One-time NBA assist leader Johnny Moore was in the middle of a great career when a case of Valley Fever forced his early retirement, but that didn’t keep the 6-1 guard away from the game. Back in SLAM 109 (July ’07), Cub Buenning told Moore’s story in the Original Old School feature below.—Ed.
words Cub Buenning | portraits Brent Humphreys
It’s a recent afternoon inside a half-full high school gym on the outskirts of Austin, TX, and one of the ’80s best NBA floor generals is working the sidelines of an Under-14 tournament game without fanfare. While his group of kids has surely been versed by their parents regarding their coach’s identity, the few hundred in attendance have little clue as to just how good the man in head-to-toe black was during his playing days.
While the 49-year-old displays some signs of aging—including a little salt and pepper in the goat—Johnny Moore’s body still appears able to run a team like he did when he led the San Antonio Spurs to three straight Midwest Division titles in the early ’80s. Back then, Moore held his own alongside luminescent point guards such as Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Tiny Archibald. He was the conductor of one of the Western Conference’s most rhythmic attacks, pulling the strings alongside a dude by the name of George Gervin.
When the Spurs acquired the A-Train, Artis Gilmore, before the ’82-83 season, he teamed with Gervin and Moore to establish the Spurs as the darlings of the River City. Moore, who’d joined the Spurs in ’80, was clearly the ring leader. During his first five years in the League, only two players dropped more dimes than the 6-1, 175-pound Moore: Magic and Zeke. In fact, in just his second season, Moore was the League’s assist champion at 9.6 per, while also establishing himself as a great defender, annually placing in the top five in steals.
Sadly, Johnny Moore’s path changed drastically about halfway through the ’85-86 campaign, his sixth season.
The medical term for the illness is coccidioidomycosis, but the common terms are Desert Fever or Valley Fever. In the American Southwest, the arid climate can promote the growth of a bacterial spore in fungus which, if released and inhaled, can lead to this debilitating form of meningitis.
On the night of December 19, ’85, Moore hadn’t even heard of Desert Fever; the headaches he’d been experiencing all day began affecting his on-court vision during a road game in Denver, but for all Moore knew, altitude and dehydration were the causes. By the day after Christmas, with the Spurs in L.A. to play the Lakers, things had changed drastically. Finding himself in an almost surreal state, Moore began seeing his teammates and Laker opponents with “blurred trails,” an insurmountable problem for a player whose game relied so heavily on seeing the floor. “There were also flu-like symptoms: headache, nausea, cold chills, sweat,” recalls Moore.
After spending the next month in the hospital, Moore was shelved for the season—one in which he was averaging his typically impressive numbers (13 ppg, 9 apg, 2.5 spg). For all intents and purposes, Moore’s promising young career was done.
Despite the tragedy surrounding the end of his time as a top guard in the League, the fact that Moore had even gotten to the NBA in the first place was something few people, even in his hometown of Altoona, PA, had ever imagined. A late-bloomer in a blue-collar home of four kids, Moore grew up idolizing his older brother, Bill, whom he claims “is still the greatest high school player I’ve ever seen.” Due to his slight stature as a kid—he went about 5-10, 140—people around town had wondered if Johnny would even make the local high school squad.
“Going to college or making the NBA? That was a joke,” Moore says some three decades later. “But I had a great support system around me that continued to encourage me to follow my heart and my dreams.”
It was a prep tournament in Pittsburgh that brought Moore to the attention of the Lone Star State in the first place, as recruiters from the University of Texas were in town to check out another player and stumbled upon Moore. After starting four years in Austin (twice making first team All-Southwestern Conference) Moore finally realized that he might be able to make it to the next level.
“The year before my senior year, I was able to go to the Pan-Am trials and that gave me a chance to see all the best players in the country,” remembers Moore. “Darrell Griffith, Darnell Valentine, Mike Gminski—all of them were there. I didn’t make the team, but I did well. I knew that if I worked just a little bit harder that I could be one of the elite.”
The SuperSonics made Moore their second-round pick in ’79 but quickly sold his rights to the Spurs. As the last cut of that season’s training camp under then-Spurs boss Doug Moe, Moore did what came natural and returned to Austin as a graduate assistant. When a new regime in San Antonio invited Moore to the ’80-81 camp, he gave the franchise little choice but to grant him another chance. “Junior,” which Moore was begrudgingly called from his days at UT, led the Spurs in assists that first season, and when the team moved James Silas, long-time point and the last original Spur, to Cleveland the following off-season, Moore took over the point for good. And he held it, at least until that fateful night in L.A. some five years later. What ensued would continue to add to Moore’s legacy, not on the hardwood but in the medical community. His public identity and proximity to The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio gave doctors the opportunity to learn more about the illness while trying to save the life and career of a local sports icon.
“The medication at that time was terrible,” Moore remembers vividly. “The drug gave me the same side-effects that the disease did.”
As the disease began to make its way toward the base of his brain, Moore would periodically have a rubber shunt inserted underneath his scalp so that the antibiotics could be administered directly to the brain. During that two-year span of intense treatment, the modern-day oral equivalent was developed. “In fact, my case was used as the prototype and they developed the pill that I still take today on a daily basis,” Moore explains.
Moore fought his way back to play bits and pieces of the ’86-87, ’87-88 and ’89-90 seasons for the Spurs, but he never regained the full-time starting PG spot, and by the end of his run, young bucks like Rod Strickland made it hard for the aging guard to even get minutes.
When his playing days ended, Moore decided to stay in San Anton. In the mid-’90s, Moore went back to work in the team’s community relations department, in a position currently held by his good friend Gervin. For the past decade, Moore has hosted an annual celebrity golf tournament in San Antonio, with funds raised from the recent events specifically earmarked for recovery from the Gulf Coast hurricanes of ’05. He’s also opened a community center in his Pennsylvania hometown.
In March of ’98, his family made a rare trip down from PA for a night that he describes with such heartfelt detail. “The night the Spurs retired my number was phenomenal,” Moore recalls. “I was just cheesin’ from ear to ear, couldn’t stop grinning. My pops was a diabetic and had his leg amputated from the knee down, but he made it. So did my mother and all my brothers and sisters. To be honored like that, it was something special. Most of the time when your career is over, you don’t get to add anything to it, but to get an accolade like that is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
While Tim Duncan’s 21 will surely find its way up into the AT&T’s rafters, only the digits of Silas, Gervin, Sean Elliott and David Robinson are current companions of Moore’s classic 00.
Like a lot of other former players, Moore is still involved with the game on a regular basis. In addition to working with his current group of Texas teenagers, Moore spent last year as an assistant for the Austin Toros of the D-League. Moore’s contacts in the game are global, as he spent a portion of the early ’90s playing professional ball in both Spain and Mexico, and some of his current opportunities are of the international variety. While Moore would love to be part of an NBA front office, he knows the “grassroots” trek may be the route he ultimately needs to take. Whether it’s with youth teams or branching off into the ever-expanding new-school American Basketball Association, Johnny Moore will always be a part of the game, giving back.
“Even though these guys are just getting started and still have a long way to go, they need to keep their heads on straight,” ponders Moore, an hour after his young squad endures a first-round loss in Austin. “That’s why working with the kids is really my passion. My desire is that every kid should have the opportunity to experience the college life, the school, the camaraderie you develop…there’s nothing like it.”