ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic City High School boys basketball coach Gene Allen is OK.
Really, he’s OK.
The Atlantic City boys basketball team (2-6) has lost five straight. The Vikings haven’t had a losing season since they finished 7-12 in 1968-69.
Yet, Allen, who coached the Vikings to the only three state championships in the program’s history, isn’t gnashing his teeth. Outwardly, he’s still quick to laugh and smile, the same guy he was when Atlantic City was one of the state’s best. Allen took over the program in 2003 and has a career record of 338-107 — 15 wins away from becoming the winningest coach in school history.
“It’s humbling,” Allen said of Atlantic City’s struggles, “but at the same time, I know I had become complacent. I’m back studying.”
Things haven’t gone smoothly for the Vikings for a year. It started last January when a pipe burst and flooded the school’s gym. Atlantic City was forced to move games to The Martin Luther King Complex in Atlantic City and Stockton University in Galloway Township. Most practices were held at New York Avenue School in Atlantic City.
“It’s been kind of surreal because we’ve been away for so long,” Allen said, “but it’s been kind of comforting because now we can have some kind of stability. You need to have a home.”
The Vikings made their debut in their renovated gym, losing to Holy Spirit 46-37 on Wednesday.
The gym had that new car smell. It features a new court, new bleachers and NBA theater-style lighting, but it doesn’t feel like home just yet.
“We have to create some new magic,” Allen said.
Allen also had to fight for his job in the preseason. The Atlantic City Board of Education voted in November not to reappoint him after a parental complaint concerning last season’s team banquet. Allen sued the board, and a judge reinstated him. The board chose not to appeal the judge’s decision.
Then the season began.
The Vikings play as hard as they did when they won state championships, but they have been hurt by turnovers and an inability to score.
It’s remarkable Atlantic City has gone nearly 50 years without a losing season.
Many of New Jersey’s top public-school programs haven’t been so lucky.
Elizabeth is undefeated this season under new coach Phil Colicchio, but the Minutemen haven’t won a state title since 1991 and have had five straight losing seasons. Trenton Central has seen its share of hard times, and even defending state Group IV champion and 1993 Tournament of Champions winner Shawnee has struggled at times.
Shawnee beat Atlantic City in last year’s South Jersey Group IV title game, but the Renegades are 2-7 this season. Shawnee finished 8-18 in 2013-14 before gearing up to make a run toward last season’s state Group IV championship.
“What public school doesn’t go through this?” Allen said. “I’ve never lost four games in a row since I’ve been here. But in reality, how many coaches can say that?”
The Vikings have some talented freshman and sophomore players. They’re just not physically ready to play varsity — yet.
“It’s exciting,” Allen said. “You can watch kids develop.”
In his song, “Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen says, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
Atlantic City basketball will rise again. It’s just a matter of when — not if — it happens.