Three-time MVP taught Rockets legend to 'do the work'
POSTED: Sep 14, 2015 1:04 AM ET
A look back at a Hall of Famer, whose work ethic and relentless pursuit of excellence defined his two decade-long career.
It was thought to be just another summer night on the steamy court at Fonde Rec Center, hard in the shadows of downtown Houston's skyscrapers, where the thick air was closer than the walls and the contentiousness in the paint was even hotter.
After nearly a year of banging heads and elbows, trading pushes and shoves, giving and taking lessons, the teenager took the ball in his hands, spun toward the basket and slammed it home with a force that rattled the backboard and sent Moses Malone sprawling onto the worn wooden floor.
"Offensive foul," barked out the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player from flat on his back.
"C'mon, Mo!" the gangly 19-year-old, then known as Akeem Olajuwon, replied through his Nigerian accent. "Be a mon!"
A threshold had been crossed, a bar had been cleared, a barrier had not just been broken, but shattered.
Moses Malone Career Retrospective
Look back at the career of an NBA legend: Moses Malone.
It was 1982 and Malone had just won his second MVP award with the Rockets (he'd claim his third the next season). Olajuwon had just finished his first season at the University of Houston.
"Oh Lordy," NBA veteran Robert Reid remembered years later. "The place got real quiet. It was on that play, at that minute, when a lot of us stood there and wondered, 'What do we have here?' "
What a shrinking world had in this most unlikely union that brought together a made-in-America big man off the streets of Petersburg, Va., with a wide-eyed sponge from Lagos, Nigeria, was perhaps the greatest teacher-student class project in basketball history.
Malone, who died Sunday at 60, combined with Olajuwon to total 54,355 career points, 29,960 rebounds, 5,563 blocked shots, 24 All-Star appearances, four MVP awards, three Finals MVP trophies and two places in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
I would never have accomplished what I did if I did not play against Moses ...
– Hakeem Olajuwon
Theirs was a relationship born in the school of hard knocks and forged by the white-hot fire of mutual and insatiable competitive drive, out of range of the TV cameras, away from the prying eyes, where all that mattered was how much you had to give.
"I would never have accomplished what I did if I did not play against Moses at Fonde," Olajuwon said before his own Hall of Fame induction in 2008. "I knew the rules. I knew the basics of the game and what you were supposed to do. But he is the one that taught me how to do it.
"With Moses there were no rests, no breaks. He was working every time down the court — scoring, rebounding or just making you feel his body. He would laugh when he slammed into you. If you tried to take a breath, he went by you or over you. There was no stop."
They were opposite sides of the same coin. Where Malone would bump and grind and wear down an opponent with his sheer physical play and relentless pursuit of the ball, Olajuwon wore opponents out with an array or spins, fakes, double- and triple-pumps that were more varied and colorful than a painter's palette.
"I usually couldn't go through Moses, because he was just so strong," Olajuwon said. "So I had to learn to use speed and agility to go around him. That's how I built my game."
The teenager kept adding more moves and eventually added an "H" to the front of his first name to correct the Muslim spelling, yet never lost sight of Malone's primary lesson.
"Do the work," said Hakeem.
Darryl Dawkins, who preceded Malone in death by 17 days, was the playful, partying poet of the teen phenom set in the 1970s: "Chocolate Thunder flyin', Robinzine cryin' ... "
Malone, who signed with the ABA's Utah Stars at 19, was the oil field roughneck who punched the clock, never missed a shift and tossed words around as if they were manhole covers: "Fo', fo', fo'!"
Ain't no secrets about playing basketball. Who wants the ball more? Who wants the shot? Who wants the rebound? Go get it.
– Moses Malone
What more was there to say?
Malone didn't need or want the added attention, only to do what he loved most, which was to toil in the rough quarters and sharp edges close to the basket for 10 different pro teams all the way past his 40th birthday, until his body gave out and he simply couldn't do it any longer.
Yet there was still the occasional night when he would show up for a run at Fonde.
It was a rare occasion at the 2003 All-Star Game in Atlanta when Malone sat down for a conversation and even acknowledged his role as bruising tutor to Olajuwon.
"Ain't no secrets about playing basketball," Malone said. "Who wants the ball more? Who wants the shot? Who wants the rebound? Go get it.
"Don't matter if you play in the NBA or you're off a plane from Africa. It's the man who's the strongest, the man who won't give up on the play, the man who does more work."
Did he remember that long ago night at Fonde when the kid rose up? That first moment when the student graduated with a slam dunk that hushed the gym?
"Nah, too long ago," Moses said with a shrug and a smirk. "But you saw what he did all those years in the NBA. Kid must have had a good teacher."
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