CHARLES BARKLEY HAS long given credit to Moses Malone for being his role model, the veteran who called him out for being "fat and lazy" and whipping him into shape. That didn't stop Charles from having some fun at Malone's expense from time to time. Before an NBA All-Star game some years back, Barkley raised his hand in the locker room to offer up a jump-ball play that his 76ers supposedly employed when Moses was at center.
This is an article from the Sept. 21, 2015 issue
"Here's Moses in the center circle," Barkley said, grabbing the chalk. "So the ball goes up, and ... "—Barkley then scribbled four X's heading in the same direction—"the other four of us just run back on defense because we know Moses is going to lose the tap."
Malone, 60, who died in his sleep on Sunday in Norfolk, was that rare superstar who was often defined by his limitations, the most obvious being a familiarity with gravity. True, it was often pointed out that Larry Bird wasn't a leaper, but that declamation was generally followed by a listing of Bird's preternatural vision, hand-eye coordination and ambidexterity. Moses was strong and quick to the ball, but his greatest gift was his indomitability, a quality difficult to illuminate on a poster. By and large, he didn't hang from kids' walls or get conjured up on the playground. Not a lot of kids dreamed of being Moses.
But an argument could be made that if you had to choose one center to win one game, you would go for the three-time MVP over all others, not because he was better offensively than Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, better defensively than Bill Russell, or better athletically than Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson. He was none of those. But over 48 minutes Moses would absolutely not be intimidated or outworked, no matter the opponent.
Malone's numbers are not staggering in the manner of Chamberlain's—whose are?—but he's near the top of every category that's relevant to centers (in the NBA he's eighth in scoring, fifth in rebounding, 24th in blocked shots) because he was so good for so long. Moses was the first high schooler to jump straight to the pros and the only one other than LeBron James to dominate in his first season, having averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds with the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1974--75. It was the first of his 15 double-double seasons—one more than Chamberlain, three more than Abdul-Jabbar.
Malone was best known for his rebounding, a product of his inexhaustible effort, his knowledge of backboard caroms and angles and a proclivity, some said, to miss his own shot on purpose, then go after the ball. His scoring was aided by an underrated part of his game—he got to the line and made it count. Over his 21 professional seasons, Moses made 76.0% of his foul shots, better than other "touch" centers such as Patrick Ewing (74.0%) and Abdul-Jabbar (72.1%), and let's not even bring up Wilt or Shaquille O'Neal, notorious stonemasons each.
In one respect Malone was the polar opposite of another 76ers center who died recently and way too young: Darryl Dawkins. (Moses and Dawkins just missed being teammates in Philly. Moses arrived before the championship year of 1982--83, one week after Dawkins was shipped to the New Jersey Nets.) Dawkins talked willingly and lucidly—as lucidly as a man from the planet Lovetron could—while Moses, when inclined to speak, was reliably, and mumblingly, unintelligible. In 1986, after he had been traded to the Bullets, I approached him for an interview, and he said something that sounded like "Uohmeacovah." I asked him to repeat it, asked him again, asked him again, and finally Moses stared down at me—6'10" of imperiousness—and said, distinctively: "You. Owe. Me. A Cover." Two years earlier SI had interviewed Moses for a story that was slated for the cover but never ran.
Moses was a reminder that speaking the King's English is a barometer of neither the intelligence nor the honor one brings to the game. We should ask our athletes to play with heart and ferocity, and this Moses Malone did, to a greater extent than anyone I can think of. He was on five SI covers—but, Moses, we still probably owe you one.
Hall of Fame D
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