COLUMBIA — In the Red Lobster parking lot in Independence, Steve Moore was promised that he would always have a family.
His mother, Rita Moore, was terminally ill. His grandmother, Irene Walker, who had been his primary guardian, had died the year before. He knew what his father looked like but didn't really know the electrician living in Chicago.
No. 3 Missouri (25-3, 12-3 Big 12)
at No. 4 Kansas (23-5, 13-2 Big 12)
WHEN: 3 p.m.
WHERE: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, Kan.
RADIO: KCMQ/96.7 FM
Steve Moore was a 6-foot-5-inch, 200-pound eighth-grader who cried on the basketball court when calls didn't go his way and slept by his mother's bed as cancer attacked her body.
Kent and Beth Reed had made an agreement with Rita Moore that they would take care of Steve Moore when she was gone. Now, outside the restaurant, it was time to bring Steve Moore into the conversation.
The Reeds would treat Steve Moore the same as their other two sons, Kyle Reed, Steve Moore's best friend in eighth grade, and his brother Ryan Reed, who is three years older. Steve Moore would adhere to the same standards, be disciplined in the same way, and, perhaps most important, be loved as unconditionally.
"We wanted to make sure he knew, you will be one of our kids," Beth Reed said.
But however much Rita Moore had made plans for her son, when she died three years later in November 2006, Steve Moore still felt lost. He still felt alone.
When the news came, Beth Reed picked up Steve Moore and took him to the hospital.
"I told her I didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't know where I was going to live. I didn't know what was in store for me," Steve Moore said.
But there was never a question for Beth and Kent Reed. Their grocery bill climbed to pay for the milk and meat the growing giant consumed. He had already been featured in the Reeds' Christmas card picture for years.
"You're coming to live with us," Beth Reed said.
A basketball family
When Steve Moore first started playing basketball, Kent Reed noticed him.
"I remember him from the fourth grade because he was so big and so out of shape," Kent Reed said.
Steve Moore didn't play basketball in the sixth grade and probably wouldn't have played in the seventh if a classmate's mother hadn't caught him at the bus stop and asked him if he wanted to.
Steve Moore met Kyle Reed when he joined Kent Reed's recreational team. It was the end of sixth grade and Steve Moore already stood 6-foot, 3-inches tall and weighed 235 pounds.
Steve Moore was always the biggest. In eighth grade he was practicing one-handed dunks in gym class when his gym teacher Clay Courtney teased him, saying he needed to dunk with two hands.
"I told him to dunk it with authority," Courtney said.
Steve Moore did, shattering the backboard. He lost his balance, and the rim and the broken glass of the backboard fell on him. His head was bleeding. The gym stood still in shock.
"We were amazed," Courtney said.
In Courtney's 10 years of teaching, Steve Moore was Courtney's only student able to dunk.
Steve Moore went home early that day, and instead of celebrating, he was worried he would be in trouble.
Out on the basketball court, he and Kyle Reed struck up a friendship and were all but inseparable. They played basketball together until high school graduation. Their senior season, Truman High School advanced as far as the Class 5 state semifinals.
Steve Moore's basketball career continued when he headed to Missouri, while Kyle Reed stayed in the Kansas City area and now studies medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But the two remained close as brothers. Next summer, Steve Moore will be best man in Kyle's wedding.
A lot to handle
Missouri Athletics lists fried chicken as Steve Moore's favorite food, but what it doesn't have are the details. It's not just any fried chicken. It's Rita Moore's fried chicken. His mother's cooking and hospitality were a large factor in his choice to study hotel and restaurant management, and they were what he loved most about her.
"She opened her house to anybody that needed help," Steve Moore said. "She showed that she cared. At my foster parents, they did the same thing."
Rita Moore always served Steve Moore's dinner, arranging each item on the plate. When he came home late from basketball, school or a friend's, his mother would have his dinner wrapped in aluminum foil.
When Steve Moore moved in with the Reeds, he served himself. But on the nights he got home late and found a warm dinner wrapped in aluminum foil, Beth Reed could see his eyes light up.
"Because it reminds him of his mom," she said.
A God-fearing woman, Rita Moore could often be found reading her Bible. Steve Moore sang in the choir at New Home Church of God in Christ. His mother took him to church every Sunday, not for just the morning service, but for the whole day.
When his mother died, Steve Moore turned more to anger than sorrow. He asked himself, why me? Why now? Why when I need her the most? High school graduation was less than two years away, and life decisions had to be made.
Steve Moore has always been the jokester. His AAU basketball coach L.J. Goolsby called him "pure entertainment." He programmed his number in Beth Reed's cell phone as "R. Kelly."
But in the wake of his mother's death, Steve Moore's high school basketball coach Billy Guinnee saw the light in his eyes grow dim.
"He wasn't laughing too much that season," Guinnee said.
Steve Moore played in Truman's first game of the season 17 days after his mother died, and the Patriots defeated Lee's Summit North 66-63. He scored 16 points.
"That kid's been through more than most people go through in their entire life," Beth Reed said. "Losing as many things as he's lost, he's been through a lot."
She looks away, repeating the last statement in almost a whisper. Her voice is soft and distant, as if she's talking to herself.
"He's been through a lot."
A father he struggled to know
Steve Moore Sr. was absent for much of his namesake's childhood. He became a part of his son's life again when Rita Moore became sick, telling his son he could go back to Chicago with him after his mother's death. But Steve Moore's life was in Kansas City, and he didn't want to leave it.
