To the roll of drums, the Utah Stars began to peel away their warmup suits. For 10 days they had been training in rural northern Utah, in the gym of North Rich High School near Sweetwater Park Resort, and it was time to break camp. The only matter left on the pre-exhibition season schedule was an intrasquad game, something for the locals. As the drums rolled on, a squad of cheerleaders swept onto the floor, placed hands over young hearts and began to lead the crowd through the Pledge of Allegiance. On the sidelines one of the Stars, a 6'11" youngster of 19, a few months out of high school himself, covered his heart and joined in. Suddenly, thunk! A teammate sent an elbow crashing into his ribs. He gasped, surveyed the other Stars, all of whom were in various poses of nonattention, and quickly became a model of indifference. Moses Malone had been introduced to professional basketball.
Since that moment late in September, if the youngster from Virginia has ever again forgotten that he is being paid to play, no one has noticed. Not that he is tearing up the ABA, or even coming close. He is scoring, but not all that often, and hardly ever when he is away from the basket. His hands could be better and he does not always remember to move on offense, which means he will play whole halves and not touch the ball offensively more than four times. Except when he goes to the boards. There, and on defense, he's been something else.
"He's so quick it's unbelievable," says Bucky Buckwalter, the Stars' new coach and the man primarily responsible for luring Malone away from the University of Maryland last August. Bucky and a bundle of greenbacks, you understand. "One minute he's just loping down the court, maybe a little more than halfway, and then you blink and there he is coming down with a rebound," Bucky says. "He just stuns me. Here he is only an inch or so under seven feet and he's as quick as a guard. Hell, he's quicker than a lot of guards."
Add to that quickness an instinct for moving into position almost before the ball is put into the air, and tremendous spring, and it is hardly surprising that Malone has taken down 65 rebounds in the Stars' first six games. Twenty-seven of those were off the offensive boards. Six games, playing just 195 of the possible 288 minutes.
"There is the matter of toughness," says Buckwalter, grinning. "They know he's young and a lot of guys have really laid it on him, trying to intimidate him. Elbows, knees, grabbing, shoving, the whole bag. And he's given it right back. That kid doesn't back up an inch. I knew what was going to happen, so I told our guys to go after him right from the first day of practice. We had to find out. They used to kid him by calling him 'the rookie.' Then one day after a rough workout he walked into the locker room and told them, 'You guys can keep on calling me a rookie, but I'm the toughest damn rookie you ever saw.' "
For Malone, playing in the ABA is probably a picnic compared to what he went through the past year or so. First there was the assault by recruiters from three hundred dens of higher learning, most of them bearing gifts. "They dragged me to as many as 24 schools," says Malone with the disillusionment of a youngster who has discovered that the world can be one great rip-off. "Sometimes they brought me in to meet the president of the university, who talked to me like he wanted to be my father. That made me laugh. They fixed me up with dates. Then when I got home those girls called me long distance and pretended they were in love with me. What kind of stuff is that?"
Perhaps the strangest of these episodes occurred when Oral Roberts showed up at Malone's home in Petersburg, Va. and offered to cure his mother of her bleeding ulcer. Roberts left the Malones in no doubt that his university would be a fine place for Moses to play basketball. What kind of stuff is that?
In April, Malone became the third-round pick of the Stars. A high school graduate: no one took the choice terrifically seriously.
Then the Stars' first-round pick studied their offer and decided to further his education and the second draft choice was signed by the NBA. In June, Malone complicated matters by signing a letter of intent with Lefty Driesell at the University of Maryland. Meanwhile in Utah a new group headed by Jim Collier agreed to buy the Stars from Bill Daniels. "O.K.," said Daniels to Collier. "You run the club, you'll be running it soon anyway. Just consult me before you make any major moves."
Collier decided to go after Malone and figured who could be a better teacher for the youngster than Zelmo Beaty, the team's veteran center who had indicated he would be much happier anywhere but in Utah. Collier offered Beaty $150,000 to stay: $125,000 as a player, another $25,000 to become coach. Beaty was insulted. "If they had made it $100,000 to play and $50,000 to coach I might have taken it," he said.' 'But $25,000 to coach? No way." Then he left for the Los Angeles Lakers. Now the situation was really critical.
