I was on a long and quiet subway ride home with an old girlfriend years ago when my thoughts turned to a familiar diversion: listing my favorite all-time Sixers. I was in the middle of a heated debate with myself about whether I would dare slot Mo Cheeks ahead of Julius Erving, when my then-girlfriend interrupted me. She was born and raised in China and, as we shared no pop cultural references whatsoever, our conversations tended to be of the deeper variety. That night she asked me, from a dead start, “What is something you can have in your life that will be like an anchor, so you will not feel lost?”
Today I am feeling a little lost, because the Sixer who was always No. 1 on my list of favorites, no matter how many times I reviewed my choices in my head, died overnight.
I had been a fan of Moses Malone even before he came to Philadelphia. He first impressed me in 1981, when he led the Rockets to a playoff defeat of the hated Lakers. That win felt like revenge for Magic Johnson destroying the Sixers in the previous season’s Finals with that Game 6 where he played every position on the floor.
Then in the summer of ‘82 my favorite non-Sixer actually came to play for my favorite team, and the union went as well as I could have hoped for. With Moses at center, Philadelphia romped through the league, going 65-17 in the regular season. The playoffs were even better. Moses made his “fo, fo fo” prediction and the team nearly fulfilled it; only one close loss in the Eastern Conference semis prevented them from sweeping through the post-season. In the Finals they took down Magic’s Lakers four games in a row. Every sports fan should experience a season as satisfying as that one.
I was all aboard. I owned several Moses Malone T-shirts and I hung a poster of him on my bedroom wall, there in a leafy suburb of Philadelphia. The poster was beyond corny. In it Moses wore a robe and held a staff shaped like a Nike swoosh and stared expressionlessly at the camera as the floorboards of the basketball court parted before him.
As a 13-year-old back then I even modeled what little basketball game I had on Moses’. Though I was not athletic or skilled enough to go out for my high school team, my best years of neighborhood basketball came when I was imitating his moves in the post, using the little dips and feints at which he was so expert to get position down low.
(Suffice to say that in the 90s, when I attempted to borrow the crossover of my second-favorite all-time Sixer, Allen Iverson, I did not find the same success.)
I heard the news of Moses Malone’s death this morning, as I was about to tell an impossibly sweet seven-year-old girl to find her Crocs so we could go meet her mom for a post-yoga class brunch. The word came not from TV or Twitter but in simultaneously arriving emails from my brother and an old friend who heard the name Moses Malone and thought of me.
It is funny to me that Moses and I should be linked in anyone’s mind, because we had so little in common. Moses was not particularly eloquent, at least with the media, and relentless. I, on the other hand, was bookish and tired easily.
I’ve heard it said that the identity of your favorite athlete is more a function of your age than anything else. Whoever your sports hero is, you will find that person when you are in sixth or eighth grade, or somewhere thereabouts. That’s certainly how it was with me. Jahlil Okafor, the latest Sixers’ savior, can lead the team to five titles, but I don’t see myself ever hanging his poster anywhere in the home.
Obituaries for Moses will laud his accomplishments (three MVP awards, his five NBA rebounding titles, his career offensive rebounding record, and his status as a Hall of Famer) and his rare work ethic. As well they should. I am sure that when I was a kid I talked up these sorts of virtues as well.
Looking back now I believe the reason I idolized Moses Malone was simpler. He helped a sports-loving teenager enjoy the high of feeling like a winner. In what can be a difficult time of life, he was that elusive anchor.
I wish I still had one of those old Moses Malone T-shirts. I would love to wear one today.
Bill Syken, a former reporter and editor for Sports Illustrated, is the author of the novel “Hangman’s Game.”