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Why Moses Malone’s Passing is Personal to Me

Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Moses Malone was one of the greatest players in the history of the game. And it’s with sorrow that I type that word “was,” because it means that Malone is no longer with us. In particular for me, his death provokes nostalgia.

When I was eight years old, my dad, who was in the Air Force, was stationed in England. While he was never much of a sports fan, it was there that I discovered them. My first loves were tennis and soccer. Jimmy Connors was my hero, and I remember spending hours on end smashing the ball off the wall at the base court.

We moved back to the States shortly before I turned 10. My dad’s best friend from college picked us up from the airport and drove us back to his house where we stayed for the weekend. And it was there that I saw my first basketball game ever.

It was the 1977 Eastern Conference Finals between the Houston Rockets and the Philadelphia 76ers. Two titans went to war in that contest: Julius “Dr. J.” Erving and Moses Malone. On the Sixers’ side, there was this man who had to be the most gracefully powerful man who’d ever existed in my awe-inspired pre-adolescent eyes.

And on the other, there was this massive mountain of intensity, Malone, who attacked every missed shot with incredible ferocity. He had all the ferocity and intensity of Connors; he was just displaying it on a different kind of court.

And I fell in love with basketball in one game — to the point that writing about it is what I do for a living now. Malone is literally part of the reason I do what I do. And to today’s crowd, it’s hard to explain just what made him so great.

In part, that’s because with the rules are what they are today, the dominant center isn’t what you need to win a championship. But back then, it absolutely was. Up until 1983, only three MVPs were won by guys who weren’t manning the middle.

From Doc, I learned how beautifully the game could be played; from Malone, I learned how intensely it could be played.

Malone controlled the paint. He was Dennis Rodman’s soul in Dwight Howard’s body. And he was just finding his rhythm at the time. The Rockets were still led by the likes of Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy, but it was Malone and the Doc who caught my imagination.

Two years later, Malone really hit his prime and averaged 25.9 points and 14.8 boards over the span. The last time he — or anyone else — averaged 25 points and 14 boards was 1982 when he did it for a third consecutive season.

There’s no telling what percentage of Malone’s rebounds were his misses, but it had to be a lot. It was like he expected to miss his own shot and was mad at the ball for not going in. There may not be another player who ever followed up his mistakes like Malone did.

It was a good lesson for life. Always consider the possibility of failing. And always attack your failures like you intend to remedy them. And keep doing it until you get it right.

Richard Goldstein of the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted former Kansas City Kings center Sam Lacy in his obituary of Malone:

Most guys have second and third effort. Moses had ninth and 10th effort. He just keeps going and going until he gets the ball.

Malone went to the Philadelphia 76ers in one of the weirdest contract situations in history. Mark Penner wrote about it for the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple of years ago, and how it contained these bizarre clauses:

They offered Malone a 6-year, $13.2 million deal, which could grow to $15 million. The league had no problem with the $1 million signing bonus or the $100,000 bonus for each season Malone averaged more than 30 minutes a game. But commissioner Larry O’Brien’s ire was raised by the following clauses:

* $20,000 in each of the first three regular seasons in which the club he signs with does not rank in the top six among teams in attendance for road games.

* Five percent of the club’s gross receipts after $4 million and up to $6 million, and 10 percent after $6 million.

* The team agrees to provide endorsements or personal appearances for Malone that will bring him at least $100,000 per season.

* $100,000 in each season in which the team does not generate $3 million in home gate receipts.

While the league found the contract violated league rules, the Rockets didn’t wait around to see what the league was going to do and traded Malone to the Sixers, where he teamed up with that man who bested him in the 1977 Eastern Conference Finals, Dr. J. The two men had won the two previous MVP awards.

I only include this because of two things. First, it’s just interesting and not a lot of people know about it. And second, it shows what a unique sort of person Malone was.

And so it was that the pair formed one of the great single-season teams in NBA history in 1982-83. They won 65 games, and come playoff time, they steamrolled everyone in their path. Malone famously predicted, “Fo’, fo’, fo’,” meaning that they were going to take each of the three seven-game series in four — and the boast nearly came to pass. Their sole loss was by six points to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

I was living in Liberia, West Africa at the time, and remember watching the games on tape delay (this time because I was living in Africa). But I remember the celebration as vividly as if it just happened. At the time, it was like the closure of my entire young sports fan life as two of my favorite players were getting corronated together.

Malone’s career lasted a long time, with him finally retiring in 1995 after playing 17 games with the San Antonio Spurs. By then I’d grown up, served in the Air Force myself for four years and gone to college. Now a 28-year-old man, it was like the last vestige of my childhood dissipating.

Over the course of his career, he left his imprint on both the league and the next generation of players.

Among those is Charles Barkley, who released this statement on hearing of Malone’s death:

“The man I called ‘Dad’ passed today. Words can’t explain my sadness. I will never know why a Hall of Famer took a fat, lazy kid from Auburn and treated him like a son and got him in shape and made him a player.

Every time I saw him I called him ‘Dad.’ I hope he knew how much I appreciated and loved him.”

And there’s this from several years ago where he recounts how much the “Chairman of the Boards” helped him early in his career:

He also left an imprint on his fans. He’s one of the reasons I fell in love with the game.  I still favor the “Malone-type” player. Can you say Joakim Noah? For me, it wasn’t just another great player who died, but one who was a big part of my childhood.

So, thank you for living, Mr. Malone. And thank you for showing me how to live.

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