MEN’S BASKETBALL: Jalen Gabbidon, Yale’s defensive glue, is holding it all together
As he leads the Bulldogs towards Ivy Madness, Yale captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22, a computer science major, is balancing work as a startup co-founder off the court.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
When Jalen Gabbidon ’22, the Yale men’s basketball captain, sat down to an interview with the News one afternoon last December, he had played one of the best games of his college career the night before. The Yale guard scored a then career-high 22 points, all in the second half, to guide the Bulldogs out of a halftime deficit and to a win over Lehigh.
But for Gabbidon, the real work began once the game ended. Less than 90 minutes before tipoff, as Yale was sitting through a final pregame film session, he had been sneaking in economics office hours on his phone. Later that Wednesday night, with the win secured and a postgame locker-room meeting and press conference both complete, Gabbidon made the short walk home with “Game Theory” on his mind. Instead of following his typical postgame routine — sitting, exhausted, with his roommates, guard Azar Swain ’22 and senior manager RJ Kranz ’22, to re-watch the night’s game and some television — Gabbidon stayed up late to submit his problem set.
The next morning, Gabbidon was up by 8:30 a.m. to work on the job that occupies another 20-25 hours of his time each week. On top of basketball season and his four credits each semester, the computer science major is the chief technology officer and co-founder of Launchpad, a startup developing a training app to help athletes build fast-twitch muscle.
“I did joke with him that if his grades are too good, we’re gonna have to have a talk because priorities,” Jason Abromaitis ’07 said. Abromaitis is a men’s basketball alumnus and Launchpad co-founder whom Gabbidon met through head coach James Jones.
Taking a yearlong leave of absence, Gabbidon lived in Abromaitis’s Denver basement last year to begin work on the company. With the CTO back in New Haven, they coordinate on Slack now. “He’s been able to juggle it well,” Abromaitis added.
Gabbidon was preparing for the release of an updated Launchpad website the day of his interview with the News. A trip to Alabama — for Yale’s game at then-No. 21 Auburn — awaited the next day.
The defensive glue and second leading scorer for first-place Yale (16–10, 10–2 Ivy), Gabbidon has been balancing that sort of schedule all season long. He is managing four software developers off the court — three based in Ukraine, one in California — while corralling the Bulldogs towards what they hope will be a third-straight Ivy League championship when he shifts back to basketball mode.
“Whatever fire’s going up, I’m dealing with all that,” Gabbidon said, referencing Launchpad sprints and work off the court. “How do I still bring my best self in spite all that? I think that’s the burden of expectation from my upperclassmen peers and the coaches specifically. It’s like, ‘We get that that’s happening, but we need you to bring you regardless.’ And that’s been hard. But I’m getting there.”
Starting with Defense
The 2020 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, Gabbidon used defense to first solidify his role in the Yale rotation. In fact, the 6-foot-5-inch guard said he first got noticed by Yale because of his defense. During the program’s summer elite camp for high-schoolers, he guarded a 6-foot-10-inch opponent 5 inches taller than him, catching associate head coach Matt Kingsley’s attention in the process.
But when he eventually returned to Yale’s campus to start school in August 2017, Gabbidon moved in with a broken right foot. He never played a game and barely practiced during his first year. He broke the same right foot a few days after returning to the court and underwent surgery, while a stress reaction three or four months later forced another surgery.
His former York Ballers AAU coach Pat McGlynn remembers Gabbidon calling him early in his Yale career.
“He was redshirted for that [first] year and the next year, he’s like ‘You know, I don’t know if I can get on the court.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘These guys are really good, I just don’t know if I can get on the court.’ And I said, ‘Well, Jalen, you’re not gonna go out there and score 30 points a game like you did in high school. You’re gonna have to play defense. I mean, you’ve got to do anything to get on the court.’”
