Phil Anastasia: Atlantic City's Allen gets most from his players

Atlantic City coach Gene Allen is boisterous, but effective. Just ask his star guard, Martel Johnson. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Atlantic City coach Gene Allen is boisterous, but effective. Just ask his star guard, Martel Johnson. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer (Atlantic City coach Gene Allen)

He hollers. He screams. And when they listen, they are liable to do great things, like win a state championship.

Posted: March 18, 2012

Martel Johnson was a sophomore with speed, skills, and a stubborn streak.

He wasn't fond of "constructive criticism," which is a nice way of saying the coach used to yell at him a lot.

"I didn't want to listen," Johnson said. "You get older, you get a little more mature, you start to realize what he's talking about."

Johnson's coach at Atlantic City, Gene Allen, likes to downplay his role in the most exciting season in the long history of the proud program.

It's the players, Allen says. They are the ones who made the memories in a remarkable season that included an astounding nine victories in a row in elimination games - two in the Cape-Atlantic League tournament, seven in the state tournament - as well as the program's second state title in seven years.

"What am I doing?" Allen said after the Vikings rallied, yet again, to beat Elizabeth in the Group 4 state final. "I'm just standing here hollering and screaming. They are the ones getting it done."

Allen is gracious. He is The Inquirer's South Jersey Coach of the Year in boys' basketball because all that hollering and screaming on the sideline - and all those demands in practice, and all those quiet talks with his players, and all those decisions in all those tight tournament games - changed the very nature of Atlantic City basketball.

Once a program known for outstanding individuals but underachieving teams in postseason play, Atlantic City has become just the opposite in nine seasons under Allen.

A former recreation-league coach who was a virtual unknown in larger South Jersey basketball circles when he took over the program in 2004, Allen is 194-68 overall. His teams have gone an impressive 27-9 in tournament play, winning four South Jersey titles and the program's only two state titles (the other in 2005).

This year's team was 5-4 on Jan. 6. But the Vikings won 21 of their next 22 and became the epitome of a tough-minded tournament team - winning close game after close game, including three in overtime.

"These kids just have so much mental toughness," Allen said after perhaps the Vikings' most incredible comeback, a rally that produced a 68-65 overtime victory over Ewing in the quarterfinals of the Tournament of Champions.

In that game, Atlantic City trailed by four with less than 20 seconds remaining in regulation and by five with 1:30 left in overtime. But the Vikings got clutch three-pointers from Johnson and senior guard Kashawn Dunston, went 4 for 4 from the foul line in the extra session, and emerged with another improbable victory.

Talent wins a lot of games at every level, in every sport. Allen is the first person to acknowledge his players' role in the team's success.

But the state tournament demands more than talent. It demands discipline and resiliency and a knack for making the right play at the right time - whether it's an extra pass, or a rebound in traffic, or two late free throws, or a flurry of three-pointers in desperate circumstances.

Under Allen, Atlantic City has developed into that kind of team. The Vikings seem to find a way to win low-scoring, single-possession games.

This March, they were reminiscent of an old Camden team, minus the superstar. They were impervious to the pressure, unflappable in the biggest moments - with the crowd in full roar, with the season at stake.

That trait comes from the coach. Yes, the players are out on the court. Yes, Johnson and Dunston are the ones who rose up and made those shots, and 6-8 junior Jahleem Montague is the one who dominated the paint in the fourth quarter of the state-title game, and 6-4 junior Ga-briel Chandler is the one who made all those slick passes and smart plays.

But Allen set the tone and the standards. He was the one who didn't look the other way when his stubborn sophomore point guard was playing like a stubborn sophomore point guard.

Two years later, Johnson was a fearless floor leader and his previously inconsistent classmate, Dunston, was a cold-blooded playmaker in the searing heat of the state tournament.

And Gene Allen, like so many of the best coaches, sounded a lot smarter to the seniors than he did to the sophomores.


Contact Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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