There was a time when the other kids at the Shiloh Baptist Church Boys Club urged a lanky preteen named Tony Moore to join them on the basketball court. Back then, Moore was more adept at back flips and hand springs than dribbling and jump shots.

"In sports, gymnastics was probably my first love," said Moore, a junior center on the Newport Prep basketball team. "I denied basketball since birth because everyone tried to push it on me. I wanted to defy the odds."

At 6 feet 7, Moore has literally outgrown the possibility of pursuing gymnastics seriously, but his grace and acrobatics on the basketball court add new meaning to the phrase "floor exercise."

"I know what it gave me as far as coordination and agility," said Moore. Gymnastics is "timing, agility, landing on your feet . . . just thinking real fast."

"His strength is timing," said Newport Prep Coach Harold Gaither, the fundamentals coach for the Washington Bullets when they won the 1978 NBA championship. "He has fantastic body control for a big person, but his sense of timing is what makes him a good shot blocker."

But Moore's attributes are not all physical. "He has what I call mental agility," Gaither said. "Tony can think and react at the same time."

When Moore came to Newport Prep 2 1/2 years ago, he never had played organized basketball. As a sophomore, he averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and 6.7 blocked shots per game, establishing himself as one the area's more versatile players.

This season he is averaging 22.9 points, 12.8 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 7.6 blocks to lead the Tigers to an 8-4 record.

Last Monday he had 22 points, 14 rebounds and 15 blocks in a victory over St. Anselm's. The following night, in a 68-63 victory over Riverdale Baptist, he had 25 points, 13 blocked shots, 9 assists and 8 rebounds.

Although Newport's Tri-State Conference schedule is not as tough as he would like, Moore said he believes the quality of his education outweighs the publicity he might receive at a larger school.

"I had racial reasons for wanting to go to a private school, because I knew I could mix with all cultures," said Moore, who is black. "And I knew I didn't want to come up with a biased attitude."

In fact, the Wheaton school, with 50 students and 40 faculty members, provided the proper atmosphere for Moore's development as a student and as a player.

"I don't think anybody would have wasted their time" with Moore, said Gaither. "He would have played junior varsity ball or maybe freshman ball {at a larger school} because he was a lanky kid. If you come here, you've got to play because we don't have {many} kids."

"I probably would never have played basketball if I hadn't started here," Moore said. "No one would know me if I didn't play at Newport."

But the letters he has received from Duke, Virginia, North Carolina State, Kentucky and Iowa are testimony to a reputation that appears to be expanding.

Moore impressed Bob Gibbons of All Star Sports Publications, a national recruiting service, when he held his own against Glenn Robinson of Roosevelt High in Gary, Ind., in an AAU tournament last summer. Gibbons rates Robinson as the nation's top senior.

Against Robinson, who signed a letter-of-intent with Purdue, Moore "handled himself well" and "showed he's not afraid to go head-to-head with the top players in the country," Gibbons said.

"Robinson would go up for a dunk and Moore would block it and then Moore would go up for a dunk and Robinson would block that."

Sylvester Simpkins, Moore's AAU coach, said that Moore lacks experience but is "a marvelous defensive player who's going to be an excellent college player."

While the praise and adulation of a recruiting barrage can be confusing to a 16-year-old, Gaither helps Moore keep his life in perspective.

"When somebody comes to you and tells you 'I can give you something,' they're not giving you anything," Gaither tells his players. "You are going to do much more for their program than they are going to do for you.

"You need to get an education that prepares you for life after basketball."