Legends profile: Moses Malone
The Hall of Famer had a 19-year NBA career that included two MVPs and a title in 1983 with the 76ers.
One of the game’s all-time great centers, Moses Malone was a relentless rebounder and effective scorer who made the jump from high school to a pro career that lasted 21 years. The third-leading rebounder and sixth-leading scorer in combined NBA/ABA history, he was honored in 1996-97 as a member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
At the age of 19, when he was a lean and lanky 6-foot-10 manchild, Malone had no trouble making the jump from Petersburg (Va.) High School to the Utah Stars of the ABA. Playing forward until he filled out enough to take the pounding at center, Malone was an immediate success in the ABA, averaging over 18 points and 14 rebounds as a rookie.
After two seasons in the ABA he went on to become a dominant NBA player for well over a decade, leading the Houston Rockets to The Finals in 1981 and the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1983 NBA championship.
Malone retired following the 1994-95 season having scored 27,409 points and grabbed 16,212 rebounds in his 19-year NBA career. He made more free throws, 8,531 more at the time, than any other player in NBA history and also finished his career ranked second behind Wilt Chamberlain in free throw attempts with 11,090.
He also left the game as third in games played (1,329), sixth in minutes played (45,071) and 10th in field goal attempts (19,225). Since 1973-74, when the NBA began keeping offensive and defensive rebounds as separate categories, Malone is ranked first on the all-time list in offensive rebounds (6,731).
Add in his two ABA seasons and Malone’s numbers are even more impressive. In 21 pro seasons he scored 29,580 points, sixth on the all-time list behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Julius Erving. He also grabbed 17,834 rebounds, third behind Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He’s second in free throws made (9,018) and attempted (11,864) behind Karl Malone, fourth in minutes (49,444) played and fifth in games (1,455).
Not as tall as the game’s other legendary centers, Malone capitalized on his strength, quickness and tenacity. Ferocious on the boards, he was the NBA’s rebounding leader six times in a seven-year span. An equally crafty scorer, he averaged more than 20 points for 11 years, using an infinite number of post moves, a nose for offensive rebounds and a knack for getting to the free throw line. A quiet, hulking figure, his silent demeanor and wariness around the media masked his fundamental understanding of the sport.
Malone’s roster of achievements is lengthy. He was the NBA Most Valuable Player in 1979, 1982 and 1983; an All-NBA First Team selection in 1979, 1982, 1983 and 1985; a six-time All-NBA Second Team choice; a six-time NBA rebounding champ; a 12-time NBA All-Star from 1978 through 1989; winner of an NBA championship in 1983; NBA Finals MVP in 1983; an NBA All-Defensive First Team selection in 1983; an NBA All-Defensive Second Team pick in 1979; an ABA All-Rookie Team selection in 1975; and an ABA All-Star in 1976.
Malone holds the NBA record for most consecutive games played without fouling out at 1,212. He set a league record for the most offensive rebounds in a season (587) as well as holding the next best three seasons and another NBA mark with 21 offensive boards in a single game, against the Seattle SuperSonics on Feb. 11, 1982.
After playing two seasons in the ABA with Utah and then the St. Louis Spirits, Malone entered the NBA in 1976 with the Buffalo Braves for a very brief time and later the Houston Rockets. In his third NBA season, 1978-79, he led the league in rebounding (17.6 rpg) and earned his first Most Valuable Player Award. Two seasons later, in 1980-81, he powered an underdog Houston team into The Finals.
Malone won his second MVP Award in 1981-82 after averaging 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds. That summer he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, joining a team that also featured Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Andrew Toney. The 76ers demolished the league that year, racking up a 65-17 regular season record and going 12-1 in the postseason to claim the NBA championship. Malone was MVP of the regular season as well as of The Finals.
He stayed with Philadelphia for three more seasons, winning the rebounding title with averages of better than 13 boards in the next two campaigns and posting scoring averages of 22.7, 24.6 and 23.8 points, respectively. The 1984-85 campaign was his last with the Sixers.
Malone’s career peaked during his years at Houston and Philadelphia, although he remained one of the league’s top scorers and rebounders for the next four seasons, two with the Washington Bullets and two more with the Atlanta Hawks. Malone finished his career playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers again and, finally, with the San Antonio Spurs in 1994-95.
Back when Malone was leading Petersburg High School to 50 straight victories and two straight state championships, his opponents on the hometown playgrounds devised a way to stop him. They made him agree not to come inside the free throw lane during pickup games, or they wouldn’t let him play.
