Tight-knit group shoots for the moon

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No one knew it at the time -- it couldn't even have been anyone's wildest dream --but some 40 years ago on the courts of Moon Township, Pa., the seeds of true basketball excellence were planted. They bloomed for decades in a variety of ways, but, clearly, they came to full blossom last week in the NCAA basketball tournament.

When the field of 65 had been reduced to eight Friday, three of the remaining teams -- Memphis, Xavier and Davidson -- could trace part of their success, and no small part, back to Moon.

Not surprisingly, John Miller had a lot to do with all this success.

Miller is one of the greatest high school basketball coaches in Pennsylvania history. He didn't just win a lot of games and WPIAL and PIAA titles at Blackhawk High School, he was a great teacher and motivator.

Miller was an unknown junior high coach in Moon in the late 1960s and early '70s. His toddler son, Sean, might have just started dribbling a basketball around that time. A member of Miller's team was a deadeye guard named Tom Richards, who had a deep passion for the game. Further down the Moon system, there was a young gym rat named John Calipari.

Look where they are today!

Sean Miller went on become a standout player, first for his dad at Blackhawk and later at Pitt. He's the highly successful coach at Xavier, the team that advanced to the round of eight with an overtime win against West Virginia Thursday and played UCLA last night for the right to go to the Final Four.

Calipari played at Moon and then went on to UNC Wilmington and Clarion.

He wasn't as good a player as Sean Miller, but he has been a fabulously successful college coach, first at Massachusetts and now at Memphis. His top-seeded Tigers play Texas this afternoon with the winner moving on to San Antonio.

Richards had a successful playing career at Pitt, but never went into professional coaching. He earned a masters from MIT and has been enormously successful in business. He is an executive vice president with Denver-based Qwest and oversees about 3,000 sales representatives. His wife, Mary Beth, played basketball at Pitt. They have two children:

Lindsay, who was an McDonald's All-American and played at Iowa where she started and played in the NCAA tournament, and Jason, the senior point guard for Davidson who led Division I in assists this year.

Davidson advanced to the round of eight with stunning upsets of Georgetown and Wisconsin and plays Kansas this afternoon.

The three Richards were in the stands in Raleigh last Sunday when Jason's Davidson team took on Georgetown. Being in Raleigh for an NCAA tournament game had to bring back memories for Tom Richards. Thirty-four years and one week earlier, he was a starting guard for a Pitt team that lost in Raleigh in the round of eight to eventual national champion North Carolina State. This time, there was a happier ending with Jason scoring 20 in the three-point win against Georgetown.

The victory proved that the years haven't severed those Moon ties.

"Two hours after the game, I got a call from John Calipari," Tom Richards said. "A half-hour later, we got calls from Sean and John Miller.

"John [Miller] and I are so close. Jason grew up watching Sean play and idolizing Sean. I'd send Jason to John's camps. He's stayed in John's house."

The Richards family lived in Upper St. Clair until 1995 when Jason was in fourth grade. Both kids were heavily into basketball at early ages. Tom remembers driving third-grader Jason to the Shadyside Boys Club, where he would play in an eighth-grade league. When Tom would lecture at camps on the art of shooting, Lindsay and Jason would demonstrate.

There's no telling what the highly successful girls and boys programs at Upper St. Clair would have done if the Richards had not moved.

Tom was highly instrumental in the basketball development of his children. "Lindsay and Jason will tell you about the hours and hours of shooting drills. We spent hours on technique. All the drills I learned from John Miller, my kids have had. We were lucky. Both of them loved to play."

They were good, too.

In suburban Chicago, the kids enrolled at Barrington High School. Lindsay achieved more recognition and was a big-time player. Her college career ended after two seasons and a third knee operation.

Jason looked to be headed to an Ivy League school until Davidson coach Bob McKillop began recruiting him.

"It didn't take Jason long to say yes when he was offered a scholarship," said his dad. "Jason is lucky to be playing for such a man."

Stephen Curry gets most of the notice for the Wildcats, and deservedly so, but in addition to leading the team in assists, Richards is second in scoring, steals and free-throw percentage.

His dad thinks back to his day and only marvels at the present generation.

"There's no comparison. Kids today are so much more physical. They're so big, so athletic and so physical with such a high level of skills. It's a different game. Look at Jason. I weighed 165 when I played. He's 6 foot 2, 195 and looks like a free safety."

It's been almost 40 years, but the Moon influence, the John Miller influence has made its mark on NCAA basketball.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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