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Learning more about Melbourne United's Philadelphia connection
“What are the chances of a guy from West Philly and a guy from South Philly sitting here, doing this?"
Melbourne United head coach Dean Demopoulos shot a whisper to shooting guard Ramone Moore, while the assembled media were getting ready for a post-game conference, following a win over the Brisbane Bullets.
“From Temple, too.”
“Who would have thought?” The guard nodded in assent.
“South Philadelphia right here,” Demopoulos said, smiling and patting Moore on the back, as the session progressed.
He went on to remind everyone of his own roots.
“West Philadelphia right here, what are the chances? You got two guys from the same city sitting here.”
Indeed, what were the chances, that two Americans from the same hometown would reunite on the same Australian professional basketball team, in a fervent pursuit for a championship?
Admittedly, this was probably not something Demopoulos and Moore had planned on back in Philadelphia. The principles of basketball excellence however, do not change. The lessons the duo learnt in their hometown have helped shape who Demopoulos and Moore are today.
A Philly baller
In America, celebrities and athletes often wear their hometowns like a badge of honour. It’s why you hear rappers constantly make references to their hometown in songs, and why athletes feel the lure of going home in free agency more than anything else.
Winning a title for his hometown certainly meant a lot to Ohio native LeBron James. The Miami Heat titles were certainly an enjoyable experience, but the emotional on-court breakdown James had when he won a championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, was real.
“Cleveland, this is for you,” James screamed, at the end of an emotional on-court interview. He had prevailed against all odds. Not just for himself, but for his hometown, the city that was seemingly cursed when it came to sports championships.
In Philadelphia, one of America’s foundation cities, the relationship between player and place is just as strong, something Demopoulos is aware of.
“It’s an unbelievable basketball city,” Demopoulos told The Pick and Roll.
“It’s got one of the original NBA franchises in the 76ers, and it’s got six division one college teams that are nationally ranked most of the time, at least three of them. It’s just a great basketball environment.
“Not to mention some of the greatest high school teams in the history of high school basketball, and some of the [greatest] players who have ever played, guys who changed the game. Wilt Chamberlain, Earl Monroe, Kobe Bryant.”
The vibrant historical roots of Philadelphia basketball is what every Philly basketballer attempts to embrace as an identity. Even the 76ers’ jerseys have an underlying link to the city, with the words ‘Phila Tough’ stitched onto the bottom of the uniform. The team explains this feature as “a subtle but significant feature,” serving as an “inspirational symbol of the gritty, passionate demeanour rooted in the Sixers’ fan base.”
Those attributes of grittiness and passion are embodied into Philadelphia's guards. It's the position Philly is famous for, and Demopoulos has experience with these products.
“Philly is known for its guards,” Demopoulos said.
“Philly guards are ones that are multi-dimensional, who can handle the ball, don’t turn it over, make the right passes, scores when he is able to and plays great defence. A Philly guard is a well-rounded guard.
“When I went recruiting a lot for college basketball, we lived with Philly guards. They were guys who just knew how to play the game. They learned it on the playground; they learned it in a place that wasn’t organised, other than from kids. Kids organised themselves and they learnt how to win.
“When I was growing up, the only way you got to play is if you won, because there were 50 guys waiting to play on one court. Winners played and you learnt how to win.”
But winning wasn't the only thing that mattered; being part of the team was equally important, according to Ramone Moore.
“I feel like [Philly basketballers] can just play and fit in," the United guard told The Pick and Roll.
"Just being able to go anywhere and be able to play basketball because growing up, that’s what we did, we threw the balls on the court and we went out and played. No X’s and O’s, nobody telling you what to do, that was your first initial thing was to go out on the basketball court and play all day long.
“When you see a guy from Philly, you know he can play basketball, fit in well and get along with guys.”
For Moore, the trials and tribulations he experienced in Philly taught him lessons that he still carries today.
Moore attended Temple University in the heart of North East Philadelphia, graduating in 2012. In his senior year, Moore averaged 17.3 points, a college career-high, as he increased his scoring average in each of his four seasons. While he left Temple as an accomplished basketballer, the path was a rocky one – but it gave Moore the wisdom as he moved into his professional life.
“In college my first year, I red-shirted, my second year I was ineligible,” the Temple product recalled.
“If I can honestly say one thing I remember from Philly, I think it was when I was ineligible, and I had to make a decision if I wanted to stay and do better, or transfer to another school. I made the decision to stay because I’m home and I’m in a great situation.