Malone was so dominant as a schoolboy that he accomplished the then rare feat of going straight from high school into professional basketball. Passing up an opportunity to attend the University of Maryland, he instead chose to play in the ABA with the Utah Stars, who had selected him in the third round of the 1974 ABA Draft.
At the age of 19, Malone was almost skinny at 215 pounds, yet he still played in 83 games for the Stars in 1974-75, averaging 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds. He appeared in the 1975 ABA All-Star Game and was named to the league’s All-Rookie Team at season’s end.
The Utah Stars folded in 1975, prompting the team to sell Malone’s rights to the Spirits on Dec. 2. In the ABA’s final season, Malone finished out the year with the Spirits, appearing in 43 games and averaging 14.3 points and 9.6 rebounds.
The NBA absorbed four of the ABA teams, giving many of the ABA’s biggest names a chance to shine in the NBA. Most of these players would be out of professional basketball 10 years later. Malone, however, would keep going well into the 1990s, and upon his retirement was the last ABA veteran to still be active in the NBA.
In the ABA Dispersal Draft held on Aug. 5, 1976, the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers selected Malone with the fifth overall pick. The 21-year-old center never played a game for the Blazers, however. Prior to the 1976-77 season Portland traded him (perhaps set at the center position with a young Bill Walton) to the Buffalo Braves for a 1978 first-round draft choice. Even then, Malone’s travels weren’t over. After only two games with Buffalo he was traded by the Braves to the Houston Rockets for two future first-round draft choices.
Malone found a home in Houston, where he was reunited with coach Tom Nissalke, who had coached him in his rookie season with the Stars. With the Rockets, Malone established himself immediately as one of the NBA’s most ferocious rebounders, particularly on the offensive end. He appeared in 82 games and finished with averages of 13.2 points and 13.1 rebounds. He ranked third in the NBA in rebounding behind Walton and Abdul-Jabbar and established an NBA record for offensive rebounds in a season with 437, shattering Paul Silas’ mark of 365. (Malone would break his own record two years later.)
Malone also ranked seventh in the league in blocked shots with 2.21 per game. He delivered in the playoffs, helping the Rockets to the Eastern Conference finals, which they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. Malone averaged 18.8 points and 16.9 rebounds in 12 playoff games. He set an NBA playoff record with 15 offensive rebounds in an overtime victory against the Washington Bullets in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Malone made the first of what would be 12 consecutive All-Star Game appearances in 1978, the year that would have been his senior season had he chosen to play college basketball. His scoring output surged to 19.4 ppg, third best on the Rockets behind Calvin Murphy (25.6 ppg) and Rudy Tomjanovich (21.5 ppg). His second NBA season ended prematurely, however, when he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot and missed the Rockets’ final 23 games. Remarkably, he still led the NBA in total offensive rebounds (380) and finished second in rebounding average (15.0) behind Leonard “Truck” Robinson (15.7).
Malone also finished fifth in the NBA in scoring and shot a career-best .540 from the field. He was named to the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team and started at center for the East squad in the 1979 NBA All-Star Game. He notched the best single-game rebounding performance of his career when he hauled in 37 boards against the New Orleans Jazz. Houston made it to the playoffs but was swept in two opening-round games by the Atlanta Hawks. Malone, however, totaled an impressive 49 points and 41 rebounds in the two games.
He continued to dominate the paint in 1979-80. Malone averaged 25.8 points and 14.5 rebounds, ranking fifth in the league in scoring and second to Swen Nater (15.0 rpg) in rebounding. He made his third straight All-Star appearance — his second straight as a starter — and was named to the All-NBA Second Team at season’s end. Malone’s indomitable spirit helped the Rockets defeat the San Antonio Spurs in a best-of-3 first round playoff series, as he scored 37 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in the third and deciding game, leading Houston to a 141-120 victory. The Rockets were then swept by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Malone returned to the top of the NBA’s rebounding charts in 1980-81, setting a record string of five consecutive seasons leading the league (since surpassed with seven by Dennis Rodman). He grabbed 14.8 rpg in 80 appearances, earning his second straight berth on the All-NBA Second Team. An All-Star for the fourth consecutive season, Malone (27.8 ppg) also finished runner-up to Adrian Dantley (30.7 ppg) for the league’s scoring title. He exploded for 51 points against the Golden State Warriors, hitting 20 of 28 field goals and 11 of 12 free throws. It was the third-highest single-game effort in Rockets history up to that time, behind Calvin Murphy’s 57 points and Elvin Hayes’ 54.
