up an opportunity to attend Penn. The point was that Allen didn't go to the trouble of taking the trolley and the bus each morning to Episcopal so he could pass up a chance to attend Wharton. Allen even went to Pep Boys to visit Mitchell Leibovitz, who holds three degrees from Temple and an affinity for Chaney.

"If you have the chance to go to an Ivy League school, the alumni from the University of Pennsylvania is extraordinary, the connections from the Wharton School are extraordinary," Mitchell Leibovitz told Allen. "If you were my son, and you had these options, it's the same advice I'd give to Dan."

Clearly, Allen was listening. He chose Penn, became a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year and carved a career in professional basketball. He credits the decision in large part to the Leibovitz family, and Dan's willingness to tell Allen the truth.

"I'm not sure where my life would have ended up if it wasn't for that," Allen said. "I valued his opinion and I wanted something in my life that would allow me to be a better son to my mother and a better citizen."

Leibovitz first attended Franklin & Marshall for a season before transferring to Penn. He did not play varsity basketball and started on his path to coaching, helping Dougherty at Episcopal and eventually Chaney at Temple, where Leibovitz served as an assistant coach for 10 seasons and once as interim coach. He and Allen did not hang out much in college, with Allen starring on the basketball team and Leibovitz trying to break into coaching. But the two spoke about doing something together one day in Philadelphia, whether it was starting a charity, opening a gym or tutoring students for the SAT. Two decades later, they finally found something to do together.

Coaches congregate at the Final Four each season. In 2010 in Indianapolis, Allen attended as the recently anointed Penn head coach, after spending most of the previous season as the interim.

Leibovitz had just finished his fourth season at Hartford, where he suffered consecutive losing seasons but still had 4 years remaining on his contract. Leibovitz and Allen spoke frequently, with Leibovitz instructing Allen on how to represent himself as head coach and Allen providing encouraging words about Leibovitz turning around the Harford program. Yet seeing Allen's coaching staff in person at the Final Four resonated with Leibovitz, who was drawn to his friend and the passion Allen had for his alma mater.

"They're going to have fun," Leibovitz thought at the time. "They're going to have fun building that thing."

Three days after the national championship game, John Gallagher left Allen's staff to take a job at Boston College. That opened a spot on Penn's staff, and Allen and Leibovitz already had been in contact. Leibovitz remembered the feeling in Indianapolis. Allen could benefit from someone with Leibovitz' experience.

"I can't say when it happened, I asked him to leave Hartford and come here," Allen said.

But this was Penn and the Big 5 and the Palestra - all institutions dear to Leibovitz. Four days after the job opened, Leibovitz resigned from Hartford and accepted a spot on Allen's staff. He was coming home.

"I think the guys that really know me, get it," Leibovitz said. "And the ones that don't, I really don't care. It wouldn't make sense to everybody, but everybody has to live their own life."

Even Mitchell Leibovitz was "astounded," but the decision made sense upon further examination.

Temple coach Fran Dunphy, for whom Allen played at Penn, believes Allen is the only person Leibovitz would have surrendered a head coaching job for, and Leibovitz agrees.

"To be honest with you, we could work together for the rest of our lives," Allen said. "To think about John Chaney and [longtime Temple assistant] Jim Maloney, not to put ourselves in their shoes, but it had to be something special about their personal relationship in order for them to have the type of success they had."

The Chaney-Maloney comparisons are sincere, although for all the sincerity, one needs to be a head coach and one needs to be the assistant. And under the current arrangement, Leibovitz is below Allen - at least on the job hierarchy.

"A lot of people put emphasis on titles, on positions," Allen said. "I don't feel different."

Leibovitz wants to be a head coach again, and at 38 he still has the chance. But he also plans on staying at Penn, staying by Allen's side - and it doesn't sound as if he's paying it lip service. He proved that he wants the role by already leaving a head coaching post.

"I'm thinking long-term," Leibovitz said. "If I make any kind of change, it will have to be something pretty special. I'm going to be very selective if any opportunity were to come along."

Allen, citing his faith, believes it's not coincidence that Leibovitz came into his life, that Allen became the Penn coach so quickly and that an assistant job opened at the right time for Leibovitz.

"Something happened 24, 25 years ago that will link us for the rest of our lives," he said.

The relationship has changed since they were 14, but they still joke with each other about events that happened in the late '80s. Allen shows the picture of Leibovitz at his home as teenagers. He tells a story of Leibovitz volunteering time to take a mentally disabled member of the basketball office to a Flyers game to show the type of person Leibovitz is. In turn, Leibovitz becomes affectionate when speaking about Allen's mother, and can rattle off the names of Allen's cousins from those hot summers in Germantown.

Janet Nuble, Allen's mother, said the relationship is "even stronger" now than it was when the two were teens. They can bond as coaches and husbands and fathers - not just kids playing basketball. They hope that their players can see the relationship that was started because of basketball and transcended into other facets of their lives. They hope 2 decades from now, their players will talk about a teammate's wife or kids or parents the way Allen and Leibovitz do. But then Allen recognizes the relationship is different - more than teammates and colleagues.

"We went from Episcopal to Alleghany Avenue's Pep Boys to Gustine Lake Recreation Center in East Falls to Bryn Mawr to Germantown, and everything was genuine," Allen said. "The game brought us together, but really, you play on teams all the time and you don't necessarily bond with guys that you play with, but we just took a liking to one another as human beings. He exposed me to some things, and I exposed him to some things, and that allowed us to grow into the men we are today."

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