Monday, September 14, 2015

Moses Malone, 1955-2015

Moses Malone was a big man. Big in physical size. Big in physical presence. Big in importance in basketball history.

Remember the fuss made 3 months ago, when the Golden State Warriors won their 1st NBA title in 40 years? If not for Malone, the Philadelphia 76ers would now be closing in on 50 years.


Moses Eugene Malone was born on March 23, 1955 in Petersburg, Virginia, site of a major battle in the American Civil War, where the Union's breakthrough led to the fall of Richmond and of the Confederacy itself.

Moses led Petersburg High School to State Championships and undefeated seasons in his junior and senior years, 1972-73 and 1973-74. He was headed to the University of Maryland, then riding high in the wake of All-Americans Len Elmore and John Lucas, the latter eventually becoming a Houston Rocket teammate of Moses'.

But the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association drafted him, even though he hadn't gone to a single college class yet. Hardly any players had ever played professional basketball without playing in college. To that point, none had gone from high school straight to a major league, and the ABA certainly thought of itself as a major league. Moses signed with the Stars, who had just reached the ABA Finals for the 2nd time, having won the title in 1971. (The only league title a Utah team would win in any major, or even semi-major, sport until Real Salt Lake won the 2009 MLS Cup.)

Moses went from playing high school ball in Virginia to signing a 5-year contract worth an even $1 million. That's $200,000 a year -- about $968,000 in today's money. Apparently, the Stars couldn't afford him, as they folded after the 1974-75 season. He was sold to the Spirits of St. Louis to help pay off the Stars' debts.

When the ABA folded in 1976, the Spirits were not among the teams that were absorbed into the NBA, and Moses' status was up for grabs. His NBA rights were held by the New Orleans Jazz. He could have ended up going back to Utah, as the Jazz moved there in 1979. But can you imagine Moses Malone and Pete Maravich on the same team?

It didn't happen, because the Jazz, who also needed cash badly, traded Moses to the Portland Trail Blazers in a complicated deal. But the Blazers already had Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, and thought they didn't need another big man. They were right in the short term, as they won the 1977 NBA title. But in the long run, they were wrong, as both Walton and Lucas were plagued with injury for the rest of their careers. Indeed, if you think about it, a Blazer team that still had Moses Malone in 1984 probably wouldn't have drafted Sam Bowie. Instead, they drafted Bowie, because they needed a big man, and didn't draft Michael Jordan because they already had a perceived similar player in Clyde Drexler. Result: The Blazers haven't won an NBA title since 1977, and Jordan's Chicago Bulls beat Drexler's Blazers in the 1992 Finals.

So before Moses ever played a game for Portland, they traded him to the Buffalo Braves. What's that, you've never heard of the Buffalo Braves? They made the Playoffs 3 straight years in the 1970s, led by Bob McAdoo and Ernie DeGregorio. With Moses Malone added to the mix, they should have become an NBA power. But they only played Moses twice, and he essentially said, "Play me or trade me." So they traded him, to the Houston Rockets, for their 1st round draft picks in 1977 and 1978.

He had now been with 6 professional basketball organizations, and he wast just 21 years old. This sort of thing would have been real fodder for discussion on ESPN's Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption if it had happened in the 21st Century.

Moses found a home in Houston, and set a record with 437 offensive rebounds in a regular season. He was not yet 22 years old. Put it another way: He was better than LeBron James, and he did it before LeBron was even born. The Rockets got all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before someone said, "What the hell? Houston shouldn't be in the East!" He collected 15 offensive rebounds in a Conference Semifinal game against the Washington Bullets, setting an NBA Playoff record.

The Rockets were defeated by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Finals, before losing the NBA Finals to the Blazers. The next season, the Sixers gave their fans the slogan, "We owe you one." But they were unable to deliver, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 and '82 NBA Finals and the Boston Celtics in the 1981 East Finals.

Moses was named NBA Most Valuable Player in 1979, and in 1981 he got the Rockets to their 1st Conference Championship -- this time in the Western Conference, where they always belonged -- and into their 1st NBA Finals, where they lost to the Celtics. Along the way, he collected 21 offensive rebounds in a regular-season game against the Seattle SuperSonics, a new record. A Sports Illustrated cover, reflecting his ability to grab rebounds, a.k.a. "boards," called him the Chairman of the Boards.


Moses became a free agent after the 1981-82 season, another MVP season for him, and, desperate for a big man to stand alongside stylish forward Julius "Dr. J" Erving so that they could finally win an NBA title for the 1st time since 1967, the 76ers paid through the nose to get him.

Moses won the MVP again, making him the 1st athlete in any major league sport to win the award in back-to-back years with 2 different teams. To this day, only Barry Bonds has matched it -- in 1992-93, before he is known to have used steroids. Moses Malone didn't need no steroids.

The Playoffs approached, and a reporter asked Moses for a prediction. Very calmly, the 6-foot-10, 215-pound center said, in his Virginia accent, "Fo', fo', fo'." Three rounds, best-4-out-of-7, all to be won by the Sixers in four straight games. It had never been done before, but, after what Moses had done with the Rockets and the Sixers the last 3 seasons, few doubted it could be done.

In the 1st round, the 76ers swept the New York Knicks, and Knick coach Hubie Brown told an interviewer, "Moses Malone is a real man. They cannot pay him a-nough."

Not "enough," "a-nough." It could have just been Hubie being tired and not ready to pronounce the word properly. Or it could just be that Moses was so valuable to the Sixers, he transcended proper pronunciation.