Focusing on defense earned Gabbidon a role in the rotation, even as new injuries emerged during his sophomore year and lingered during his junior season, when Gabbidon started all 30 games for the Elis. Entering sophomore year, he was momentarily healthy but broke his left toe on the first day of practice in late September 2018. A sports hernia around reading week that December led to tendonitis and platelet-rich plasma shots in his left knee. Though he missed the last seven games of sophomore year, including Ivy Madness and Yale’s NCAA Tournament matchup, he played a few minutes off the bench for much of the season. He made his first career start vs. Albany and drew a charge on former Duke star Zion Williamson in the middle of nonconference play.
Gabbidon’s defense flourished as a junior. He usually guarded the opponent’s top scorer, and his 1.3 steals a game ranked first on Yale and fifth in the Ivy League. The same week the onset of the pandemic abruptly ended the season, Gabbidon earned the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award alongside Brown forward and shot-blocker Jaylan Gainey. The consistent, defensive-specialist role suited Gabbidon’s modest, lower-profile temperament. McGlynn considers him a “private kind of young man.” Gabbidon deleted his Instagram in high school and only remade a small account — originally for cooking — last year. On the court, he accepted the gritty work of tight defense, even if the box score did not reward him with flashy statistics.
“Off the court, most hoopers, people say ball is life and that’s all they know, and they care about social media and posting photos and videos and mixtapes,” teammate and guard Michael Feinberg ’23 said. “If you know Jalen, you know he’s not big on social media. He has very few, if any, mixtapes on YouTube or anything like that about him. He’s not a guy who’s everywhere in the public space with regard to basketball.”
Now, Gabbidon scores, shoots and plays the most active role he has had on offense since high school. He and Swain lead Yale in win shares, a metric that tries to estimate the number of wins contributed by a player. And for the first time in his Yale career, Gabbidon’s offensive win shares outweigh his defensive win shares.
Last Friday, he surpassed his career high in points against Lehigh by double digits, scoring 32 to push Yale past Penn. On defense, he and point guard Bez Mbeng ’25 primarily teamed up to limit the Ivy League’s leading scorer, Penn guard Jordan Dingle, to four-of-19 shooting. “Jalen Gabbidon was just ridiculous on both ends of the floor,” Jones said after the win. “He laid it all out there, and it was fun to watch him do it.”
“I’m watching Jalen run all over the place,” McGlynn said of watching the Yale-Dartmouth game in early February. “He’s going through picks here and there, they’re flare-screening him, they’re double-screening him, they’re stack-screening him and he is breathing so hard.”
Especially during Yale’s nonconference schedule last semester, Yale’s perimeter-oriented starting lineup thrust Gabbidon into a new position. A 6-foot-5-inch guard on the official roster, Gabbidon was playing forward for most of his minutes on the court. He often warmed up with the Bulldogs’ post players during shootarounds before games. Instead of skip passes from across the court, he was finding open shots off pick-and-pops.
“My whole career I played guard, so the looks I’ve been getting have been totally different this year in this slightly revised offensive position for me,” he said following the win over Lehigh in December.
With forward Matt Knowling ’24 now starting inside, Gabbidon has returned to his more natural position at the three, a shooting guard-small forward combo, during Ivy League play. Still, his imprint on offense is more pronounced than it ever has been since he started donning a Yale jersey. Gabbidon was an every-game starter during his junior year too, but has already blown past his shooting attempts from that year: 206 field-goal attempts and 87 three-point attempts in 729 minutes so far this season, compared to 140 and 63 during 730 minutes on the floor in 2019–20.
The Son of Two Professors
Born in Baltimore, Gabbidon moved to Harrisburg, Pennylsania when he was one and attended Harrisburg Academy, a small, international baccalaureate private day school, from kindergarten through eleventh grade. He remembers begging to follow his father to pickup basketball games early in elementary school and started practicing with his older brother, Jini, who played Division III basketball at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jalen’s younger brother Julian is a senior in high school.
“It was just kind of a family thing that ended up growing into more for me as I got better and better,” Jalen Gabbidon said. “I didn’t train for any purpose. I used to go to the gym all day just cause it was fun. Next thing I knew I just happened to be decent.”