"Everything I had was in Kansas City," Steve Moore said. "My AAU team, my high school team, my friends. Everybody."
After Steve Moore graduated from high school, his father brought him to Chicago where he lived before starting school at MU. They talk occasionally. Steve Moore Sr. comes to Columbia for a game or two every year, but much of their relationship still feels new to the younger Moore.
"I feel like I've got to know him all over again every time I see him," Steve Moore said.
One thing his father did give him was the symbol that Steve Moore's teammates, friends and fans have come to associate with him. Steve Moore Sr. is the source of the Superman shield that is tattooed on his son's left shoulder and embroidered on his favorite hat (a Christmas gift from teammate Laurence Bowers). When Steve Moore Sr. came to Rita Moore's funeral, he was wearing a Superman necklace. Right before he left to return to Chicago, he gave it to his son, putting it around his neck.
"It gave me courage," Steve Moore said. "It gave me a lot of hope. It just made me and him closer."
While their relationship was inconsistent for much of Steve Moore's life, his father's presence has grown in recent years, and Steve Moore says that's enough.
Steve Moore refers to Kent and Beth Reed as his foster parents, Ryan and Kyle Reed as his foster brothers. When asked if his dad will be at his game, clarification is needed.
"Which one?" Steve Moore said.
During his freshman year at MU, the Reeds traveled to every one of Steve Moore's games, with no regard to how much or even if their foster son would be playing. When they went to Puerto Rico, Steve Moore played just four minutes in one game. And when they went to the NCAA Tournament in Glendale, Ariz., Steve Moore never even went on the floor. No matter what, though, Steve Moore could look up in the stands and know that someone was there.
There's only one reason for the Reeds to be absent. If Steve Moore Sr. will be in town, he gets Steve Moore's four tickets. If not, those tickets go to the Reeds.
"He works really hard. He'd come to all of my games if he could, but I understand he can't do that," Steve Moore said of his father. "That's life. That's just how it is."
Another basketball family
This year has been a breakout season for Steve Moore. He's provided height and depth to Missouri's limited roster and has had more playing time than ever. With 99 career blocks he is seventh all-time on the school list. Averaging 3.2 points and 2.8 rebounds per game this season doesn't do justice to the productivity he has provided on the court.
His team is 25-3 overall and 12-3 in the Big 12. The Tigers are ranked No. 3 in the country and have a chance at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It's the kind of season a player dreams of, but Steve Moore almost wasn't a part of it.
Last summer, Steve Moore felt he hadn't had enough success, and the work seemed too hard. He wanted to quit.
But he spent his summer with Todor Pandov, the strength and conditioning coach for the Missouri men's basketball team, running and weight training and then running some more.
"I was ready to quit, and I wanted to quit," Steve Moore said. "Quit as in jump up and go home and be like, whatever."
During summer break when they are not in class, the team members can go home. But Steve Moore chose to stay in Columbia, doing three-a-day conditioning workouts with Pandov to slim down his bulky figure.
"I choose to stay here not thinking he was going to kill me," Steve Moore said.
He was tired, his body was breaking down and he wasn't sure if it would all be worth it. But Pandov had faith in Steve Moore, more than the senior player had in himself.
"He told me to my face, 'As much as you want to quit, I'm not going to let you,'" Steve Moore said.
He lost 18 pounds and came out not only more toned but faster, stronger and smarter on the court. With the success he and his team have found, he is grateful to Pandov for not letting him walk away.
"He was right there with me," Steve Moore said. "He pushed me, and it all paid off."
A rivalry for others
On Saturday, Steve Moore will take the court for Missouri's game at Kansas.
It's a rivalry some claim dates to the Civil War, but at its core, it isn't for the players. It's for the fans, the media, the students and the schools. It's especially not for Steve Moore. You wouldn't know it, but he grew up a Kansas fan.
It was largely the influence of Kent Reed, but after Steve Moore committed to being a Tiger, his foster dad bought him his first black and gold apparel. Steve Moore threw out his Jayhawks wardrobe. It was an adjustment when Kent Reed first put on his black and gold.
"He laughed like crazy," Kent Reed said of Steve Moore. "I said 'All right, I've never been a Missouri fan, but I'm a Missouri fan now.'"
There are things that transcend rivalries, humanity that runs deeper than any tradition. That was never more obvious than last season, when Kansas forward Thomas Robinson lost two of his grandparents and his mother in a span of three weeks.
In the few hours each season that Steve Moore spends competing against Robinson on the basketball court, his thoughts are on basketball.
"Dominate him, beat him," Steve Moore said.
But the rest of the time, he sees someone who was forced to grow up too fast and lost so much. They've experienced similar struggles in life, and Steve Moore's prayers go out to a guy he can relate to.
"I really admire Thomas Robinson for what he's doing now and what he's been through," Steve Moore said. "I just have the utmost respect for him and what he's doing and everything he's accomplished so far, despite all that's happened to him. Most people would just fold."
They meet as the two lines of players merge after the game. They shake hands, saying good luck, good game.
"We don't say much because I'm sure he's had a thousand 'I'm sorry for your loss,' and stuff," Steve Moore said.
It's a rivalry that exists between the players only when the game clock is ticking. And once the ball stops bouncing, the rivalry is suspended until they meet again.
"Because when it comes down to it, we're all human beings," Steve Moore said.
Steve Moore's life has been one often filled with uncertainty, grief and loneliness. But the love and support he has found in those around him outshines the grief he has experienced.
He doesn't need to return to that Red Lobster parking lot. The Reed's promise to him was fulfilled and surpassed.