Back when Howard Moore was growing up on Chicago’s West Side in the 1980s and early ’90s, he could play basketball with his friends at the playground until dusk.
Gangs were a big issue, to be sure, but what Moore feared most was the wrath of Trennis and Howard Moore Sr. If Moore wasn’t back to his home in the Austin neighborhood before the porch light was turned on by his parents, there’d be hell to pay.
Things have changed a lot since Moore, a former University of Wisconsin men’s basketball player who’s now in his second stint as an assistant coach in the program, left his hometown the first time to come to Madison.
“If I was living in the city, I wouldn’t let my kids play at the playground and that’s a shame,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest heartbreakers is the sense of community has been destroyed.”
But Moore refuses to stand by idly as the neighborhoods he used to roam deteriorate due to gun violence. This weekend, he’s part of a group hosting the third annual “Legends Taking Back the Streets” event at Collins Academy High School, not far from where Moore grew up.
The two-day event, which begins Saturday, includes a basketball tournament with Chicago high school bragging rights on the line, a women’s all-star game, a ceremony honoring members of the community who have made a difference and a free camp for youths.
Moore and two of his close friends, Kenny Pratt and Jimmy Sanders, started the event in 2015 with the hopes that a tight-knit basketball community in Chicago could come together and promote a positive experience in a city wracked by violence.
“We don’t know where it’s going to lead to,” Moore said. “We hope that it leads to something bigger and better and more positive that can impact more kids and more people.”
Optimism radiates from Moore, but even he gets discouraged at times by what’s going on in his hometown.
There were 762 homicides in Chicago last year, the most in 20 years. A total of 3,550 shooting incidents were documented.
The violence has continued into 2017, and the city is coming off a particularly deadly four-day stretch around the July Fourth holiday. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 100 people were shot and 15 were killed between late last Friday afternoon and early Wednesday.
After one wave of violence in 2016, Moore made a plea on his Twitter account: “Please God, save my hometown from this senseless violence. Teach us love and peace, not evil and bloodshed.” At the end, he included the hashtag #SaveChicago.
When Moore and his friends started their event two years ago, the basketball tournament was just an avenue to getting as many people together to talk about what they could do to help.
“The biggest thing is getting us all together,” Moore said, “and really trying to hold each other accountable about how we can be part of the solution and help kids make better decisions.”
Part of the free camp includes speeches from former Chicago basketball standouts who share experiences — both good and bad — from their childhood. Former UW standout Rashard Griffith, who is close friends with Moore and was a star at King High School in Chicago, was among the speakers last year.
“That’s what these kids need to realize is that the decisions they make at a young age really affect what they’re going to do when they get older,” Moore said. “We’re trying to help them navigate through that with the help of some people who have done it and people who are trying to make a positive impact on our community.”
Moore began brainstorming sessions for the first “Legends” event in the spring of 2015, not long after he was fired from his first head coaching job at Illinois-Chicago. Back then, Moore didn’t know what his future held and was just looking for a way to make an impact in his community.
When UW coach Greg Gard asked him to rejoin the UW coaching staff in December 2015, Moore gladly accepted the offer and moved back to Madison.
At that point, facing a summer filled with camps, recruiting and offseason practices, Moore could have folded up the tents on his “Legends” event because of a busy schedule.
Instead, he committed to a second event and, now, a third.
Turning his back on Chicago, Moore said, would have been a cop-out.
“I still have a responsibility because that community developed who I am,” Moore said. “It made me who I am today and there was a lot of people who helped me stay away from traps.
“So now it’s my responsibility to try to help a few kids that are there looking for help, looking for guidance, a kid that’s similar to a Howard Moore that’s in the same situation and just needed a little bit of a push, a little bit of encouragement and a little bit of showing them the steps to being the type of kid that can fulfill their dreams. If I’m doing that, them I’m making a difference.”