Archive 75

Moses Malone

By Todd Spehr·

Suppose in some whacky, hypothetical scenario that the fate of the universe hinged on the retrieval of an offensive rebound. The act itself, it could be argued, remains the single most difficult thing to accomplish in a game of basketball. And yet the player who did that most difficult thing better than anyone in the history of the game -- the one you would first choose to save the world -- is named Moses Malone.

There are very few absolutes when discussing the game’s history, so much left open to debate. This, however, is not up for debate: Moses Malone will get you that offensive rebound, and civilization will endure. Both statistically and anecdotally, Malone is the greatest offensive rebounder to have roamed the planet, and the margin, at least numerically, isn’t particularly close. He took a relentless, unmerciful approach to shot retrieval, whether it be attempts that left his hands or that of others; and only when the ball was comfortably in the basket of his team would he relent. Until, that is, the next trip down the floor.

Malone’s professional arrival came not in the NBA, but the ABA, with the Utah Stars. In March, 1974 he was putting the finishing touches on a dominant high school career in Petersburg, Va., as the top scholastic player in the country. Months later, in the late summer, he was signing a professional contract and making the rare leap from prep to pros. Malone made the ABA All-Star team that season, grabbed 32 rebounds in a playoff game, and was selected to the All-Rookie team. When others that followed endured teething issues when coming from high school, Malone remains the most outstanding success story.

What you’re about to see resides in the category beyond rare. Here are snippets from an original ABA broadcast of Malone and the Stars taking on the New York Nets, then led by Julius Erving and at the time the reigning ABA champions. Malone, just 19, is playing in only his 29th professional game -- he wound up playing in 1,455!

Moses Malone BlockOn occasion there is footage in the vault that isn’t easily explained. If, for example, vision emerges of a young Moses Malone pulling off an assortment of dunks in a Blazers uniform, in a half-empty McNichols Arena in Denver, additional information needs to be sought. After all, a tenure in Portland is absent when perusing his resume of 21 professional seasons spent with nine teams (two teams in the ABA, and another seven teams in the NBA, including two stops in Philadelphia). So how can this be?

For a period of 24 days -- between reporting to training camp on Sept. 25, 1976 and when traded to Buffalo on Oct. 19, 1976 -- Moses Malone was a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. The eventual 1977 champion Portland Trail Blazers, that is, of Walton and Lucas and Dr. Jack -- yep, those Blazers. Claimed fifth in the ABA dispersal draft following the Spirits of St. Louis’ graceful exit during the ABA’s dissolution in the summer of 1976, Malone found himself on his third team in this his third professional season. And two days following his exhibition-high of 24 points vs. Golden State, he was in the Mile High City as the Blazers’ representative at the taping of a dunk competition series to be aired later in the season on CBS.

So here’s what you’re looking at. The date is Oct. 18, 1976. Malone, one of eight players competing that day (a group that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!), would eventually lose a “sudden dunk-off” to Indiana’s Darnell Hillman, who went on to claim the competition the following June. A day later, Malone was shipped to Buffalo on the eve of the season. And just two years later, in 1979 in Houston, he won his first Most Valuable Player award.

As far as Finals runs go, it’s hard to identify a more improbable one than Houston’s in 1981. Securing a playoff berth on the season’s second-to-last day, and finishing just 40-42, the Rockets were pitted against the defending-champion Lakers in the opening round mini-series. Yet their triumph in the Forum in the deciding game only illustrates Malone’s impact and capabilities. Averaging 31 points and 17 rebounds in the series, he brought about a special ferocity when going against Abdul-Jabbar. Stunning the Spurs in round two in Game 7 in San Antonio, the Rockets then got by Kansas City to advance to the Finals, where they met Boston.

Though they fell short, the 1981 Rockets take residence in a unique place in league history, where unlikely teams dare to not only exceed expectations, but stretch them beyond the realm of believability. Somehow, that Houston team fell just two wins short of a title, and the principal reason for even being there was Moses Malone.

