November 25, 2023
Pearl Moore made basketball a labor of love
For Moore, basketball was about two things: winning and a sense of community
Making it to the highest level of any sport is hard work. The work required tests the athlete’s dedication. Players without a strong guiding light to look to for motivation might choose to hang up their sneakers when the practices get long and the competition tough. Pearl Moore, who played two season’s in U.S.’ first women’s basketball professional league, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), got her start shooting tennis balls through peach baskets nailed to the side of wooden farm buildings. She didn’t stop until she’d won two titles as a pro and earned herself a place in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. But despite accruing several honors throughout her career, she wasn’t in it for the accolades. As Moore told The Next in a recent interview, “These are things that I never expected from just playing basketball because I loved it.”
A love of the game motivated Moore to continuously improve physically and mentally on the court, but that wasn’t the only type of love driving Moore’s involvement in basketball. Moore valued the community she found there and made sure anyone coming up behind her had the opportunity to find their basketball community too.
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Love of the game
It’s probably a coincidence that Moore rhymes with score, but that doesn’t make it any less apt. Moore owns the all-time scoring title for women’s college basketball with 4,061 career points, accumulated over a partial season at Anderson Junior College, and four All-American seasons at Francis Marion. She scored in double digits in every game of her college career and only scored fewer than 20 points in 18 games. In 1978, Moore set what was at the time a single-game collegiate scoring record by notching 60 points and accounting for over half of her team’s total scoring in a 114-71 win over Eastern Washington State College.
Moore’s scoring acumen drew special attention from opponents and Sylvia Hatchell, who coached Moore at Francis Marion. Hatchell recalls how, “[Pearl would] actually cackle when people would try those junk defenses on her. She was like, ‘Come on.’ That egged her on even more.”
Moore professes a fascination with the art of shooting that initially drew her to basketball. “For me it was just trying to get the ball in the hoop or in the basket, just like a golfer tries to get it into the little cup. Everybody wants to score and see the different phases of how you do it. Could be a layup, a jump shot, some crazy shot you ain’t ever think you would make…just amazement there.”
Despite setting scoring records with Francis Marion, not winning a title still sticks with her. “That’s one of the things that I didn’t like was not winning a championship in college.”
In each of her two WBL seasons (one with the New York Stars and one with the St. Louis Streak), she averaged over 17 points per game, which placed her second in overall scoring for the 1979 Stars and led all Streak scorers during the 1980 season. And all of that with no three-point line. She developed that shot without many role models. The women’s game wasn’t broadcast on TV much back then. Instead she remembers developing a fondness for fellow smooth shooter Gail Goodrich of the Lakers.
How the ball continually found the hoop amazed Moore and everyone who watched her play. Fellow women’s basketball legend Carol Blazejowski described Moore’s shot as “silky smooth.” When asked about Moore’s legacy during the celebration of her enshrinement in the Naismith Hall of Fame, WBL peer Nancy Lieberman simply said, “Her legacy is you couldn’t stop her from scoring.”
Moore’s WBL career included a title while playing for the New York Stars. The Stars win over the Iowa Cornets to clinch the championship remains the highlight of Moore’s career. “There wasn’t nothing like it, to me.” In part, because securing the win required taking down one of the league’s other notorious scoring threats, Molly (Bolin) Kazmer. During the game, Moore twisted her ankle, but refused to let Coach Dean Meminger pull her from the game. Consequently, she had to ride the pine during the post game celebration, “I couldn’t even go drink wine or whatever they was doing. I couldn’t even do that. I had to stay in the room with my foot elevated.”
New York’s win over the Iowa wasn’t the first time Moore took the floor in less than peak physical form. In college, Moore sat out the first half of a game versus Clemson, then entered in the second half and dropped 30 points. Moore’s friend Barbara Kennedy, who played for Clemson, was convinced the illness was a bluff. Moore herself could only chalk it up to her passion for basketball, “I said, ‘Girl I don’t know how I got out there.’ But you know, with the love of the game you try to do what you can.”
One might assume that such prolific scoring implies a selfish player, but Moore’s main objective was always winning. According to Moore, becoming a high-volume scorer wasn’t her goal, “I just wanted to play and win. That’s what every sport is about — winning.”
Post-WBL, Moore played professionally in Barquisimeto, Venezuela for a season, helping her team win a title during her short time in South America. While playing in Venezuela, Moore frequently drew double and triple teams from the opposition’s defense. When the championship series rolled around, Moore realized after game one that the other team had cooked up a system to specifically attack their usual style of play. To disrupt their strategy, Moore suggested to her coach that she sit for the first half and force them to adapt on the fly. Moore’s team won in a blow out.
Moore didn’t just contribute on the offensive end, either. She realized that playing solid defense opened up more scoring opportunities, particularly if she could nab a steal. In her record-setting 60-point scoring effort versus Eastern Washington Moore also corralled ten steals. During her 1979-1980 season with the Streak, she ranked sixth in the league in steals with 105. Moore viewed ball handlers as marionettes to manipulate, “I’d make ’em go one way,” she told the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2011, “I knew the spin dribble was coming. I’d be right there waiting for it.”
Pearl Moore had a unique and diverse skillset, and could impact her team in many different ways on the court. When Moore was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Hatchell spoke of her ability to strategically maximize her skillset, “She was outside, inside, she could handle the ball, draw fouls — I saw her wait for the defense to catch up with her so she could draw the foul and make a 3-point play. She was ahead of her time.”
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Love for the community
Moore got her start in basketball playing with peach baskets and tennis balls in a rural setting, but later on her family moved to the city where, as she described it, “Everybody around you was playing basketball.”
When speaking about the WBL and what it meant to have a professional league for women, Moore places the women she got to play with and against at the forefront. She specifically cites meeting players like Gail Marquis, Trish Roberts, Nancy Lieberman and Anne Donovan, while playing with others like Carol Blazejowski and Ann Meyers. Meanwhile, she still stays in touch with a teammate from Venezuela via social media. Increased opportunities for women to play basketball in college and professionally meant increased opportunities to build community.
After her final professional season, Moore could have continued to compete within the game, whether by finding further international opportunities or beginning a career in coaching. Instead, Moore chose to stay near family in South Carolina, and continue her involvement with the game in ways that prioritized community. She served as an assistant coach to a high school team as a favor to a friend. For around ten years, she hosted the Pearl Moore Basketball Camp in Florence, SC. Moore said she took care to keep the cost at $15, “…and every kid got a t-shirt. Every kid got a trophy. I didn’t get medals. I wanted them to have a trophy because some kids were never going to be able to go to a camp, especially if you have to pay more than $15.” At Wilson High School, Moore’s alma mater, the gym bears her name. As does the Pearl Moore Basketball Center, which opened in 2018 and hosts several youth sports leagues.
On the court her legacy was scoring, but off the court her name is synonymous with giving youth the chance to find community, to find their people while playing basketball, the same way she found hers.
Moore understands that growing the women’s game is an ongoing process. That women before her time laid the foundation for Title IX and the WBL, which opened the door for future leagues such as the ABL and WNBA. She laments not being able to watch the All-American Redheads, or the women of Delta State and Immaculata College. She drew inspiration for her smooth shooting from Gail Goodrich, but she wishes she could have modeled herself after the forbearers of the women’s game. So as she dreamcasts for the next generation of hoopers, what is she manifesting?
“More televised games. I’d rather see a women’s basketball game then — what is that thing they throw that little bag down? Cornhole or something? I’d rather see women’s basketball than that.”