EVERETT, Mass. -- A bustling crowd of hundreds filled the Everett High School gymnasium Thursday night for a special 3-on-3 youth basketball tournament. Children were running here, parents sitting there, administrators watching from over there, making all corners of the school's pristine facility teem with people and pride.
But two people drew handshakes and hellos from nearly everyone they passed.
The first was John DiBiaso, the affable living legend that is Everett's football coach, basketball coach and athletic director. If it's not for the eight Super Bowl titles he owns, well-wishers will flock for the warm smiles he gives out.
The second didn't have DiBiaso's presence or the keys to the office overlooking the gym. But at somewhere around 5-foot-4, Moise "Mo" St. Fleur, age 24, and his black, flat-rimmed baseball cap bounced through the crowd in stops and spurts on this night.
He was stopped by men in suits and kids in high-tops. They extended hands or performed special handshakes. And they all walked away with a smile.
"I'll crack up," said DiBiaso, for whom Mo worked as a team manager during the football and basketball seasons starting in 2002. "We'll be walking and someone will say, 'Hey Mo!' I'll tell him, 'Everybody knows you.' "
And to know Mo is to love him. It makes it easy to understand why amazing things like this can happen.
'They lost everything'
On St. Patrick's Day of this year, a fire broke out in the apartment house where Mo and his family lived. Smoke and flames filtered through the building and, according to reports, trapped two people inside, Mo's mother and 2-year-old niece. They were rescued and rushed to Massachusetts General, where they spent two days recovering from smoke inhalation.
The blaze left Mo and his family homeless and destroyed their possessions. Whatever wasn't damaged beyond repair, DiBiaso said, thieves broke in after firefighters cleared the scene and took, including the family's television and computer.
Fortunately, Mo's mother was eventually able to retrieve his Celtics world championship ring, which he received because of his job as a ball boy with the Celtics since 2007, and Super Bowl rings he earned with Everett. Otherwise, "they lost everything," DiBiaso said.
Mo, who had been a few hours into his shift at a local Walgreen's, was unaware of the fire that night. It wasn't until his brother, Joe, ran to the store and had an employee page his brother over the intercom that he got the news – which he didn't believe at first. They hitched a ride back to the apartment, but it was too late. Firefighters were working on the blaze and his mother and niece were gone, taken to the hospital.
So as his brother slept at a friend's house that night, Mo walked. Eventually, he was able to get a hold of a friend who let him crash for the night.
"He just walked the streets," DiBiaso said.
But the first of many helping hands found Mo the next morning. While walking down Broadway around the corner from Everett High, Mo saw a car pull up and a voice ask if he needed a ride.
It was DiBiaso.
"He was almost like he was disoriented," the coach said. "And he said, 'My house burned down.' "
The two spent the next few hours tracking down Mo's mother and niece and helping organize the pieces. Eventually, Mo's mother, her boyfriend and niece found a hotel in Chelsea while his brother stayed with friends. DiBiaso, who took Mo under his wing while he was in high school, again extended his hand, putting Mo on his sofa.
The first few nights, DiBiaso said, Mo cried. But he never missed a day of work or a Celtics home game, wiping the floors and tending to players he idolizes.
"It's just like you want to go through it like nothing happened, like it's just a normal day," Mo said of the time after the fire. "But you kind of have to think about it, 'Did it really happen? Did I really lose everything?' "
He never lost friends.
Frank Nuzzo, a former Everett star who later played football at Brown University, heard about the fire the following morning, via text from his brother's girlfriend. Within 10 minutes, he said, he called Everett's recreation center in an attempt to square away gym time. For what, he didn't know yet.
"It's probably a backwards way of doing things," Nuzzo said. "But then we figured out what we wanted to do. 'Lets have a 3-on-3 basketball tournament.' "
The fund-raiser grew faster than anyone could have imagined. Ross Pietrantonio, Nuzzo's former teammate and basketball standout at Everett, handled the tournament's details, signing up 35 teams and more than 100 players. Nuzzo took the reins on donations, including snacks and drinks, and volunteers -- which even included members of the Celtics dance team. Social networking, including Facebook, provided the information grapevine.
