Thursday: La Salle vs. Wichita State TBS, 10:17 p.m.

Ex-NBA player who mentored Wilt Chamberlain lives quiet life of service in Charlotte

jjones@charlotteobserver.comMarch 27, 2013 

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Jackie Moore on March 26, 2013. Moore was the first black player at La Salle and first black player with the Philadelphia Warriors in the mid 50s. He now lives in Charlotte volunteering with the Red Cross driving people to their doctor appointments. But he's a quiet, shy, humble 80-year-old man who seems almost embarrassed to talk about how he broke down barriers and mentored the great Wilt Chamberlain when he was a teen. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

Twice a week, Jack Moore drives passengers to and from doctors’ appointments in Charlotte.

He’s humble and modest, so most of those who ride in his American Red Cross Dodge van never find out they’re being driven by a man who once mentored and coached NBA all-time great Wilt Chamberlain.

Moore, 80, was an outstanding player himself. In the early 1950s, he starred for then-powerful La Salle – a program that will continue its improbable run in the NCAA tournament Thursday night against Wichita State.

In 1956, Moore became one of the first African-American players to be part of an NBA championship team with the Philadelphia Warriors.

He has quietly moved on to a life of service and helping others in Charlotte for the past 40 years. Before volunteering with the Red Cross, he worked for the county helping those battling alcoholism and mental illness.

“He’s soft-spoken, he’s a gentle person, he’s a person who’s always willing to give, and unless you know him, you wouldn’t even know his background,” said Sonny Hill, a former announcer and NBA executive known as Mr. Basketball of Philadelphia. “If you didn’t know him you’d think he was just another tall guy.

“Inside of him is all of this legacy, all of this greatness and all of this giving.”

Breaking barriers

In 1950, Moore (known as Jackie then) starred for Philadelphia’s Overbrook High. He led his public school team to the city championship, where it lost to the city’s Catholic school title team led by Tom Gola, a future NBA Hall of Famer.

Moore became the first black basketball player at La Salle College the following year. He doesn’t remember anything being written about the groundbreaking move and to this day doesn’t care to publicize it himself.

“La Salle took a stand since I was there and I was the only black player on the team that wherever we went, I had to stay with the team, eat with the team, period,” Moore said. “That wasn’t negotiable.”

Still, he never thought of himself as a barrier breaker. It was something he wanted to do at the time, and no one in Philadelphia ever made “a great big deal about it.”

Gola joined La Salle the following year as the center and the Explorers won the 1952 National Invitation Tournament Championship. The two, already friends, became closer on a team that would only play where Moore would be treated equally.

“They all played against each other and with each other and I don’t think color meant anything,” says Caroline Gola, Tom’s wife. “Philadelphia is very unique that way. I think that’s why he didn’t think it was such a big deal. I don’t think anybody gave it any thought.”

Two years after the NIT win, Moore signed with the Philadelphia Warriors and became the first black professional basketball player in the city’s history.

There were fewer than 10 black players in the NBA during his first year with the Warriors, and in three years with the team Moore averaged 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds in 8.8 minutes per game.

Moore, a 6-foot-5 forward, was known for his leaping abilities and rebounding. In the 1955-56 season, he was again joined by Gola, who was a four-time All-American in college, and the Warriors won the NBA championship against the Fort Wayne Pistons. He became the third black player to ever win an NBA title.

Gola, for whom La Salle’s arena is named, resides at St. Joseph’s Manor in Meadowbrook’s Holy Redeemer Hospital north of Philadelphia. A fall and multiple seizures have taken his ability to walk and slowed his speech, his wife says. In his room are photos from his basketball and political past. And on the wall there’s a picture of Gola with his teammate Jackie Moore, smiling his shy grin.

Every now and then, people will ask Caroline about Moore. Two weeks ago, she was in New York City representing her husband, who was being inducted into the inaugural class of Atlantic 10 Conference legends.

“The La Salle athletic director came up and asked me about Jackie, and people do ask for him,” she said. “And I said, ‘I’d love to find out.’ ”

Guiding Wilt

Knee trouble cut Moore’s NBA career short in 1957, just two years before he would have been on the same team alongside his protégé, Wilt Chamberlain.

At the time Chamberlain was deciding where to go to high school, Moore was a hometown hero at La Salle College. Sam Cozen, the Overbrook coach who had coached Moore, saw the 6-10 Chamberlain had athleticism but was awkward with the basketball.

“My dad decided in order for Wilt to become a great basketball player, he really needed to work on the fundamentals of the game, and the only time he could do that was during the summer time,” Stephen Cozen said. “He asked Jackie to take Wilt under his wing and teach him how to play basketball. Basically Jackie Moore taught Wilt Chamberlain how to play the game.”

Moore took Chamberlain, whom he called “Dippy” for his nickname “The Big Dipper,” to Haddington Playground and passed along what he knew.

Chamberlain went on to play at Kansas and with the Harlem Globetrotters before becoming one of the greatest centers in NBA history.

Moore, meanwhile, moved to Charlotte and continued helping people.

In service of others

Moore worked at Philadelphia’s Opportunities and Industrialization Center for most of the 1960s. When it opened a branch in Charlotte in 1971, his boss asked him to move south and become a director of human services at the vocational job center.

The office closed two years later and Moore considered moving back to Philadelphia, but his first wife, Katherine, wanted to stay close to her family in Winston-Salem.

He started working with Mecklenburg County in 1975, first in a program helping people who were struggling financially. Then he moved to what he thought would be a temporary position in the detox center.

The staff never filled up, and working with alcoholics was interesting and rewarding to Moore.

“We had a lot of street people who a lot of times didn’t want to change or would do a change for short periods of time and would go back to doing their thing,” Moore said. “The reward was seeing some of them get themselves straightened out and becoming somewhat successful.”

He worked in mental health in the 1990s. He found a number of patients were abusing their medications, and he took seminars to become a substance abuse counselor, setting up programs to help them.

Upon retiring in 2000, Moore grew bored. A friend told him about driving people to dialysis appointments with the Red Cross, and he originally signed on as a full-time transportation service director. When the position was cut, he stayed on as a volunteer.

“Jack Moore is a very compassionate and selfless individual whose life genuinely speaks for itself,” read a statement from the Red Cross. “This past year alone, he has driven more than 500 volunteer hours. Jack Moore is the epitome of a Red Cross Volunteer, and a highly respected individual in the community.”

Few in Charlotte, though, know of his basketball past. Philadelphia hasn’t forgotten, and La Salle’s NCAA tournament run has rekindled memories.

“They can’t have the success if they don’t have the background,” Hill said. “People know the name Tom Gola, and they should. But they should know the name Jackie Moore because he contributed equally.”

Staff researcher Maria David contributed. Jones: 385-5323 Twitter: @jjones9

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