“And fortunately I grew,” Jalen, the tallest in his family, added. His father, Shaun Gabbidon, is 6-feet, 2-inches tall and a distinguished professor of criminal justice at Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Public Affairs. His mother, Monica Gabbidon, is 5-feet, 2-inches and teaches chemistry at Harrisburg Area Community College with a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Jini is 5-feet, 11-inches tall, while Julian is 6-feet, 2-inches tall.
Gabbidon’s enhanced scoring role this year at Yale represents a revival of the player he was in high school. At Harrisburg Academy, where his grade only had 18 students and the boys basketball team played in Pennsylvania’s smallest-school division, single A, he practically did all the scoring. Gabbidon averaged an astronomical 37 points per game as a junior, the highest in the state. In one Feb. 2016 loss, he scored 44 of his team’s 51 points.
In another high school game, he scored 60 points. McGlynn remembers getting a call from Gabbidon before that game his junior year. Coaches from Harvard and Lafayette University were supposed to watch him play, but Gabbidon had the flu. Gabbidon did not start and Harrisburg fell into a hole early, but Gabbidon played the final three and a half quarters, scoring 60 in the process.
“I think part of that has influenced the way I play basketball today,” Gabbidon said. “That was probably the year of basketball I enjoyed the least. … I didn’t like taking all the shots, I didn’t like losing and getting all these points, so it kind of formed my mindset of being a glue person. Obviously I like scoring points, but I don’t like scoring points at the detriment of winning. I learned that firsthand for a whole season.”
Gabbidon was always at Harrisburg for the academics and his friends, and while AAU basketball under McGlynn with the York Ballers gave him a more competitive basketball experience, he still decided to move to Baltimore and transfer to Glenelg Country School for his final year of high school and better competition. He faced off against more talented players, including now New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley and Indiana Pacers forward Jalen Smith.
In just three seasons at Harrisburg, Gabbidon overturned the school’s record books. According to Steve Pancoski, the school’s boys’ basketball coach, Gabbidon ranks first in total points scored, second in three-pointers, second in assists, third in blocks, fourth in rebounds and fifth in steals.
Before Gabbidon, Pancoski, the coach at Harrisburg since 1992, never had a player get recruited to play college basketball, no matter the division. (Gabbidon’s older brother, Jini, played a year at MIT but was not recruited). Division I coaches, especially from the Patriot League and Ivy League, started reaching out to him and McGlynn. They dropped by Harrisburg — which Pancoski said has a no-cut policy when it comes to varsity and junior varsity basketball, if there are enough players — to observe Gabbidon complete individual workout sessions with his coach.
“For some it might be hard to be at one level above all your teammates,” Pancoski said. “But it didn’t ever seem that way. He could be at the highest levels in the basketball court and as soon as the game was over just be friends with the guys and have them be classmates for him.”
Harrisburg was so small that his entire class took a group trip to visit colleges for three days. When they reached Yale, he split away from his classmates on the campus tour and went to talk with Jones and the Yale coaching staff. By the time he reunited with his Harrisburg friends, he had an offer to play Division I basketball with the Bulldogs. Gabbidon ended junior year with about a dozen offers and committed to Yale in August 2016 before his senior year of high school at Glenelg in Baltimore.
Coding Off the Court
At Harrisburg, Gabbidon also received his first exposure to computer science. A self-described “video game guy” who has always been interested in computers, Gabbidon estimates he played upwards of 1,000 hours of League of Legends in middle and high school. He took an IB computer science class, and the discipline clicked.
Gabbidon came into Yale as a computer science major. Stanley Eisentat, the director of undergraduate studies for computer science who passed away in December 2020, was Gabbidon’s advisor when he started. He enrolled in the notoriously difficult requirement “Introduction to Systems Programming and Computer Organization” — a computer science class with a CourseTable workload rating of 4.8 to 4.9 out of five — during his sophomore fall.
“That was a semester,” he said looking back. There were times that semester — at least a few that he remembers — when he came to practice the next day after pulling all-nighter. “I think the most I spent on a pset that semester was 47 hours over two weeks. … You have to log the hours, and that’s probably [low] because I was scared to put more.” Since Yale opened its 2018–19 season with a weeklong trip to Shanghai to play in the Pac-12 China Game vs. California, Gabbidon was in Asia when he was working on the infamous LZW problem set, which is no longer a part of the curriculum. He took all the scripts offline, coded away and checked his answers back in New Haven.
