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Full Circle: Coach Howard Moore’s Quest To Revive UIC Basketball

At the corner of Halsted and Roosevelt hangs a masterpiece: a pinup shot of downtown, one of those views that somehow makes the Willis Tower seem taller than 110 stories.

But for a long time, this postcard perspective from the University of Illinois at Chicago could not obscure the rest of its surroundings, stitched together with vacant factories to the south and low-slung public housing complexes to the west. And until recently, the decay of the near west side has crept close to the campus.

“It was a hustler’s place,” recalled Jimmy Collins, who took over as the school’s men’s basketball coach in 1996, when the stretch of South Halsted Street that flanked the university’s eastern border was largely the province of grifters peddling hubcaps, radios, and watches.

This was home for Howard Moore, the team’s coach for the past three years. He spent the first year of his life on the western border of UIC, in a two-flat unit of the ABLA public housing project. And although his family soon took leave of the area, moving to a larger home further west, Moore continued to spend much of his youth in this neighborhood, known colloquially, if euphemistically, as The Village. It was here he learned to play basketball—first at the Marcy-Newberry Association Center on West Maxwell Street, later in the neighborhood parks—the sport that would ultimately bring him back to the area.

(Photo by Daniel Libit)

(Photo by Daniel Libit)

A naturally gifted athlete, Moore became a star basketball player at Taft High School and eventually earned a scholarship to play at the University of Wisconsin. Afterward, he served as an assistant coach for 12 seasons at five different schools, until UIC hired him to replace Collins, the Flames’ most successful head coach, and the man responsible for guiding the program to its three NCAA Tournament appearances.

Though Illinois-Chicago wasn’t Moore’s alma mater, his hiring was a homecoming in the most literal sense. He moved his family into one of the area’s gleaming products of ‘90s gentrification, the University Village development on Maxwell Street, located less than a mile from his birth home.

“This program will be the class of the city of Chicago, of the state of Illinois,” Moore told a press conference when he was introduced as coach in August 2010. “And we’re going to take that seed that Jimmy Collins planted, and other people as well, and we’re going to grow that seed to something very special that the people of Chicago will be very proud of.”

After two initial seasons of growing pains, in which the Flames won only seven and eight games, respectively, the team started the season 9-1, before dropping four of the last five games.

Still, this specter of a turnaround, surprising to even the man at the tiller, has the school eager to lay claim to something larger: a seat at the head of the table—a deed to the title of “Chicago’s team.”

“When I first got there and I knocked on somebody’s door and I said I’m from UIC, you would hear a voice saying, ‘Nobody is home,’” said Collins. “Howard fell, in my estimation, into a gold mine.”

If not a gold mine, then at least a golden opportunity. UIC’s two biggest local competitors, Loyola and DePaul, have each had their streaks culling the city’s star players and reaping the benefits thereof. Starting in the late 1970s, both DePaul and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign began constructing imperious channels to the Windy City talent pools. The Blue Demons’ iconic coach Ray Meyer did so with the signings of Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummins, which suddenly opened the eyes of inner city kids to the prospect of spending four years in Lincoln Park. At the same time, Illini coach Lou Henson, with Collins as his assistant, started luring a procession of stars down I-57.

As for UIC—the Division I school most immersed, at least geographically, in the communities where the talent actually lies—it was clear that proximity bred indifference, if not contempt.

“It has always been a situation where UIC has been trying to find some niche, trying to draw the attention of the top players in the city and the surrounding areas,” said Moore. “But the city has always had a relationship with UIC.”

For years, the school was the site of Chicago’s summer pro-am basketball circuit, and Moore remembers watching players like Rickey Green, Craig Hodges, J.J. Anderson, Willie Scott, and Sonny Parker compete in what is now called the “old” Physical Education Building. Also, the UIC Pavilion, the Flames’ 7,000-seat arena, has long hosted the Chicago Public League boy’s basketball championships, including during the time when Moore played at Taft.

But coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Moore also experienced the chasm between the university and the neighborhood, even though a couple of family members attended Circle, as it was known at the time – an aunt and a cousin, both of whom went to nursing school.

“When you have a group that is a little disenfranchised, there was always that wall,” Moore said. “We were allowed to attend athletically, but as far as being able to attend socially and intellectually, that was the disconnect.”

That extended beyond the school.

For decades, the near west side has been one of the city’s most constantly churning melting pots, and yet one that always seems to find its black residents caked to the bottom. The Maxwell Street market area, once known as Jew Town, had been taken over by Korean and Arab storeowners when Moore was growing up. But the faces of the clerks were mostly black.

“As African-Americans, we felt, ‘Wow, how come we didn’t own these stores?’ But that is a whole other socio-economic conversation,” Moore said.

“You had a lot of the young black people in the community that worked in the store, that looked over it and kept watch and kept everything at bay, but there was never that autonomy of, ‘I’m going to hand this store over to you.’ It was more of this financial situation. And so what happened was the young black person who worked at that particular store was kind of passed on to the next owner, and was told to kind of keep order of the store and keep the neighborhood at bay.”

Meanwhile, the university, despite its location, has never exactly been the Tuskegee Institute of Chicago. Even today, UIC’s student body, which is majority-minority, is only eight percent black; by comparison, DePaul’s freshman class last year was seven percent.

