As Anthony Bennett struggled to live up to the public’s expectations for the No. 1 overall pick during his rookie year in Cleveland, his former UNLV road trip roommate empathized 2,500 miles away in Eugene, OR.
After a stellar 2011-12 redshirt-sophomore campaign for the Running Rebels, Mike Moser opted to return to the The Strip for one more season instead of declaring for the 2012 NBA Draft. Moser averaged 14.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists that season, sparking some comparisons to Kawhi Leonard and speculation that he could sneak into the back of the first round.
“It was a difficult decision for him because he had a breakout year as a sophomore. It was something that he spent a lot of time talking about,” UNLV head coach Dave Rice says.
Moser began the 2012-13 season picking up from where he left off a year prior, flirting with or posting double-doubles on a nightly basis. The team opened the campaign with a 6-1 start, but just five minutes into UNLV’s 76-75 win at Cal on December 9, Moser’s season would suffer an enormous drawback.
“I remember the date,” Rice says. “Mike was playing well and he was in the starting lineup. He probably had fallen like that a thousand times before and just had the unfortunate injury.”
Moser had fallen forward lunging after a loose ball. As he outstretched his arms to brace for his impact with the hardwood, a Cal player dove for the ball as well, veering right into Moser’s right elbow, bending it completely inward and dislocating the joint.
“I was stuck there laying on the floor with my elbow bent in. It was pretty nasty,” Moser recalls.
Four games later, Moser improbably returned to the court only to dislocate it again after just 12 minutes of game action, forcing him to sit on the sidelines for two more games. Fortunately, the 6-8 forward managed to play in every one of UNLV’s last 20 games of the year, but the injury derailed his season. His numbers dramatically keeled across the board, slicing in half from the year before.
“I was just kind of playing one-armed and it was a really frustrating up-and-down year,” Moser says. “I kind of played spot minutes here and there, but I did what I could. I don’t think anything could’ve stopped me from getting on the court.”
The UNLV training staff injected Moser with shots to warm up the elbow before every game. But he never returned to his sophomore-season form. From the outside looking in, he was another case of an NBA prospect returning to school only to get burned by the decision.
Mike Moser was born in Dallas, TX, on November 8, 1990. His mother, Jeanne, adopted him at birth.
When he was a pre-teen, he attempted to make contact with his biological parents. When Jeanne was preoccupied around their Portland house or out running errands, he would sift through her belongings in search for any forms or documents from adoption agencies.
“I tried a lot. I was calling all kinds of numbers and Googling anything I could find,” Moser said. “It was more or less a phase that I got over.”
But he wasn’t alone. After Jeanne gave birth to her oldest child, Catlin, the single mother wanted more children. She adopted her second child, Danny, from Brazil three years later.
“I like kids and I think family is very important,” Jeanne says. “That’s kind of the main reason. I just feel like this was a good home and I wanted more kids.”
She adopted Mike four years later. Jeanne has adopted seven children in total, also including Mary from India, Tony from Houston, Lizzie from Haiti as well as David and Antonio from Mexico just five years ago.
Adopting isn’t unique to Jeanne, either.
“I have two sisters. One has twins from the Philippines and another has three children that are adopted: One from Haiti, one from India and one from the US,” Jeanne says. “I think you really learn about diversity and appreciating all different cultures and walks of life, and I just think that since it wasn’t that normal every day, it really just made [Mike] aware of all different people.”
While he admits the upbringing was difficult at times, Mike recognized the benefits of his childhood.
“I honestly really think that’s helped me through basketball because the game’s so diverse, especially coming up through high school and college,” Moser says. “You’ve gotta be able to work with a lot of different people. I think that’s helped a lot.”
With a diverse and often hectic family at home, Moser found solace on the court. He shot up to 6-5 by his freshman year of high school, becoming a gangly mountain of limbs. It wasn’t until he caught the watchful eyes of Kumbeno Memory and then-Portland Trail Blazer Ime Udoka that Moser began his path to the upper-echelon of competitive basketball.
Udoka played one season in Portland, 2006-07, during his seven-year NBA career. In that time, he, Memory, who everyone simply calls Beno, and Kendrick Williams founded the I-5 Elite AAU program. It was the perfect way to combine Memory’s up-start training business Hoop Dreams Basketball, which he founded in 2002, with the group’s mutual passion for hoops.