Now in the Midwest Division, Houston finished tied with the Kansas City Kings for second place with a 40-42 record. The Rockets, energized by Malone’s 26.8 ppg and 14.5 rpg during the playoffs, surprised everyone by advancing all the way to The Finals. They lost in six games to the Boston Celtics, who were led by second-year forward Larry Bird.
Malone had another spectacular season in 1981-82, averaging 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds and capturing his second of three NBA Most Valuable Player Awards in his final season with Houston. The perennial All-Star led the league in rebounding for a second straight season and finished runner-up to George Gervin for the league’s scoring title. The ultimate workhorse, Malone led the NBA in minutes played (3,398, 42.0 per game) and offensive rebounds (558). At season’s end, he was named to the All-NBA First Team for the second time in his six-year career.
Malone’s scoring average would stand as a career high, as would the 53 points he scored against the San Diego Clippers on Feb. 2. He also broke his own NBA record with 21 offensive rebounds in a game against the Seattle SuperSonics nine days later on on Feb.11. The Rockets, however, were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. Despite 24.0 ppg and 17.0 rpg from Malone, Houston lost to Seattle in three games.
Malone became a restricted free agent after the 1981-82 season and signed an offer sheet with the Philadelphia 76ers on Sept. 2, 1982. Houston then exercised its right of first refusal and matched the offer, only to trade Malone to the Sixers on Sept. 15 for Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first-round draft choice.
Now in his ninth season of professional basketball (seventh in the NBA), Malone led the league in rebounding (15.3 rpg) for a third consecutive year. With Erving (21.4 ppg) and Toney (19.7 ppg) making strong scoring contributions, Malone’s average dipped to 24.5 points, still good enough for fifth in the NBA and his second straight MVP Award.
An All-Star for a sixth straight time, Malone made the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team at season’s end. The Sixers lost only one postseason contest en route to the league championship, almost making good on Malone’s famous pre-playoff prediction in his rural Virginia vernacular that the Sixers would go “Fo, fo, fo.” They concluded their title run with a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that defeated them the year prior in The Finals, in the 1983 NBA Finals. Malone averaged 26.0 points and 15.8 rebounds in 13 postseason games and was named Finals Most Valuable Player.
Malone outplayed and outrebounded Abdul-Jabbar, 72-30, in the series. “Let’s not make believe,” 76ers head coach Billy Cunningham said. “The difference from last year was Moses.”
Malone led the league in rebounding in 1983-84 for a fourth straight season and fifth overall, finishing with 13.4 rpg. Ankle injuries limited him to 71 games this season, his lowest number of appearances since 1977-78. Still, he posted a 22.7 ppg average in his second season with the Sixers and was named to the All-NBA Second Team at year’s end.
Malone was selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game for a seventh consecutive year but missed the game because of his aching ankle. He averaged 21.4 points and 13.8 rebounds in five postseason games, but Philadelphia suffered a first-round playoff upset at the hands of the New Jersey Nets.
When Malone finished the 1984-85 season with an average of 13.1 rebounds he became the first player in NBA history to lead the league in rebounding for five consecutive seasons. Wilt Chamberlain had held the previous record with two separate stretches of four straight titles in the 1960s. An All-Star for the eighth time, Malone chalked up 24.6 ppg (ninth in the NBA) and earned his fourth selection to the All-NBA First Team. He finished third in the balloting for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. Philadelphia advanced to the Eastern Conference finals but lost to Boston in five games. Malone contributed 20.2 ppg and 10.6 rpg in the postseason.
Malone’s 10th NBA season and last with Philadelphia came to an abrupt end when on March 28 he suffered a fractured orbit of the right eye against the Milwaukee Bucks. He missed the Sixers’ last eight games and the entire postseason. Without him, Philadelphia lost to the Bucks in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series.
In 74 appearances Malone averaged 23.8 points and 11.8 rebounds. He ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring but surrendered the league’s rebounding crown for the first time in six seasons, finishing fourth behind the Detroit Pistons’ Bill Laimbeer (13.1 rpg), Philadelphia teammate Charles Barkley (12.8 rpg) and the New Jersey Nets’ Buck Williams (12.0 rpg). Malone was an All-Star for the ninth straight season but failed to make an All-NBA Team for the first time since 1978.