“I didn’t do as well as I was supposed to because of the stuff that was going on. I can’t blame anybody but myself.
“So, I decided just to lock down in the classroom, and I think that following semester was a 3.2, which is my highest GPA of my college career. I just think I built on it from there.
“The last two and a half years I was able to have a great time. The following year I won sixth man of the year and then I was All-A 10 for the next three years. And we went to the tournament every year as well, so I think that one decision that I made was my biggest one."
This persistence embedded into Moore from his Philly days have followed him ever since. In fact, that persistence has already been seen from 6'4" guard this season, with Melbourne missing key cogs Chris Goulding and Todd Blanchfield. The injuries forced Moore to enter the starting line-up, where he averaged 11.2 points in five starts, before moving back to the bench once Goulding returned in round seven. In spite of the injuries United dealt with, it didn't bother the 27-year-old, as he continued to adequately play the role Demopoulos asked him to.
Moore's resolve would be tested way before his United days happened. After leaving Temple, Moore racked up numerous frequent flyer miles, as he played in Italy, Israel, Hungary, Ukraine and the NBA D-League. The wherewithal the shooting guard had to keep refining his craft, despite language and cultural barriers, all paid off in his latest European season.
Moore played for BC Pieno žvaigždės in Lithuania last year, a team located in the city of Pasvalys – more than 4,000 miles away from Philadelphia. The ex-Temple guard's well-rounded game -- he averaged 13.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals in the LKL -- drew Demopoulos' attention in distant Melbourne.
Demopoulos was watching Moore on film with his coaches. It was the first time he'd seen Moore play, having left Temple before the guard arrived. Something about the way the guard played had Demopoulos singling him out as a fellow Philadelphian right away.
“As we were watching the film, the first time I ever watched him play, after a while I turned to my coaches and said – he looks like he is from South Philly," Demopoulos said.
"Just his style of play and, sure enough, South Philadelphia High School was where he went. He has just got that look.”
There is no surprise, then, that Demopoulos moved quickly to lock Moore up. Additionally, hearing Melbourne CEO Vince Crivelli's words when they inked Moore's signature, and it becomes clear the hometown connection played a factor in the acquisition.
“Dean had knowledge of Ramone and his background and has a great understanding of the style of players that come out of Philly," Crivelli had said. "We believe Ramone will be a great asset to the roster with his experience and adaptability.”
Adaptability is another quality Moore inevitably developed as a result of his persistence. The 2015 Ukrainian SuperLeague champion had to adapt to his numerous new situations across Europe, or risk perishing to them. In Melbourne, the same thing has helped Moore find his footing quicker, in a year where import spots are as fragile as ever.
Did Demopoulos see the persistence Moore acquired at Temple, while analysing his game tape? Probably not, but there is no denying that determined mindset the guard developed at Temple played a major part in him reuniting with a fellow Philadelphian.
Demopoulos’ time at Temple was a lot longer, and older.
Demopoulos served as an assistant coach to Hall of Famer John Chaney from 1983-1999. During Demopoulos’ time at Temple, the school became a national powerhouse. Demopoulos helped lead the Owls to numerous milestones, including the NCAA Tournament 16 times, the Elite Eight four times and seven Atlantic-10 Conference titles, just to name a few.
It isn’t the big achievements Demopoulos remembers most from his days at Temple, though. Instead, it’s competing against the other Philadelphia colleges that he reminisces about the most, as his link to home remains strong.
“For years the inner-city games, the big five it was called – University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, La Salle University, Villanova University and Saint Joseph’s University,” Demopoulos said, when asked what memory stood out throughout his time in Philly.
“In the 17 years I was there [at Temple], we won 80 percent of our games against the city teams. I was always really proud of that because you win the bragging rights of the city, and they were some great times.
“When I think about my time in Philadelphia, I grew up and lived there until I was 45-years-old, I think about winning because that’s what we did.”
Demopoulos used the knowledge he gained in Philly to advance his post-Temple career. After a brief stint with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Demopoulos moved up to the NBA ranks, where his expertise in Chaney's famed 'match-up zone defence' helped him constantly land a job. Demopoulos smiled at the first mention of the defensive scheme, as he couldn't hide his appreciation of the zone. After all, it did help him secure assistant coach jobs with the Seattle Supersonics, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers.
His immense college and NBA experience were selling points in United's hiring of Demopoulos, and he is translating his coaching origins to the NBL.