The Sixers then moved on to the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Bucks won a game. But only 1, as the Sixers won in fi' instead of fo'.

Then came a Finals rematch with the Lakers. Big men for the Sixers had not been able to handle Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980 and 1982. But 1983 would be different. Not just because the Sixers had Moses: McAdoo, the former Buffalo star, had been a factor the year before, but would not be this time, due to injury. James Worthy, the Lakers' rookie sensation, would also be out with an injury. The Lakers were nowhere near full strength, and Moses took advantage.

Game 1 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia was close: 113-107. Game 2 was less so: 103-93. The series moved out to the Forum in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, and the Sixers won, 111-94. Game 4 was close most of the way, but it ended 115-108.

The Philadelphia 76ers had won the NBA Championship. Big Mo, Dr. J., Little Mo (Maurice Cheeks), Bobby Jones and Andrew Toney had gotten their rings. Billy Cunningham, a rookie forward on the previous Sixer title in 1967, had now also won one for them as a head coach.

And nobody held it against Moses that his prediction was off by 1 game. The '83 76ers' 12-1 Playoff record has only been topped once, by the 2001 Lakers, who, with the league and the Playoffs expanded, went 15-1 on the way to the title.

The Sixers were unable to follow up, losing in the 1984 Playoffs to the New Jersey Nets -- the only NBA Playoff series the former Long Island team of the ABA would win until 2002. The Pistons lost the 1985 East Finals to the Celtics, and in 1986, Moses sustained an orbital fracture, knocking him out for the season.

June 15, 1986, a date which lives in Delaware Valley sports infamy. The Sixers had the 1st pick in the draft, due to a smart trade. But team owner and NutriSystem founder Harold Katz then made a dumb trade, trading that pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Roy Hinson. There was nothing wrong with having a healthy Hinson on your team, but the Cavs used the pick on Brad Daugherty, who became one of the best centers of his era. No matter, the Sixers still had Moses Malone -- except, on the same day, they traded him, Terry Catledge, and not one but two 1st round picks to the Washington Bullets for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson.

Before this date: 9 years, 6 Conference Finals, 4 NBA Finals, and an NBA Championship. After this date: 29 years, 1 trip to the Conference Finals, including the 2001 NBA Finals, and no title. One of the NBA's oldest and proudest franchises has never been the same. It could be called the Curse of Katz.


Moses was 31, and was hardly done. On April 8, 1987, he dropped his 3rd career 50-point game -- unfortunately for me, on the New Jersey Nets, leading the Bullets to victory. In 1988, he was named to his 12th All-Star Game.

Then, troubled by a back injury, he bounced around some more. He went to the Atlanta Hawks, in 1991 to the Milwaukee Bucks, in 1993 back to the Sixers (in the hope that he could mentor 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley, as he already had with a young Charles Barkley; but, by then, it was too late to help them), and spent his final NBA season, 1994-95, with the San Antonio Spurs, backing up David Robinson.

In the ABA and the NBA combined, he was an All-Star 13 times, scored 29,580 points (only Kareem and Wilt Chamberlain were ahead of him at the time), and grabbed 17,834 rebounds, leading the NBA 6 times. His NBA-only totals: 27,409 points and 16,212 rebounds. In the 69-year history of the NBA, only 4 players have at least 27,000 points and at least 16,000 rebounds: Moses, Kareem, Wilt Chamberlain and Elvin Hayes. (Kareem holds the points record, 38,387, having surpassed Wilt at 31,419; Wilt still holds the rebounding record, 23,924, well ahead of Kareem's 2nd-best 17,440.)

The Rockets retired his Number 24. With Bobby Jones already having it on the Sixers, they gave him Number 2, and have retired it. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, his 1st year of eligibility. He, Rick Barry, George Gervin, his 76er teammate Erving, and his 76er coach Cunningham were the only 5 players named to both the ABA All-Time Team and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.
Moses was divorced from a woman named Alfreda, and their relationship was stormy. On 2 known occasions, she charged him with domestic abuse. They had 2 sons. He helped fund a recreation center in Houston, and was briefly an assistant coach with the Sixers.

Moses was in Norfolk, Virginia, not far from his hometown of Petersburg, for a celebrity golf tournament, but failed to show for it yesterday morning. He was found dead in his hotel room. He was 60 years old. The coroner has announced that he died from heart disease.

Tributes came from the ownership of the teams with which he is most identified. Leslie Alexander of the Houston Rockets: "Everyone in the organization is deeply saddened by the passing of Moses Malone. Moses was a true gentleman and one of the great Rockets and greatest NBA players, of all time. He will be forever missed. Our deepest condolences go out to his family and friends."

Scott O'Neill, CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers: "No one person has ever conveyed more with so few words -- including three of the most iconic in this city's history. "His generosity, towering personality and incomparable sense of humor will truly be missed."

Moses Malone Jr.: "He taught us so much about life. He came from nothing. He taught us how to work hard and respect people, love your family and always do the right thing. He's a good person. He was always there to help people. He cared about people who had less than him."

Moses was not related to his fellow Basketball Hall-of-Famer, Karl Malone, a.k.a. the Mailman. Nor was he related to another NBA All-Star, Jeff Malone.

Moses died within days of the death of another late 1970s 76ers big man, Darryl Dawkins; and a few months after the one he was traded for, Caldwell Jones.

George McGinnis, take care of yourself!

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