His older brother at MIT, Jini, had worked at Google one summer and though he did not love it, he encouraged Jalen to try it. Two summers at Google ended up helping Jalen deepen his interest and skills — he worked in Pittsburgh during summer 2019 and worked for the company again remotely during summer 2020.
That summer, as it became clear that COVID-19 would significantly disrupt undergraduate life, Gabbidon was still planning to enroll for his senior year and graduate on time, even if his final year included no basketball. But a summer Zoom call with Yale men’s basketball alum Matt Minoff ’04 inspired him to pivot away from the big company route and explore startups. Jones connected Gabbidon with Abromaitis, who talked with the Yale captain about the startup Launchpad.
“He’s such an even-keeled guy that I didn’t realize that Launchpad excited him as much as it did,” Abromaitis said. “And I think he called me the next day and said, ‘This is something that I want to do.’” Abromaitis said he did not fully realize he was even recruiting for Launchpad at the time, but the sports-focused startup needed technical talent, and Gabbidon filled that role. Like a number of his teammates, he took a full gap year.
“He didn’t start out as our CTO,” Abromaitis added. “But it became very quickly clear that he was thinking the business more deeply than writing code and that he had that leadership capacity. It was very, very obvious that he really was a founder of the business very quickly.”
Living with Abromaitis and his wife in Denver last year turned Gabbidon into a part-time babysitter and also helped him with basketball. Abromaitis said he and his wife knew the arrangement was working when Gabbidon offered to watch their kids and give them a date night the first week he was living there. The third co-founder of Launchpad, Doug Goldstein, is “the best physical therapist” Gabbidon has ever met. Goldstein helped him reset his body after three years of injury-hobbled years at Yale while Abromaitis showed him all the best spots in Denver to train. The work felt all-consuming in Launchpad’s infancy, Abromaitis said, and basketball also offered the two co-founders a chance to separate any frustrations that might have inevitably emerged during the startup-building process.
During his gap year, Gabbidon said he often worked 50 or 60 hours a week on the company — he has spent a lot of the year building a feature called Speed.AI that recommends the optimal weight and speed for athletic training — not because he was expected to, but because he enjoyed it. Launchpad then went through the seed accelerator Techstars last summer. He has not been paid to work for Launchpad but has equity in the startup as a co-founder.
After missing his first year with injuries, Gabbidon has an extra year of NCAA eligibility that he can only use outside the Ivy League, which does not allow graduate students to compete in athletics. He said playing professionally has not been on his radar, but no matter what he does, he said Launchpad work will still occupy a part of each week, just as it does now.
“That’s non-negotiable for me,” Gabbidon said of continuing with Launchpad. According to him and McGlynn, multiple schools from Power Five conferences have expressed interest. “Coach Jones and I have both acknowledged it’ll be something to discuss after the season.”
“Right now I’m able to do what I do [at Launchpad] with the capacity I have,” he added. “There’s going to be a time soon where it’s going to demand more of my time. That’s part of the decision to be made in the future.”
For now, Gabbidon is still running around, chasing opponents on defense and balancing Launchpad and school as he finishes out the season and his Yale career. Following his interview with the News, Gabbidon paused and stared into the distance at one point. “What day is it?” he asked, suddenly concerned that he was missing a meeting. But no, the Launchpad meeting was next week, and Gabbidon could move on to the rest of his afternoon, a day off from practice.
Yale has two regular-season games left before the conference’s postseason tournament, Ivy Madness, takes place on March 12 and 13. Wins at Cornell (13–10, 5–7) this Saturday and vs. Brown (12–15, 4–8) next weekend would guarantee the Bulldogs at least a share of the Ivy League title. A pair of wins and a Princeton (19–5, 9–2) loss would secure the Elis the outright title and the one-seed at Ivy Madness.
Gabbidon received the Yale program’s Richard Derby academic award as a first year.