The zone, along with learning how to win, are aspects Demopoulos learnt in Philly, took across the NBA, and is now bringing to Australia. Demopoulos implements Chaney's zone with United, and it helped his squad finish third in defensive rating last season. Furthermore, Demopoulos led Melbourne to first place on the ladder last season, and while his team has been rattled by injuries this season, their round seven win over the Cairns Taipans suggests a mid-season turnaround is in order. With the Philly defensive philosophies Demopoulos installed within the fabric of the team, you can see why.
While Demopoulos is a mastermind of the zone today, he doesn't forget its Philly roots.
“The zone was there well before John Chaney played at Temple," Demopoulos said. "It was Harry Litwack before that, who went to a Final Four at Temple, and had some great teams with Guy Rodgers and Hal Lear – two guys in the Hall of Fame.
“Villanova played zone defence under Jack Kraft and went to a Final Four with Howard Porter and Chris Ford, who went on to being the coach of the Boston Celtics and a great player in the NBA.
“Zone defences, you could say it’s a cradle of zones, is what I think Philly has brought to the game, but it’s just a great basketball city. The Eastern big cities – New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore – that’s where the game originated really in our country.”
Demopoulos and Moore may be together in Melbourne, but they maintain strong relationships with friends and family back in Philly. Home is where the heart is, and the United pair still have people they care about living in Philadelphia.
For Demopoulos, it's unsurprising one of his closest friends is also a coach. John Townsend, a seasoned shooting coach at the 76ers, had stints on NBA teams like Memphis, Toronto and Portland, among others. It was at Portland that the two first worked together. Demopoulos has not been afraid to use Townsend's advice when it comes to shooting, especially with his United squad, who rank second in true shooting percentage.
“He is just a really really good guy," Demopoulos said. "A good coach, and he has a great sense of humour. He understands the game and really is focused on that aspect [shooting] of the game, and no other aspect. That’s his life’s work and watching him do it, I’ve learned a lot from him and we’ve collaborated on a lot of stuff."
Moore also has a slew of connections in Philadelphia, including some strong bonds with a two-time NBA All-Star and other professional basketballers.
“I’m close with a lot of guys from Philly,” Moore said. “Kyle Lowry is my brother-in-law; he is married to my sister. Maalik Wayns, I met him around high school. Lavoy Allen, he plays for the Indiana Pacers, he is my good friend. I went to Temple with him as well. Khalif Wyatt, one of my good friends, he plays in Israel right now and he played with me at Temple."
While Moore did not elaborate on the ways his pro basketball mates have helped elevate his game, there is no doubt his Philly brothers will always be keen to give him advice, as his basketball journey progresses.
While Demopoulos and Moore agreed they would take Philadelphia Eagles tickets over any of the city's other pro sporting teams, the same agreement wasn't made in their Philly music taste. The 27-year-old has an affiliation with award-winning Philly rapper Meek Mill, which means he is his favourite Philly musician. Demopoulos, though, if the age gap needed any clarification, prefers a different kind of music.
“Old soul music, and older music from the 60’s,” Demopoulos said, when asked if any Philly music reminded him of home. “All the bands from there, Hall & Oates went to Temple. I hear Hall & Oates, I hear the Old Temptations, I hear Chubby Checker, I think he was from Philly. There are a million of them but I hear that older 60’s music, that’s what I enjoy.”
Finally, we can’t talk about Philadelphia without a mention of the world-famous cheesesteak. Described by visitphilly.com as a “civic icon”, the cheesesteak is a "long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese." It’s a rule that you order one when you visit the city; tour guides often recommend Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks as the best cheesesteak joints.
The natives know best, though, and if the duo had their vote, Ishkabibble’s --a cheesesteak joint that was founded in 1979-- would be the winner.
“There are thousands of places better than [Pat's and Geno's]," Demopoulos said. "You can go to Lee’s, Hoagie’s, Ishkabibble’s on South Street.”
“My favourite cheesesteak spot right now is called Ishkabibble’s, which is located on South Street," Moore agreed. "It’s awesome. They have good cheesesteaks, cheeseburgers and fries as well.
“If you ever get to Philly, I say go to Ishkabibble’s, but if you had to choose between Geno’s and Pat’s, I’d say Pat’s.”
While cheesesteaks won't be apart of Demopoulos and Moore's quest to get United to the NBL's pinnacle, you can believe other Philly features - ones like persistence, a winning mindset and tenacious defense - will be key in their NBL journeys.
All quotes obtained first hand, unless stated otherwise.