“We’re all three best friends,” Memory says. “We started the program together and used it as a tool to help give back to kids.”
Through Udoka, Memory attended several Blazers practices where he was able to pick the coaching staff’s brains about player development. He says it opened his eyes to key aspects of individual player training and today his program regularly works out between 150-200 players ranging from high schoolers, to college players and professionals.
Memory had been training one of Moser’s high school teammates Greg Bogdan during that freshman year. He told Bogdan to bring Moser into a workout one day and, as Memory says, “the rest is history.” They saw the slightly awkward teenager hadn’t quite grown into his frame and had an ocean of potential. “He was just a long, lanky, skinny kid that really didn’t know how to move that well. But he was a gym rat and he worked his tail off. He just had endless energy,” Memory says.
Moser trained with Memory for the remainder of his freshman year of high school and became the first player for I-5 Elite a year later.
“He’s obviously special because he’s the first kid we targeted based on his potential and we’ve had a great relationship ever since,” says Udoka, now an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs. “Once we got to know him a bit, we got to see his great personality, his work ethic on the court—I’m big with work ethic, that’s a huge thing for me—and he was a kid that was always going to be in the gym. When you combine that with that with what we saw on the court, it was a no-brainer.”
Moser became a four-year letterman at Grant High School. As a senior, he earned All-America honors and was named Oregon’s Mr. Basketball after posting averages of 28.3 point and 13 rebounds per game in 2009. Before his senior season, he verbally committed to Arizona to play for legendary longtime head coach Lute Olson. He wore No. 0 during high school as an ode to Moser’s favorite Wildcat, Gilbert Arenas.
But the day Moser took his official visit to Arizona’s green Tucson campus in the heart of the desert, Olson retired after 25 years running the Wildcats’ program. “Man, that was a crazy day,” Moser remembers.
Two weeks later the Portland product committed to UCLA to play for Ben Howland. But his time as a Bruin was less-than miraculous. He played in just 15 games as UCLA went 14-18 during the 2009-10 campaign. He scored 9 total points, grabbed 7 rebounds, dished 4 assists and swiped 3 steals.
Moser knew he needed a change of scenery and Jeanne trusted his instincts throughout the entire transfer process.
“Michael’s real intelligent and he has a goal in mind,” she says. “So I’ve always supported him in his decisions and felt like his decisions were always well thought out.”
Moser surveyed his options and decided to head to UNLV and join head coach Lon Kruger.
“I really liked the team and I really had a great visit,” Moser says. “I felt like I meshed really well with the team. By the time I was going to be eligible to play, they were going to be really experienced, they would have some seniors. That really interested me the most, to be honest.”
Kruger guided UNLV to a 24-9 season in 2010-11 and the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Sure enough, after the Rebels lost to Illinois 73-62, Kruger left UNLV for the head job at Oklahoma, abandoning Moser just as Olson did. That opened the door for Rice to take over the program.
“My first year coaching was his first year playing and he was fantastic,” Rice remembers. “He averaged a double-double, he got us off to a very fast start and he became a guy who became nationally recognized because of his ability to rebound the basketball. He was an energy guy and he was terrific.”
The Rebels returned to the NCAA Tournament that season. 2011-12 was the year that led to Moser’s flirtation with going pro, before the wheels came off after he decided to return to campus and injured his elbow. Even while Moser struggled to play at 100 percent in 2012-13, Rice says he was an integral part of UNLV earning an NCAA Tournament berth for the fourth-straight season for the first time since Jerry Tarkanian left the school in 1992.
“He was one of our captains and he continued to be one of our leaders and help our young guys make the transition,” Rice says. “He was very positive even though I know he was very frustrated with the fact that he couldn’t play because he’s such a great competitor.”
Moser aided Bennett, especially, taking the future Cavalier under his wing. The two watched hours of Family Guy in their hotel rooms on the road. They bickered over whether American players or Canadian player are better.