"O.K., let's go get Malone," said Collier to Buckwalter, who at that time was director of player personnel, and to Arnie Ferrin, the general manager. They left for Petersburg on Thursday, Aug. 22. But first Collier had Dick Sadler, George Foreman's manager who is listed as one of the Stars' new owners, call Malone and tell him that they were coming.
In Virginia, the Utah trio checked into a Holiday Inn 15 miles north of Petersburg. "There are at least six toll booths between where we stayed and Malone's house," Buckwalter says. "Arnie and Jim thought we'd sign Moses quickly and each had brought just two pairs of clean socks. I knew better. I brought enough for two weeks." By the time Malone finally signed the following Wednesday Buckwalter says he used $92 in quarters for tolls.
On Friday afternoon, Buckwalter drove to Malone's house, picked up Moses and his mother and drove them back to the motel, where they discussed the contract for an hour and a half. The next day, Saturday, Buckwalter drove 2½ hours to Driesell's home in College Park, Md. to show him the contract and as a courtesy to tell him that the Stars were trying to steal his recruiting prize. The Maryland coach was pleasant, but not very, and he began making quick trips to Petersburg himself. Two Washington, D.C. attorneys—Donald Dell and Lee Fentress—entered the fray, first as advisers, later as agents for Malone, and around-the-clock negotiations began.
"It was unreal," said Buckwalter. "We put 932 miles on the car in six days just going between Petersburg and Washington. We had an outpost on a hill overlooking Moses' house. We'd drive up there, park the car, check the layout to see who was around, and then go in. Once we had to crawl through the backyard and we were attacked by a big dog. At least I think it was big. When you are crawling they all look big."
Finally at 6 p.m. on Wednesday in the lawyers' office in Washington, Malone turned to Dell and Fentress and said, "I've decided to turn pro. You can stop being my unofficial advisers. Be my agents."
The actual signing didn't take place until later in the evening. "Once we became Malone's agents in fact," says Fentress, "the negotiations got serious." At 10:30 all parties said yes, jumped into a car and went to a Ramada Inn at Rosslyn, Va., where Malone signed. In Washington you have to be 21 to sign a contract, in Virginia only 18.
At his home in Jersey City, Gerald Govan, the Stars' 32-year-old forward, perhaps in his last season, heard the news and was dismayed. Govan was worried that the jump from high school to the pros might end in disaster for Malone. "I thought—a high school kid, going to be around a bunch of older guys," Govan says now. "I had to wonder if he'd enjoy it. I wondered how it would affect him. My wife and I debated it. She's into that education thing." Govan grinned. "Then I thought—maybe it won't bother him because maybe all us older guys are really just kids playing a kids' game. Just immature. Then Moses came to camp and he was a pleasant surprise. Sure, he's got a lot to learn but right now he's as good as any college star coming in. The guys don't think of him as a 19-year-old kid. Just as a player. It's a tribute to him and to his ability.
"People ask if all the money he supposedly got makes the older guys a little uptight. No way. It's almost like rape, taking a kid out of high school. He really deserves four more years of school, and if he doesn't get it he should be compensated. The team is doing poorly [at week's end, the Stars were 1-5] and people are starting to call him Super Baby, blaming him. It's not fair. We've lost Zelmo, Jimmy Jones and Willie Wise. Moses is doing a lot more than anyone expected. He's got a lot of poise. He's cool. Maybe too cool. I hope he doesn't emulate the veterans too much. I think we overdo the super-cool thing. I'd like to see him keep some of that high school enthusiasm. It's refreshing."
And Malone? Well, he doesn't know if he's being super cool or not. He is, he says, just doing his thing. "I never was the kind who'd let himself get nervous," he says. "Like when we played the Nets. People asked me about Julius Erving, if I thought about him before the game. Erving is a good player. But I was thinking about me, not him. About what I wanted to do. All you can do is relax. It's my thing."
So far, doing his thing, Malone has scored 79 points in six games. He is the Stars' only 50% shooter, but he hasn't taken very many challenging shots. But all the shots are there. The rebounding is amazing, his defense just a little less so. By the time the class of '78 graduates he'll have four years' experience, and he should be something else in all phases of the game.
"He learns," says Buckwalter. "Boy, does he learn!"