Shortly after the 1985-86 season Philadelphia traded Malone, along with Terry Catledge and two first-round draft choices, to the Washington Bullets for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson. He bounced back to average 24.1 points and 11.3 rebounds and reclaim a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. An All-Star for the 10th consecutive season, he was the only NBA player to rank among the league’s top 10 in both scoring and rebounding, placing ninth in each category. Washington made a brief appearance in the postseason, losing to the Pistons in a First Round sweep. Malone averaged 20.7 points and 12.7 rebounds in three playoff games.
Malone kept plugging away in his 12th NBA season and second with Washington. He averaged 20.3 points and 11.2 rebounds, ranking eighth in the league in rebounding and 19th in scoring. He earned his 11th consecutive All-Star selection and was one of only four players to rank in the top 20 in scoring and the top 10 in rebounding. Malone helped the Bullets to the 1988 NBA Playoffs, where they lost to the Detroit Pistons in a five-game first round series. Malone contributed 18.6 points and 11.2 rebounds in five postseason appearances.
The Atlanta Hawks signed Malone as a free agent prior to the 1988-89 season, and he went on to have another All-Star campaign. Teaming with Dominique Wilkins in the Hawks’ frontcourt, Malone averaged 20.2 points and 11.8 rebounds. He was selected to start for the East squad in his 12th straight NBA All-Star Game. After nearly toppling the Celtics the year before in a thrilling Eastern Conference semifinal series, Atlanta didn’t make it out of the first round in 1989. The Hawks lost to the Bucks in five games, despite 21.0 ppg and 12.0 rpg from their veteran center.
In his second season with Atlanta, Malone failed to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds for the first time since his second NBA season. He finished at 18.9 ppg and 10.0 rpg, snapping a string of 11 straight 20-10 campaigns. The 14-year veteran did lead the NBA in offensive rebounds with 364 and tied for eighth in rebounding average. In Mike Fratello’s final year as head coach, Atlanta struggled to a 41-41 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
Malone started at center for the first 15 games of the 1990-91 season, but Atlanta’s new coach, Bob Weiss, moved him to the bench and made him Jon Koncak’s backup for the final 67 contests. Although he was the only Hawk to appear in all 82 games, Malone failed to play 2,000 minutes in a season (1,912) for the first time in his 15-year NBA career.
Malone averaged 10.6 points and 8.1 rebounds in 23.3 mpg — all career lows up to that point. He nevertheless continued to etch his name in the NBA record books. With career free throw No. 7,695 against the Indiana Pacers, he became the NBA’s all-time leader in free throws made, surpassing Oscar Robertson. That season he also broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 1,045 consecutive games without fouling out when he reached No. 1,046 in a game against the Pistons.
Atlanta returned to the playoffs but fell to the Pistons in a five-game first round series. Malone contributed only 4.2 ppg and 6.2 rpg in the postseason.
The Milwaukee Bucks signed Malone as a free agent shortly after the 1990-91 season and made him a starter once again. The 16-year veteran responded with a resurgent campaign, playing in all 82 games and averaging 15.6 ppg and 9.1 rpg. He ranked second on the Bucks in scoring and first in rebounding, but Milwaukee finished at 31-51, tied with the Charlotte Hornets for last place in the Central Division.
Malone missed most of the 1992-93 season while recovering from back surgery. He finally returned to active duty to make 11 appearances for Milwaukee. He played only 104 total minutes and averaged 4.5 points and 4.4 rebounds. Milwaukee continued to struggle while developing young talent, finishing 28-54 and last in the Central Division.
Many thought Malone would retire after an injury-plagued 1992-93 campaign, but the Philadelphia 76ers convinced him to play another season — his 18th in the NBA and his 20th in professional basketball. The Sixers signed him as a free agent, primarily to have him tutor 7-6 rookie Shawn Bradley. Malone, for his part, appeared in 55 games off the bench and averaged 5.3 points and 4.1 rebounds.
Hoping to receive some help in the pivot for David Robinson, the San Antonio Spurs signed Malone to a free-agent contract before the 1994-95 season. Malone, who turned 40 during the season, was unable to provide much relief for Robinson, appearing in 17 games before rupturing a tendon in his lower right leg. He was placed on the injured list on Jan. 12, 1995 and did not play again.
In 2001, Malone was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He died at the age of 60 on Sept. 13, 2015.