Moses Malone as a Houston Rocket

One of the objectives at Archive 75 HQ is to give viewers the opportunity to see how these legends got it done, the steady diet, a panoramic view of their game when at their best. Herein lies that for Malone, with this snapshot coming from his 1982 season, a year in which he averaged a career-high 31.1 PPG while leading the league in rebounding for the third time (he finished No. 1 in that category six times).

We are going back to Feb. 2, 1982, the first of consecutive home games on the Malone reel – a career-high 53 points to go with 22 rebounds (half on the offensive end) vs. the San Diego Clippers. What to watch for: Malone’s relentless assaults on the glass, which belie his craftsman’s touch around the basket. For all the credit Malone received as a rebounder and workman, he too was in possession of a wonderful shooting stroke. We see it all here.

Three nights later, in his very next game, Malone took on the Suns at home: 45 points and 20 rebounds, including 10 offensive, in a two-point win. If you’re wondering how Malone can always be in the right place at the right time, that is no accident. He studies the ball’s flight path, works early for position … and showed that knack repeatedly for the better part of two decades. And for those counting, that’s 98 points and 42 rebounds over two games. By season’s end, he claimed his second Most Valuable Player award.

Moses Malone and Julius Erving

Fast-forwarding to 1983, with Malone now in Philadelphia. In the years since those famous words were uttered -- “fo, fo, fo” -- they have taken their rightful place in basketball folklore, the ultimate symbol of confidence. The beautiful simplicity  -- four, four, four, to make a series of sweeps on the way to the title -- was quintessential Malone.

Apparently they were spoken sometime during the last week of the regular season, in April 1983, with the playoffs around the corner and the coach, Billy Cunningham, asking his best player how he thought the Sixers would fare in the postseason. Philadelphia had been on course for 70 wins that season -- at one point they stood 57-9 -- before falling just short with 67.

Though the Sixers experienced one minor blip, a mere solitary loss to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, they would go on to set what was at the time the best run ever:  12-1 in a single postseason, and it was Malone who led the way.

The Finals against the Lakers were laid to rest in one scintillating fourth quarter of basketball in Game 3, where the difference between a series still containing a pulse and one put beyond doubt lay squarely on the shoulders of one man.

Presenting the following information, all factual, about Moses Malone as of the night of May 31, 1983, on the occasion that the Sixers became the newly crowned NBA champions.

Three of the five most recent Most Valuable Player trophies carried his name. In having outscored and outrebounded the preeminent center of that generation, Abdul-Jabbar, he was now a Finals Most Valuable Player. And lastly, he took a very good Philadelphia team -- one that had made the Finals on three previous occasions during the Erving era, each time falling short -- and made them immortal.

The above points must be a consideration when examining Malone’s place in history.

In 1983, the world’s best basketball player in a league that featured Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird -- was Moses Malone.


Charles Barkley and Moses Malone

It’s uncommon that a player would possess the equal of Malone’s desire for rebounding, but for two seasons in Philadelphia, he played alongside Charles Barkley, himself a devotee of the pursuit of the errant shot. With Malone fully established by the time Barkley arrived in 1984, he took on the role of mentor to the young forward, something he had done so with another emerging talent, Hakeem Olajuwon, when Olajuwon was a collegian at the University of Houston in the early 1980s. It was an imprint that stayed with Barkley well beyond both of their playing careers.

Moses Malone was never a self-promoter. His covenant was only with what took place during the 48 minutes on a basketball court, where success was determined by who worked hardest. Malone operated under the M.O. that relenting simply was not an option; if he was tired, that meant his opponent was tired, and he would patiently toil waiting for them to break. The more he was pushed, he would argue, the stronger he got. And for 21 years, he was pushed to heights that very few reach.

The list of players with at least three MVPs is short, populated by some of the greatest that the game has known. Malone resides on that list and deserves to be celebrated for it. Underrated no more.