Zack Rosen:  The Fighting Quaker  

It’s been a tough year for the University of Pennsylvania men’s basketball team. This year’s squad got off to a 0-7 start, which led to the dismissal of head coach Glenn Miller in mid-December. With only a year’s experience as an assistant coach, former Penn star and two-time All-Ivy guard Jerome Allen was named interim head coach, as the team headed to North Carolina at the end of fall semester, where they lost to Davidson 79-50, and took a beating at the hands of Duke 114-55.

If Allen, who led the Quakers to three consecutive undefeated seasons in the Ivy League from 1993-1995, represents the glory days of Penn basketball and a beacon around which the current team could rally, it has been team captain and all-around sparkplug Zack Rosen who has rallied the troops on the floor.

The former New Jersey high school All-State player had a blockbuster freshman year – having been honored as 2008-09 Big 5 Rookie of the Year, representing the outstanding freshman from the ranks of the top Philly schools: Penn, Temple, Villanova, La Salle and St. Joe’s. Rosen finished last season as Ivy League leader in assists per game (4.96) and assist/turnover ratio (1.99). His 133 assists were the most ever by a Penn freshman, and eighth best overall in Penn history. He ranked second best in the Ivy League in free-throw percentage (.826) and third in steals per game (1.5).

However, Rosen’s play, and the leadership he brings to the team, is not about his impressive stats, but about his presence on the floor. He is as fierce a competitor as they come; the face of Penn’s hustle on the court. He can slash through traffic and drive to the hole, shoot the long ball (he has been shooting 49.2% from behind the arc over the last nine games – having hit five 3-pointers in four games so far this season), force turnovers and run down loose balls, but mostly he is busy running Penn’s offense.

True, Rosen has had the high scoring games, like his 29 points in the recent loss to La Salle, or the 30 he had against Lafayette in a competitive contest, but Rosen is the quintessential team player. “My joy in the game,” he told, “is to get my teammates involved. I don’t think about the stats. I go out there, try to clear my mind and just play. I’m not looking to score 30 points or whatever – if I see opportunities out there I just try to take advantage of them and be aggressive.”

Junior teammate Jack Eggleston speaks highly of Rosen’s contribution. “Zack is a great leader, both by example and vocally. He’s still young and he’s still learning, but his focus is all about winning. He is one of the hardest workers on the team. He always plays hard and as a teammate that’s all I can expect from anybody. Sometimes your shot doesn’t fall; sometimes things don’t go your way, but you can always play hard and Zack does that.’

In the meantime, with other teammates out with injuries, Rosen has been asked to shoulder more of the team’s scoring load, and has led the Quakers in eight of the last 11 games. After hitting just two of his five free throws in the season opener, he has shot 87.8% from the charity stripe since.

Davidson Coach Bob McKillop called Rosen “smart, tough and talented.” Coach Fran O’Hanlon, whose Lafayette team beat Penn 77-62 in the game where Rosen pumped in 30 points (and who was an assistant coach at Penn when Allen was on the squad) called Rosen “a complete player (and) one of the better point guards in the East. He is a leader with a great feel for the game and makes his teammates better. He has shown great improvement since his freshman year.”

Rosen chose Penn because he was “looking for a good academic school with a good basketball program. Penn has won 25 Ivy League titles in the past 45 years, the most recent being in 2006-2007. Rosen is enrolled in Penn’s highly renowned Wharton School of Business, where he is majoring in management.

As far as turning things around, Rosen and his teammates believe in their new coach and his ability to get them back on track. “Jerome - Coach Allen - is everything that the Penn program should be about,” says Rosen, used to calling his coach by his first name as an assistant coach, and laughs when it is pointed to him. “Guys respond to him. Our goal is to turn things around. There is a lot of respect for Coach Allen – everyone knows who he is and what he achieved here. Our focus has been on just going about doing things the right way and not focusing so much on the results. I f we do that then everything else will take care of itself and the wins will come. A lot of what Coach Allen tries to bring out of us has nothing to do with X’s and O’s. A lot of it is in the mental side of things: being positive, being aggressive, not worrying about mistakes, and being in ‘attack’ mode.”

  For his part, Allen told reporters following his first game as (interim) head coach, the loss to Davidson, “The first thing is to let the guys know you genuinely care about them. It’s important to talk about having a winning program and that it is something that they are a part of. You have to go out and prepare to win every day. I want them to know that every minute, every second, every drill, and every sprint – there’s a reason for it. That is what exemplifies Penn basketball – not the winning or losing. That all goes out the window when you talk about building a winning program.”

Allen, who followed his Penn years with a successful career in the NBA and Europe, finished his college days as Penn’s all-time leader in assists and steals, something which Rosen connects with. “As a guard, we have a special connection. He spent a good part of the summer working with me.” There is constant communication between coach and floor leader during the game. “He’s trying to be the same person as (interim) head coach as he was before, and I think that’s going to help the team.”

Rosen spent the other part of his summer playing for the U.S. basketball team that competed in the 2009 Maccabiah Games. Rosen had the opportunity to play along with other Jewish collegiate basketball players and a number of recent grads now playing professionally in Israel and Europe, on a team coached by University of Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl. “Being a part of the team coached by Coach Pearl was an incredible experience. He showed a genuine concern about all of the guys on the team. The fact that he took the time off to work with the team over the summer when he could have been out recruiting for his team let everybody know how much he cared.”

Rosen’s talent contributed to that team’s success as they earned a gold medal.

Rosen called his trip to Israel – his first visit – an “unbelievable experience. The whole country is like one big family. It was awesome. Seeing up close all the historical sites that connect Jews with the land was unforgettable.”

“Being with – and competing against – Jews from all over the world… and forging relationships – it was all just great,” Rosen added – and was surprised to make the acquaintance of other Penn athletes who were part of the U.S. delegation from other sports.

Being on a campus where the Jewish population is upwards of 25% also holds appeal for Rosen. “It’s pretty cool; you can be among your own people to the extent you want to. It’s kind of like my experience in Israel … you get it here (at Penn) on a ‘mini-level.’ And Hillel has the best food on campus.”

Penn’s line of Jewish hoopsters includes current Athletic Director Steve Bilsky, who led Penn to Ivy League championships and NCAA Tournament appearances in 1970 and 1970, finishing the ‘71 season with a 28-1 record after falling to Syracuse in the East Regional round (Sweet 16). Teammate Zack Gordon, a junior transfer from Yeshiva University, is the other Jewish player on this year’s squad.

As far as the demands on the captain of a squad that is 1-13 at the moment, Rosen relishes the challenge, saying “It is everything I could ask for.”

As if the demands in time and focus on Rosen due to his sport weren’t enough, Rosen is committed to success in the classroom as well. “It’s so difficult here that you have to think of it as a separate challenge apart from the athletics side of life,” he notes, and adds that basketball has taught him a great deal in terms of discipline. “It doesn’t matter if you feel like going to practice or you don’t on any given day; you have to show up and give your best effort. This has taught me to have the same attitude about other things in life. You see how it’s not just about the basketball; it’s about the other things as well.”

But Rosen doesn’t stop there, bringing the same level of commitment to concerns outside of campus life as well. Recently he has taken an active role in activities on behalf of the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. He co-hosted an event on campus, “Help Haiti,” where some students spoke and others performed, as both awareness and funds were raised, and took part along with the other players and coaches of Penn men’s and women’s basketball in “Hoops for Haiti,” where fans brought shoes to donate at a recent game at the Palestra.

They don’t keep stats on being a mensch (caring, decent human being) but if they did, it would be one more column where Zack Rosen’s record would speak for itself.


                                   Photos courtesy of Penn Athletics