“He has this delusion of Canada winning Gold in Olympic basketball,” Moser jokes. “He was like my little brother, man, for sure. We talked a lot this past year. Just tried to shoot him positive words and whatever. Again, I know how frustrating it can be. It’s tough having a rough year like that.”
Thirty seconds into the second half of the 2014 NCAA Tournament West Region third round contest against No. 2-seeded Wisconsin, the No. 7-seed Oregon Ducks took an 11-point lead on a Joseph Young jumper. Then over the next 12 minutes, the Badgers used a 30-14 run to claim a 70-65 lead on a Sam Dekker triple with 7:09 remaining in the game.
Mike Moser’s two free throws with 4:06 left reclaimed the lead for Oregon, but Wisconsin controlled the rest of the game, eventually emerging victorious, 85-77.
“Just being a competitor, I’ll never forget it,” Moser says. “Specifically in that game, just getting in some early foul trouble. It haunts me.”
Moser graduated from UNLV in 2013 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies. After his injury-riddled junior season left a sour taste in his mouth, he opted to use his final year of NCAA eligibility to return to his home state for an opportunity to play in front of his colorful family.
The Ducks had just lost a tenacious rebounder in Arsalan Kazemi to the NBA and the Philadelphia 76ers. Head coach Dana Altman embraced Moser’s one-year stay in Eugene.
“He’s a local and good player, we knew he’d help on the glass,” Altman says. “He did a great job for us. He was very coachable. He was our leading rebounder which obviously had big impact on team.”
Moser contributed 13.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists in just 28.3 minutes per game for the Ducks this season, wearing his old high school number, 0. His mother and multiple siblings attended every home game. Memory attended his fair share as well.
And just two days after the Badgers ended the Ducks’ season and Moser’s collegiate career, he and Memory were back in the gym, just like they’ve been training together since he was 14 years old, preparing for the NBA Draft.
“We’ve been going since the last week of March, and I think that’s given him an edge on some players, some of the players that went deeper into the Tournament or took a break after the season got over,” Memory says. “The main focus has been enhancing his ability to shoot the ball out to NBA three-point range and enhancing his ball-handling. We didn’t try to do a whole bunch of stuff, we just wanted to nail down some things.”
They’ve paid special attention to Moser’s body, too, attempting to boost his athleticism, balance and core strength through a plethora of body-weight exercises. To help matters, Moser has adopted a new diet that he originally learned about through a book Udoka gifted him, a read that detailed several types of diets common among NBA players.
“It’s all pure foods. No genetically modified food, only organic food,” Moser says. “It cuts out sugars, fats and really anything the body doesn’t need or doesn’t use for either building muscle or directly taking nutrients from foods. So anything really that isn’t natural. It’s just an all-natural diet.”
The process paid dividends at the Clippers mini-combine a few weeks ago. He posted 6 points on 3-6 shooting and added 9 rebounds and 1 block in the scrimmage. He departed the session among the players that left the biggest impressions on the hundreds of NBA personnel that were in attendance.
At 6-8 with a 7-1 wingspan, Moser believes his defensive versatility, which allows him to cover 2s, 3s and 4s, will prove a dynamic asset at the next level. That and his rebounding will be the reason a team drafts him on June 26.
“I think a lot of length, timing, my relentlessness, the energy level that I play with, it’s stark in comparison to some guys,” Moser says. “I’ve just always been able to do that at a high level.”
Udoka, who sings Moser’s praises to his fellow coaches in San Antonio, won’t compare him to Kawhi Leonard like many did two years ago, but says he possesses the trait that has made another Spur, Boris Diaw, such an effective player in the League.
“He’s a little bit of a do-it-all. He does a little bit of everything: He can shoot the ball well, he can defend, he brings a ton of energy,” Udoka says. “He’s always over the place, rebounding the ball from the wing. That’s going to get him through the door and get him noticed and that’s what fueled him at UNLV and at Oregon. That’s the first thing: to outplay people and outwork them and then get a chance to show people your other skills.”
Moser wants to get his foot through that door more than anything, but he’s also got his sights set on success at the next level, to excel in the Playoffs.
“I’m just hoping I can find a home in the League,” Moser said over the phone while watching the Heat beat the Pacers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. “To be playing on this stage, that’s got to be some kind of feeling.”