Article Last Updated: 1/15/2006 04:30 AM

Eureka's Mo Charlo leaves 'playground ball' for Division I

Mo charlo 1-15-06.jpg (68671 bytes)

By Eric J. Gourley

RENO, Nev. -- Mo Charlo often reminisces about an adolescence of slam-dunking over friends during what he calls “playground ball” at the Adorni Center along Eureka's waterfront.

“I'll never forget that,” Charlo said. “It was a lot of fun playing with all those guys.”

These days, Charlo plays under a bigger, brighter spotlight after ascending to a lead role on one of the top-ranked NCAA Division I basketball teams in the nation.

“It's been a great experience,” said Charlo, the only starting senior on the University of Nevada men's basketball roster. “Everybody who plays basketball dreams for this experience. I'm one of the fortunate ones who made it out of Eureka to go play Division I ball. It's a blessing.”

The journey hasn't been easy for Charlo. Family deaths and negative temptations tore at him for four school years at Eureka High. He was distracted. He stopped going to class. His grades fell.

“I would leave school early,” Charlo said. “I was just doing things I shouldn't be doing. It was a rough time. I wasn't really taking care of business.”

Two Eureka High coaches came to the aid of Charlo and his younger uncle, former City College of San Francisco football star Mo Purify, in their time of need.

Ron Hartman, Charlo's former football coach, and Jack Lakin, who coached Charlo and Purify in basketball, were among those most instrumental in keeping the gifted athletes on the right path during what Charlo calls “family struggles.”

“Lakin was the best thing that ever happened to him,” said Sylvia Purify, Charlo's mother.

“A lot of family members were passing away,” said Charlo. “Lakin and Hartman got me through high school, and they helped me and pushed me to be where I am now. They always told me that a lot of people have talent, and they just don't go to school and they throw it away. Lakin and Hartman sat me and Little Mo (Purify) down and told us to look back at our family history of athletes, but to do the schooling. I love those guys. They're like family to me.”

Charlo, the Big 5 MVP during his senior season, led the Loggers to a league championship under Lakin.

“Mo was exposed to a lot of different things growing up, not all of them good,” Lakin said. “For him to come through unscathed is really a testament to the good person he is. For most kids at that age, everything is short term and they don't look at how it will affect them down the road. I think he and Mo Purify were looking for a voice to come talk to them that way, to let them know that there is something else out there.”

Hartman coached Charlo during his MVP season as a wide receiver.

“You could tell that he had the talent to go almost anywhere, but educationally at that time he wasn't taking care of business,” said Hartman. “We told him not to waste all the talent that you have and continue what you're doing, that you need to settle down and go to class and do the best job you're capable of doing.”

“That kind of hit me,” said Charlo. “Stuff happens that is tragic. They told me to get out of Eureka and not fall into that trap and make your family members proud.”

When Sylvia Purify moved to Texas to work, Charlo's elementary school basketball coach Kathy Giacone convinced Purify to let Charlo stay with Giacone and her husband, Jason.

“Kathy convinced my mom to let me stay there and finish my senior year,” Charlo said. “I didn't want to move and start all over. They've been like a second mom and a second dad to me.”

Charlo completed his senior year at Eureka High, adding a basketball championship to his impressive list of athletic achievements at the school after averaging 24 points and nine rebounds per game.

He graduated in 2001 and was a partial Division I qualifier, but attended Northern State, a Division II school in Aberdeen, S.D., at Lakin's suggestion.

Charlo entered college still unfocused. He kept skipping class.

“I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, but I knew I needed to keep playing basketball,” Charlo said.

“They treated him bad,” Sylvia Purify said. “He had a bad first college experience.”

Charlo didn't play basketball at Northern State, and retained his four years of eligibility. He returned to Eureka to regain his composure for a semester before looking at junior colleges in the Bay Area.

After just one open gym session, Charlo chose Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill.

“DVC has a lot of history,” he said.

The 6-foot-7, 210-pound Charlo played two seasons at DVC, averaging 18 points and seven rebounds for the Bay Valley Conference west champion Vikings his sophomore year.

