When the championship game of the NCAA Tournament tips off Monday night, Ricky Moore won't feel a tingle crawl up his spine.
He says he won't be swept away by a wave of nostalgia, and he doesn't plan on calling up William Avery to relive the events of a year ago.
Has it been only a year since Moore and Avery, former teammates at Westside High School, squared off in the national title game and showcased Augusta to millions? Was it really this time last year when Moore's Connecticut Huskies shocked the world and Avery's Duke Blue Devils in St. Petersburg. Fla.?
For Moore, it might seem like a lot longer. Since that glorious night, the 23-year-old Augusta native has endured his share of difficulties in his quest to craft a successful career in professional basketball.
He went undrafted by the NBA, then was cut by the Detroit Pistons after a brief try-out. He recently concluded his rookie year in the NBA's developmental league, the Continental Basketball Association.
It was a season that yielded far more disappointment than satisfaction.
"The highs have been really high, but the lows have been really, really low," said Moore's mother, 52-year-old Dorothy Moore. "It has sort of been like that for the family, too. To go from winning the national championship and doing really, really great, and then all of a sudden not doing so great."
FEW SELF-RESPECTING basketball players long for prolonged stays in the CBA, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to see Moore finding it difficult to accept his role with the Connecticut Pride.
As one of the team's two rookies -- his roommate, former South Carolina star BJ McKie, is the other -- the 6-foot-2, 195-pound point guard played the fewest minutes and scored the fewest points of the team's 10 players.
He perceives himself as an afterthought, and it rankles him.
"You're not going to produce unless you're out there on the floor," Moore said recently from his apartment in Hartford, Conn.
Despite maintaining his reputation as a solid defensive presence with the Pride, Moore struggled offensively. He was often matched against players two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier, and coach Tyler Jones said Moore lacked the ability to create consistently off the dribble and feed the big men in the post -- the essential duties carried by point guards.
"The NBA game is really the exploitation of weaknesses: running pick and rolls, hitting seams, draw and kick," said Jones, who also serves as the Pride's general manager. "That's what Ricky has been learning this year."
A good deal of Moore's difficulties were wrought by whom he played behind. Guards Kevin Ollie and Ira Bowman were called up to the Philadelphia 76ers in midseason, but all the talent didn't leave with them. Moore spent the latter half of the season behind Dan Cross, a former Florida star who averaged 15 points per game and was the Pride's assist leader.
Moore's minutes increased the last month of the season, but he missed the playoffs after suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee on the team's final regular-season road trip two weeks ago. The Pride lost to Sioux Falls on Wednesday in the first round of the playoffs.
He is planning to join the 11-team United States Basketball League, which begins its 15th season in late April. But the injury, which is expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks, could alter those plans.
MOORE IS MAKING about $19,000 a year, below-average wages for a CBA player. "It's decent," he said. "Nothing to be smiling about, but it's decent."
He knows McKie from summer AAU battles in the pair's high school days. When the Pride embarked on road trips this season, the two often rose at 5 a.m. to catch the morning flight for distant CBA locales such as La Crosse, Quad City, Sioux Falls, Grand Rapids or Yakima.
"This year has been a learning process to me, but I'm right at home, having gone to school in Connecticut," said Moore, who lives about an hour away from Storrs, Conn., home of the University of Connecticut. "I didn't have to go through any changes, because I'm used to being away from home. So it was a lot easier on me dealing with not playing."
After the NBA passed him over in its draft last June, Moore was granted a free-agent tryout with the Pistons. But it didn't last long. Moore was inserted late in an exhibition game and saw limited duty. Soon thereafter, he was cut.
"That was pretty much the lowest he's gotten," Dorothy Moore said.
Ricky lamented that he "didn't even have a chance to go out and play."
"I pretty much knew what was going to happen," he said. "It was no surprise to me."
What did come as a shock was how little action he saw with the Pride. Moore maintains that he held his own in practice amid formidable competition at the point-guard spot.
"I know what I can do," he said. "It's just a matter of getting out there and getting the opportunity to produce."
But the opportunities for rookies are limited in the CBA, where the emphasis isn't on winning so much as it is on grooming players for forays into the NBA.
This season, 19 players from the CBA's nine teams have been called up to the big leagues, including three from the Pride.
"Our coach is going to show loyalty to the guys that have been here," Moore said of Jones. "He's trying to get them the opportunity to get their call-up to the NBA, because they've paid their dues and they've been here."
Jones doesn't deny harboring devotion to his veterans, who led the Pride to its first CBA title last season.
"He does a good job in practice," Jones said of Moore. "But I know that I have guys that have gotten me to the mountaintop as a head coach, and I've been loyal to those guys."
Moore said he understands his time will come. But his patience is running out.
"He wants to go in a different direction, and I understand that as a player," Moore said of Jones. "The only problem that I have is, if I'm not the player you're looking for, you should have cut me. That's the way I feel. He feels he should have loyalty to his players that have been here, and I'm fine with that.
"I just don't want you to hold up my future by sitting me on the bench. I want to get out there and play just as bad as everybody else wants to get out there and play."
WHAT MAKES MOORE's situation more difficult for him to accept is the knowledge of where he's been and what he's done.
At Westside, he helped transform a perennial loser into a Peach State powerhouse, applying the crowning moment by teaming with Avery to win the Class AAA state title in 1995.
At Connecticut, Moore developed a reputation as a stellar defensive player and the team's vocal leader.
There were struggles, certainly. Moore resembled a one-man outpatient clinic his first two years, undergoing three surgeries and suffering a sprained ankle, a broken nose, a concussion, a dislocated shoulder and strained hand ligaments.
Then there was the five-game suspension in his sophomore season after he accepted a round-trip plane ticket from a sports agent.
But his legacy, through high school and college, is that of a winner. The enduring image of his career has Moore, jaw clenched like a pit bull, exhorting the Huskies to the monumental 77-74 upset of Avery's Blue Devils late last March.
With fellow guard Khalid El-Amin saddled by foul trouble in the first half, Moore scored 13 points in the first 13 minutes to keep his team within reach.
In the game's last 20 seconds, with Duke threatening to tie or take the lead, Moore produced two key stops of Devils' guard Trajan Langdon that secured victory.
Moore left Connecticut as the school's all-time leader in games played (134), and he received a degree in community programming and development.
"Even if he doesn't go any further, he has fulfilled my dream of him graduating from college and playing in that game and doing such a wonderful job," his mother said.
THOUGH WHAT HAS happened since has been less the stuff of storybooks, Moore is driven harder by the belief that he hasn't been given a fair shake.
"I'm in the gym on off days," he said. "Someday, it's going to pay off. Eventually, I'm going to get my chance to play and showcase my talents."
While his son is reluctant to discuss a future beyond basketball, Otis "Buck" Moore thinks Ricky will pursue a career in coaching if one in playing doesn't work out.
"But he can do it," Moore's father said of securing a spot in the NBA. "He's got to be sold on himself and know that he's got to do it all over again. He's a winner. He just needs for somebody to give him a chance."
Has it really been a year since Moore walked from the scene of the Huskies' triumph with a piece of a freshly cut net dangling from his neck?
He isn't sure.
"That's over with," said Moore, who will turn 24 on April 10. "That's done. I have my ring; I did what I needed to do. Now it's time to go on. I have another goal in mind, and that's trying to make an NBA team.
"After I make an NBA team, I'll have another goal in mind and that's trying to win the NBA championship."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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