In 1982, the University of Illinois system decided to merge its near west and Navy Pier campuses to form what would since be known as the University of Illinois at Chicago, or Circle, named for its proximity to the expressway interchange. In the subsequent years, the school expanded further south, beyond Roosevelt Road. Concurrently, the surrounding neighborhood also underwent transformation: ABLA homes, once the city’s second largest public housing project, was razed in the 1990s and 2000s to make way for new development.

Moore, a high-flying player at Taft who became a serviceable letterman at Wisconsin, never considered playing ball at UIC; he’s not even certain the school recruited him. Loyola and Northern Illinois were both hot on his trail, as was Northwestern, where Moore’s father wanted him to go. Instead, Moore was entranced with Wisconsin—not too far, but far enough away from home—where he teamed with two other star Chicagoans, Michael Finley and Rashard Griffith, to lead the Badgers to their first NCAA Tournament in 43 years.

In retrospect, few city players have so clearly typified UIC’s recruiting paradox as its current head coach: the boy who literally grew up down the street, never gave the university a passing thought.

Before he took the job at UIC, Jimmy Collins spent 13 seasons as an assistant under Henson at Urbana-Champaign, where he recited the Eclogues of downstate life to Chicago’s hardwood athletes.

“At that time, people were preaching to get out of the city,” Collins says. “It was easy for me once I got down to Illinois; it became easy to convince kids that you need to leave the city and experience more culture.”

At UIC, the script necessarily flipped: Wouldn’t it be nice to stay close to your friends? For your parents to be able to take the El or a bus to watch you play your home games?

“I was always positive that I was going to be able to accomplish that,” Collins said, “but I am here to tell you that it wasn’t easy to get kids to stay at home.”

But Collins did have one angle to work with: Illinois-Chicago’s lower academic standards, which allowed him to enroll freshman players who couldn’t qualify out of high school.

And so it was that Collins landed two star guards from Westinghouse Prep, Cedric Banks and Martell Bailey, who would lead the Flames to the NCAA Tournament in 2002 and 2004. But soon after, the school’s administration had decided to bring its admissions requirements more in line with Urbana-Champaign, shuttering Collins’ best chance to compete for the top local players.

“Some of those kids who went away to junior colleges—the Tony Allens and Othyus Jeffers—they would have never left,” said Collins.

Jeffers, also of the Westinghouse pipeline, transferred to UIC after a year playing junior college ball in Los Angeles, spurning offers from high-major programs in the gilt-edged conferences in order to return home. But such a recruiting victory proved rare.

Following a blowout loss to Kansas in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, Collins’ program dogpaddled in mediocrity until his retirement in 2010, following an 8-22 season, his worst ever as a coach.

“[Moore] inherited nothing, quite frankly,” said Jim Schmidt, UIC’s athletic director. “We were, talent-wise, as far down as any time in the last 15 years—and Jimmy would admit that.”

Nobody was expecting Moore to turn things around quite so quickly. That he has, or appears to have, suddenly gives rise to a sense of new opportunity. Moore has credited the players buying into his defensive philosophy; through December, it was routinely holding opponents under 50 points per game. More has supplemented his roster with a handful of useful transfers, namely junior college guards Daniel Barnes and Gary Talton, the team’s two top scorers.

“I think it presents a moment,” said Schmidt. “But in the big picture, I think Howard’s goal is to really build a program and not a team.”

A program, Schmidt adds, that can assert a new position in the pecking order of Chicago.

Indeed, a window appears to have cracked—if UIC has the wherewithal to pry it open. Illinois lost some recruiting continuity when Bruce Weber was fired last season, although first-year coach John Groce has been a yeoman in returning the household to order. DePaul, meanwhile, has failed to go to the NCAA Tournament since 2004, or produce a winning team since 2007. The arrival three seasons ago of head coach Oliver Purnell, a lifelong East Coaster, was greeted with disesteem by the prime movers of Chicago’s prep basketball community.

UIC_flames_logoSchmidt is ready to go for the big boys.

“I think over the next two or three years, we need to land a top-50 recruit, at least a top-100 recruit,” Schmidt said.

But Moore, for his part, is more cautious—and has shown little inclination to chase fiercely after local treasure.

“I am not going to beat Illinois and DePaul for kids right now, although we did beat DePaul for [Josh] Crittle,” he said, referring to the Flames’ power forward, who transferred to UIC after stints at Oregon and Central Florida. “But if it’s me and John Groce going for the top players in Chicago, I am not winning that battle.”

Interestingly, in Moore’s third season, the Flames roster bears only a small local stamp: just two players who have seen action this year hail from the public leagues—Gabe Snider (Whitney M. Young High School) and Ahman Fells (Simeon). A third Chicagoan, freshman point guard Greg Tavis, was suspended indefinitely by Moore at the start of the season for an undisclosed “violation of team rules.”

The coaching staff has, meanwhile, capitalized on its connections out of state, such as Indiana and the Virginia military prep schools. The later accounts for three current players on the roster.

This just might be the winning strategy for UIC basketball in the Howard Moore era: forgetting about the close misses of the past and moving beyond its own provincial concerns. That becoming “Chicago’s team” means not obsessing about becoming Chicago’s team. Maybe, in the end, it takes a kid from the neighborhood, who left the neighborhood, to see the bigger picture.

“When I recruit kids from out of state, they love it,” said Moore. “They don’t care about what happened when I was young; they don’t care about 30 years ago. They see what is happening now and get excited about it now. When you have the Willis Tower as your backdrop, there is a lot to sell.”

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