If Philadelphia 76ers owner Harold Katz lit a victory cigar at Moses Malone's expense last Friday night in the Spectrum, he was smart enough not to blow the smoke in Mr. Malone's direction. The 76ers' 123-113 win over Malone and his Bullets was overdue; on three previous occasions Moses had put his personal REJECT stamp on Katz's controversial preseason trade that sent the future Hall of Fame center from Philadelphia to Washington. Despite last week's loss, Moses felt the Bullets held the upper hand. With something resembling a smile of satisfaction on his stoic face, he declared, "We still own Harold Katz."
Katz, meanwhile, still owns Jeff Ruland, the 6'10", 250-pound package of damaged goods that he traded for Malone. A swap of forwards (Terry Catledge and Cliff Robinson) and a pair of draft picks were also involved in the deal, but the crux of the matter was Malone for Ruland. And the net effect of the deal, as it stands now, is this: Bullets G.M. Bob Ferry undressed the Sixers and sold their clothes at public auction.
Ruland, who has played in only five games this season because of persistent knee problems, spent Friday night scouting the Big East tournament while Moses was exploring new ways to terrorize the Sixers. He found one while jostling for offensive position, with 6:31 left in the game, when he landed an elbow to the face of Sixers center Tim McCormick. Moses later complained that McCormick had been holding him, and he issued what amounted to a declaration of war. "They keep holding me, something's gonna happen," Malone said. "I'm through with this stuff." Because Moses had also been whistled for a first-period technical, this one brought automatic ejection, and he walked off the Spectrum floor serenaded by the first boos he has ever heard from 76er fans. "I don't mind getting booed," he said later. "Heck, my little boy boos me. My wife boos me."
Katz probably boos him, too, albeit under his breath. After the draft-day trade, Moses had vowed never to lose to the Sixers, and the vengeance scoreboard registered Moses 3, Philly O until the home team finally got to him last week. He had 22 points and 7 rebounds when he was tossed, making his four-game average against his old mates 29 points and 14 rebounds (compared with overall season marks of 24.4 and 11.8). When he returns to the Spectrum on April 13, he will surely attract a crowd, both on and off court. "They get 17,000 in here to watch me, so Harold Katz is making money off me one way or the other," says Moses.
Though Malone reduces his trade to Katzian terms—"If the owner wants you there, you'll be there," he says—there are actually several reasons why he's no longer in Philadelphia. Sixers coach Matt Guokas wanted a quick, wide-open team and never did fancy the pound-it-inside style of play that Moses requires. Moses made few friends in the front office last season when, after fracturing the orbit bone beneath his right eye with eight games left in the regular season, he returned home to Sugar Land, Texas, instead of remaining with the team during its Eastern Conference playoff series with Milwaukee. And remember that it was Malone himself who first mentioned the word "trade" during a CBS telecast. He wanted Katz to extend his six-year, $13.2 million contract, which is now in its fifth year. Katz didn't say no, but he didn't say yes, either. The relationship between an athlete and his team tends to have a life of its own, and by the end of last season this one was on a respirator.
If Ruland were healthy, the deal would not have been the unmitigated disaster it now appears to be for Philadelphia. That has been Katz's defense of the trade all along, and it may be a valid one. But even before Ruland's condition was known, there was a belief in the Sixer organization that Malone's skills had diminished. Moses is 31, but Katz has said, "He's more like 35 if you factor in the college ball he didn't play." And that line of reasoning proved to be as flawed as the positive medical reports the Sixers obtained on Ruland. Malone is, above all, a man of fierce pride; he once said that he would name himself five times on an NBA All-Hard-Work Team. In the off-season he donned a pair of protective goggles and took off a few pounds, then quickly played himself back to the lunch-pail superstar status that he shares with Larry Bird. True, Malone's field goal percentage (.451 at present) is continuing its downward spiral of the last five seasons, the result of a shot selection that's as discriminating as a bus station panhandler. But his scoring, rebounding and mere presence are the primary reasons that the Bullets (32-27 through Sunday) are enjoying their best season since 1978-79, when they made it to the NBA final.
Malone has made a difference off the court, too. Home attendance has increased by almost 3,000 per game and ticket revenue is up 72%. He represents a breakthrough for the Bullets, who in recent years have been not only a mediocre team but an extraordinarily boring one as well.
Part of Malone's great value stems from a willingness to play his role as the king of pain. Hamstring, ankle, knee and finger injuries have plagued him at various times this season, yet he leads Washington in minutes played. On the day before the Sixer game, he stood outside the Bullets practice gym at Bowie (Md.) State College wearing a neck brace, evidence of an injury suffered the night before against the Nets. While his teammates practiced, Moses was in traction in the Bullet locker room. But the brace was gone by tip-off time the next evening, and Malone waved off any questions about it. "I like to play the way I do," said Moses, fingering the brace. "See, Kareem doesn't look like this because he doesn't do the banging. That's the difference between us."
Moses scoffs at talk that he's slowing down. "Four more years after this one," he says. "I'm still hungry. I still want it."
But is this team, built almost solely around him and All-Star guard Jeff Malone, strong enough to feed that hunger? With all of Philly's problems, the Sixers and Bullets were tied for second in the Atlantic Division as of Sunday.
"There's a lot more pressure on me here," Moses acknowledges. "I was surrounded by great players in Philly. I had games where I could get 10 points and we'd still win. If Jeff and I have off games now, we probably won't win.
"But we're coming around. Manute [Bol] is becoming an intimidator. We've got depth, youth, talent. If we can put it together, there are teams that had better watch out in the playoffs."
Might they include the team that let you go, Moses? "Most definitely," he said. "Most definitely."