My Kind of Town: How Chicago shaped Charlie Moore

Ethan Epstein/File

Since 1981, every year, the Illinois Mr. Basketball award has been given to the top high school basketball player in the state. The list of past recipients boasts the finest of Illinois-bred hoopers, including future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett (1995), Derrick Rose (2007) Jabari Parker (2012, 2013) and Jahlil Okafor (2014) — the last three of whom were top-three picks in the NBA draft.

In 2016, Charlie Moore became the newest addition to this illustrious group.

Being part of a lineage that claims numerous All-Star-caliber players, Moore is full of ambition. But unlike most previous winners of the award, he doesn’t possess the type of physical profile that tantalizes scouts and analysts. Moore stands at a diminutive 5 feet 11 inches and weighs just 170 pounds, which many consider to be red flags when projecting his ability to play at the next level. For reference, the average height of an NBA point guard in 2016 was just over 6 feet 2 inches, which means that Moore would be at a legitimate size disadvantage.

Moore has been one of the smallest players on the floor for his entire competitive basketball career, but it hasn’t deterred him yet. Instead, Moore distinguishes himself from most players of his size with his intelligent decision-making and, most importantly, his toughness.

“Chicago Public League is probably one of the toughest leagues in the country,” said Michael Pouncy, one of Moore’s two older brothers. “Charlie comes to the gym and he’s just watching that basketball, seeing just how tough everyone was. They won’t let you get away with anything — just a real gritty environment playing basketball in Chicago.”

Chicago, with its unique basketball culture and demographics, served as the perfect breeding ground for Moore. He was born and raised in Englewood, one of South Side Chicago’s most notoriously violent neighborhoods. Spanning approximately 3 square miles, Englewood has some safe and some not-so-safe areas. For Moore and his two older brothers, basketball kept them in the gym and away from the treacherous parts of Englewood.

“I played basketball myself, and he was always in the gym,” says Pouncy. “My dad would bring him to the gym, bring him to tournaments on the weekends. We stayed in the gym every day.”

“Chicago Public League is probably one of the toughest leagues in the country. Charlie comes to the gym and he’s just watching that basketball, seeing just how tough everyone was. They won’t let you get away with anything — just a real gritty environment playing basketball in Chicago.”

-Michael Pouncy

During his childhood, Moore would often attend his brothers’ practices, dribbling balls on the sideline and practicing his jump shot. Moore’s father, Curtis, was an assistant coach at the high school his brothers attended and oversaw Moore starting from the day he first played on their Fisher-Price rim at home.

“I had him dribbling with two balls and shooting around the basket all the time,” Curtis says. “Left hand, right hand, shooting around the basket. We shot a million shots.”

As his interest in the sport grew, Moore sought advice from his brothers. Their words still resonate with him today: Be smart. Be Tough. But it wasn’t just their words that impacted him. At practices, Moore’s brothers pushed him around, giving him a taste of the physicality and intensity that permeated Chicago’s basketball culture. While it bothered him back then, his penchant for finishing through contact comes from those experiences.

Under the tutelage of his father and brothers, Moore continued to develop his skills and ultimately joined the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU — a competitive circuit composed of the top amateurs in the country — in fifth grade. To expedite Moore’s development as a basketball player, Curtis would pit his youngest son against higher levels of competition.

“One thing I did, I always played him up,” Curtis says. “I played him up two levels. When I thought he was good enough, I used to put him on the court and had two or three guys going at him.”

Because he spent his formative years as one of the smallest players on his team, Moore gained an understanding of the limitations, as well as the perks, of being undersized. His quickness was his ally, helping him collect steals and rebounds over taller players.

“That was never a problem,” Curtis says of Charlie being undersized. “When he was on the floor, he thought he was about 10 feet tall. That wasn’t a problem, because he was never a crybaby or anything.”

Once Moore reached the eighth grade, he took stock of his basketball prowess and saw the potential to play collegiately — something his father had always dreamed of. When he needed additional motivation, he looked to his brother Paris, who played Division I basketball at Central Michigan. If Paris did it, he wanted to do it, too.

Now determined to make the leap to college basketball, Moore spent countless hours working on his jump shot and ball-handling abilities to pair with his natural quickness. In his sophomore year of high school, Moore took the cues of Rose, a fellow Englewood native, and Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, and he began learning how to change speed — to accelerate and then come to a halt at a moment’s notice.

During his time at Morgan Park High School, Moore played for the school team while still maintaining his commitment to AAU basketball. As a freshman, Moore joined the Mac Irvin Fire, one of the top teams in the AAU, and enjoyed opportunities to travel the globe and compete against other elite teams. The two circuits provided two very different kinds of learning experiences to Moore. Playing high school basketball in the Chicago Public League tested Moore’s toughness while the AAU consisted of elite players who possessed a similar skill set to his.

Later in high school, Moore’s efforts were validated when he began receiving attention from college recruiters. Cal was one of the first schools to reach out to him, but Moore developed a strong rapport with Josh Pastner, who at the time was the head coach of Memphis. Moore committed to Memphis at the beginning of his senior year, in which he averaged 28 points, seven assists, five steals and four rebounds per game. Five months later, after Pastner left Memphis for an opening at Georgia Tech, Moore reopened his recruitment and chose Cal within a few weeks.

“Coach Webster and Coach Martin, even though I was committed to Memphis, they just showed a lot that they really cared about me when they were recruiting me,” Moore says. “After I decommitted from Memphis, I think it was just a clear decision for me to just attend Cal.”

In the realm of collegiate basketball, physical deficiencies become more pronounced and are always exploited. After arriving at Cal, Moore began studying film of himself and became increasingly aware of his weaknesses, especially defensively.

“Sometimes I get lazy on the defensive end,” Moore says. “It doesn’t seem like I’m doing it in the game, but when you watch film, it’s like, ‘Wow, I really was getting lazy.’”

Moore has embraced the “mind over matter” philosophy, working to quell the fears of skeptics and compensate for his lack of size by analyzing his matchups carefully. By studying scouting reports, Moore can learn his opponents’ tendencies and steer them away from the spots where they are most comfortable.

On Nov. 16, a shorthanded Cal men’s basketball team played its second game of the season at home against UC Irvine. The Bears were without three of their top offensive threats, desperate for someone to shoulder the scoring load. Moore, in just his second game of collegiate basketball, rose to the occasion.

For two and a half hours, Moore mesmerized Haas Pavilion, showcasing his diverse offensive skillset. The countless jump shots Moore had taken in local gyms at home with his father watching translated to an efficient 10/20 shooting mark from the field, including 3/7 from beyond the arc. All night, Moore brought the toughness that characterized Chicago basketball and fearlessly attacked larger, more physically imposing defenders. A testament to his grit, he wound up with 17 free-throw attempts and hit 15 of them.

In the end, Moore delivered a 38-point outburst to sink the Anteaters in overtime, erasing Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s freshman scoring record of 33 points from Cal’s archives. It wasn’t the first time Moore found himself in elite company, and it won’t be the last.

Kapil Kashyap covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]