Remembering Moses Malone

Moses Malone died this week at the age of 60 due to cardiovascular disease. Malone ranks 5th on the list of all-time NBA rebounders and 3rd on the combined NBA/ABA list, behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. In scoring, he’s in 8th place in the NBA and 7th if you count the ABA, where Moses played during his first two years as a pro.

When it comes to offensive rebounds, no one in basketball history has ever been as good. Malone tops both the NBA list (by more than 2,000 boards) and the combined list by more than 2,500).

Malone stood 6-10, about average for a center. He had smallish hands and was not a great natural athlete by NBA standards. How, then, did Moses grab so many offensive rebounds?

He did it with strength and desire. The first time I saw him play (he was with Houston at the time), I noticed that Malone took positions when his team shot that normally would be considered almost impossible to rebound from — e.g., nearly under the basket. That’s inside position, which is what you want in general, but not a position amenable to grabbing the ball when it bounces away from the rim. With his great strength, however, Moses was able to body up against the defensive player, reach back, and, as often as not, snare the ball.

Had he taken outside position, like most players have to do on offense, Malone probably could also have gotten the rebound by pushing, but likely would have been called for a foul. In addition, inside position made it easier for him to score off of the rebound.

And, of course, Malone went for every rebound for the 40-plus minutes he played.

Where did the desire for offensive rebounds come from? Malone attributed it to his high school days. His team’s wins were so lopsided that the only way he could get the ball from his guards was to rebound their missed shots.

Moses Malone hailed from Petersburg, Virginia where he was raised in basically a shack by a single mom who worked for the minimum wage in a nursing home. In 1974, he was the most heavily-recruited high school basketball player in the nation.

Lefty Driesell of the University of Maryland won the recruiting battle, but lost the war when Malone signed a professional contract with the Utah Stars of the ABA just before the start of the school year.

Maryland, led by John Lucas, went to the Elite Eight that season. Moses averaged 19 points and 14.5 rebounds in the ABA and was rookie-of-the-year. It’s no stretch to suppose that Maryland might well have won the NCAA title had Malone played at College Park that season.

Driesell took the loss of Malone — the first basketball player to jump directly from high school to the pros — hard, but he steered Malone to an agent to make sure Moses got a fair deal. The two remained friends for life.

The lefthander appeared on local sports talk radio this week to remember Moses. Naturally, there were great stories to be told.

For example, when Malone was in high school, Driesell asked him how he found worthy competition in the St. Petersburg’s area. Malone replied that he went to the state penitentiary and locked horns with a beast of a player. Lefty, always looking for a good big man, asked for the name. Moses replied that the guy goes by “The Milkman.” Why? Because he killed the milkman.

Lefty did some research and found out The Milkman’s name. However, he was unable to persuade the governor of Virginia — probably a University of Virginia fan — to release the gentleman.

After two years in the ABA, Malone moved on the the NBA. As the result of a convoluted process during which several teams basically rejected his services (Malone had been injured in his second ABA season), he ended up in Houston.

In his first season with the Rockets, as a 21 year-old, Malone averaged 13 rebounds a game — third in the league behind Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Two seasons later, he won the first of his six rebounding crowns, averaging 17.6 per game. He also averaged more than 20 points per game, the first of the 11 consecutive times he would exceed that mark.

In 1982, Malone signed with Philadelphia as a free agent. That year, he led the league in minutes played and rebounding (15.3 per game), while scoring 24.5 points per game (down from 31.1 with Houston the previous year because he was now playing with other outstanding scorers, most notably Julius Erving).

The Sixers had been high-flying playoff flops before Malone’s arrival. Malone gave them what they needed to get over the hump, and then some.

When the playoffs for the 1982-83 season began, Moses was asked for his prediction. He answered “fo-fo-fo,” meaning that the 76ers would win each series in four games — the minimum. His prediction was off by one game.

This leads me to the frequently raised question of Malone’s articulateness. The “fo-fo-fo” story shows, I think, that Moses was quite articulate, though he didn’t articulate well.

Malone, in fact, was known for mumbling. Driesell attributes this to the fact that Moses had terrible teeth as a young man and didn’t like to expose them when he talked. He also says that Malone was more than intelligent enough about the things that mattered.

For the final word on Moses, I’ll turn to Frank Deford’s classic Sports Illustrated column from 1979:

Malone is. . .loyal to basketball. Most stars are not. They think they are, but they are not, because after a while they have deals and hypes and diversions (some of this stuff you learn in college), and all of this chips away at what they thought they were growing up to be, which is a player. It’s very subtle. . . .

Moses hasn’t even got much of a name to get in the way of his basketball. “You know what, he’s just a blue-collar worker,” John Lucas says. “That’s what Mo is, a blue-collar worker.”

No one has ever been so pure around the rack. There is an eloquence to Moses Malone, the basketball player.