The school department eventually joined in, as did the mayor's office, helping move the tournament to Everett High's gym, where it could accommodate more people. They needed the extra space: More than 700 people came in support of Mo, said Pietrantonio, including alumni, teachers and administrators.
"We've had players back from as far as 2001, whether they were football players or basketball players, come to the school and support the event," said assistant superintendent Charles Obremski. "And everybody down to the custodians volunteered their time. So there were no expenses involved. Everyone knew Mo when he came to the school and still know him."
Serving as a quasi-reunion, the event raised more than $11,000, but none from one huge lump sum, Nuzzo said. He felt that made it more special.
"We're a blue-collar community," said Nuzzo, 25. "This isn't the kind of money that comes together like that. There's not too many people who can be that loose or flexible with their money. I thought that was something that stood [out]."
To top it all off, the Boston Celtics then essentially matched that amount in gift cards and donations. Roughly $7,000 went into the bank Thursday, DiBiaso said, and even more is expected, plus a package with donations from Celtics players. Included in that was a $5,000 personal check from coach Doc Rivers.
"Doc Rivers, I will never root against any team he coaches for the rest of his life," DiBiaso said. "He can coach the L.A. Lakers and I'll root for them."
Overall, the tournament was such a success, Pietrantonio said, that they'd like to keep it as an annual event.
"Mo's 3-on-3 Tournament," he said.
That big smile
Mo's not sure exactly how he'll remember this time. Of course, he wishes the fire never happened. But then he'll think about all the people who stepped forward to support him, and how he's overwhelmed with appreciation.
"I just want to thank everybody for helping me through the rough times and for being so supportive, helping my family and I get back together," he said.
There were other positives. In the month he has stayed with the DiBiaso family, Mo has learned how to do laundry, chores and wash dishes. "His mother said, 'You never help me with that stuff!' " DiBiaso joked.
Then, of course, there are the smiles. There were times DiBiaso and Mo would be watching TV, and DiBiaso would nod off in his recliner, remote in hand. When he'd awake, the clicker would be gone, across the room with Mo.
DiBiaso would sometimes wake up during the night, too, and find Mo still awake, watching West Coast NBA games.
"That's all he watches, ESPN," DiBiaso said. "I said, 'How did I get the NBA package on my TV? I never had the NBA Package. Did you order the NBA Package?' And he just has this smile on his face." (For the record, Mo said, DiBiaso already had it.)
But the smiles aren't new. When Mo was a student manager at Everett High, one of his jobs included making Dunkin' Donuts runs for the coaches. So he'd grab a $20 bill, run down the street and return with iced coffees and iced teas. "And it would be a standing joke," DiBiaso said. " 'Mo, where's the change?' " Then Mo would flash that big smile. "Oh," he'd say, "I bought a sandwich." And, yes, DiBiaso would smile back.
"Mo's one of those people that if you met and spent a least few minutes with, you'd know your answer of why everyone helps," said Nuzzo. "He's one of those people."
Nuzzo's favorite "Mo moment" came in 2002. The Everett High team bus pulled up to the Boston University campus for its Super Bowl championship game. Nuzzo remembers feeling overwhelmed by the large campus and the game ahead -- until Mo came down the aisle.
"He kept walking down the bus aisle and he was asking everyone if they were nervous," Nuzzo said. "Here was this little kid, and he was probably the most nervous out of all of us."
But it was exactly the moment of levity they needed. The victory was the first of back-to-back Super Bowl titles for Everett.
"He's the type of person you really can't describe," Pietrantonio said of Mo. "You have to meet him, you have to talk to him. He's a special kid."
Just last week, Pietrantonio caught up with Mo during halftime of a Celtics-Knicks game at TD Garden. They talked, they laughed, and Pietrantonio eventually asked how his family's apartment hunt was going.
They found one, Mo said.
"And this big smile comes on his face," Pietrantonio said. "'It's three bedrooms. It's the first time I have my own bedroom.' He's all excited. Then he said, 'Now I can put up my own posters and not worry about what my brother has to say.' "
Mo then smiled again. Just like normal.
Matt Stout may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.