With schools including UCLA, Oklahoma, Oregon and Arizona all expressing interest, Charlo found a home at the University of Nevada in Reno, where he transferred for his junior year.

“When I went there on my visit I felt like I was part of their family already,” Charlo said. “It's a great team and a great coaching staff. Outside basketball we're like one big family. I like that. They care about more than just basketball. They care about school and making sure you graduate and get your diploma.”

Charlo acclimated quickly to the Division I level of play, averaging 9.4 points while playing in all 32 games during his first season with the Wolf Pack.

“It wasn't a big difference from high school to DVC,” Charlo said. “The guys are a little stronger, but from DVC to Nevada it's a whole lot different. The guys are quicker, stronger, more physical and the game is quicker, so it was a big adjustment for me my junior year, but now my senior year I'm adjusted to it. I'm having fun.”

Charlo continues to turn heads this season. The forward is averaging in the top three with 13 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, while he leads the team with 2.9 assists through Saturday.

“Last year he was a good piece but somewhat of an inconsistent piece for us,” said Nevada head coach Mark Fox. “This year He's been much more consistent. Mo has played at a really high level to start the season. He enjoys his team. He enjoys his role.”

Charlo has also won the respect and admiration of his teammates, both on and off the court.

“He's a really athletic guy,” said Nevada forward Nick Fazekas. “He's got a lot of offensive skills. He can do a lot. Mo's very versatile. He can play a lot of positions for us. He's a great guy. I love being around Mo.”

“As a person, he is an unbelievable young man,” Fox said. “He's a joy to see every day. He has really matured, and He's ready to tackle the real world. He's had a great academic semester and I foresee him graduating.”

Charlo maintained a 3.0 grade point average during the fall 2005 semester, and remains as focused in the classroom as he is on the court.

Hartman traveled to Nevada's Jan. 7 game at San Jose State University to watch the senior score 13 points and grab 10 rebounds, his third double-double of the season, in a 63-56 win over the Spartans.

“Talking with Mo after the game, He's got some vision for his future,” Hartman said. “Taking care of academics had enabled that.”

Hartman is just one of many of Charlo's supporters in Humboldt County who have kept in touch and frequently attend his games.

“Every day everybody's calling just to tell us how proud they are,” said Charlo. “I love everybody back home. I've got fans out here supporting me. They follow me. I love that.”

Nevada (11-3 overall, 1-1 in the Western Athletic Conference) has been ranked as high as No. 17 this season by The Associated Press, and is looking for its third consecutive WAC regular-season title and NCAA Tournament appearance.

“Going to the tournament is so much fun,” Charlo said. “You'll always remember going to the tournament. It's the time of your life. That's why you're playing college basketball. When you go there they treat you like the professionals. It's unbelievable.”

While Mo Purify will be continuing his football career as a wide receiver at University of Nebraska, Charlo hopes to lead the Wolf Pack to another tournament appearance before graduating in May and hopefully playing professionally.

“My dream is to play in the NBA,” Charlo said. “I've just got to keep playing hard, keep doing what I'm doing now, keep winning, and my dream will come true.”

“Mo's going to have a chance to play for money,” Fox said. “If he continues to get better and better, he'll have a chance. I do expect that he'll play professionally next year and hopefully his dreams will come true.”

“He has a shot just as good as anybody else,” said Demarshay Johnson, Charlo's cousin and Nevada junior who played one season with him at DVC. “Hopefully we'll do well as a team and he'll do well enough individually to make it to the next level. Whatever it takes, he already knows what he has to do to make it to the next level.”

“Basketball is my first love,” Charlo said. “I just played football and baseball to keep my mind right and keep me focused. It's been my dream forever. I've just got to keep working hard.”

Sylvia Purify, who still lives in Texas, has been to only one of her son's games during his two seasons at Nevada. She plans to travel to Ruston, La., to cheer for Charlo and the Wolf Pack when they play Louisiana Tech on Feb. 2.

“I love that,” she said. “I miss that from high school. I was a typical mom. I really get into it. I can't wait until he goes to the NBA and then I can watch him all the time.”