Remembering Moses Malone: Great player, unforgettable man

INGLEWOOD, CA - 1988:  Moses Malone #2 of the Atlanta Hawks stands on the court during a NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California in 1988.  (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

INGLEWOOD, CA – 1988: Moses Malone #2 of the Atlanta Hawks stands on the court during a NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California in 1988. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

INGLEWOOD, CA - 1988: Moses Malone #2 of the Atlanta Hawks stands on the court during a NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California in 1988. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

Moses Malone, 1955-2015. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

I saw Moses Malone’s 11th professional game. He and I were both 19. I was a sophomore at the University of Kentucky. He was a millionaire.

Moses was from Petersburg, Va., and in 1974 he was the nation’s No. 1 recruit. He signed with Maryland, which was coached by Lefty Driesell, still trying to make the Terrapins the UCLA of the East. Had Moses actually matriculated in College Park, Maryland might well have claimed the 1975 NCAA title won by … why, UCLA. (He would have teamed with John Lucas.) But Moses didn’t go to college.

He took $3.3 million to sign with the Utah Stars. Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby would soon follow, but Moses was the first to jump from high school to the pros.

That’s correct. The Utah Stars, not the Utah Jazz. The Stars were an ABA franchise, and even though the league with the red, white and blue ball was on its last legs, it still wasn’t above making a splash. By the next season, Moses was playing with the Spirits of St. Louis, the Stars having folded. But he was a Star when he came to Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 6, 1974.

My roommate and I — being UK students, we followed college recruiting — bought tickets to see the Stars play the Kentucky Colonels, then the ABA’s best team. (Based in Louisville, the Colonels played a handful of games in Lexington.) My first impression of Moses was how skinny he seemed alongside the massive Artis Gilmore. Moses, who scored 15 points in a loss that night, wouldn’t be skinny much longer.

Wilt had the Dipper Dunk and the finger-roll and the banked fallaway jumper. Kareem had the Sky Hook. Hakeem had the Dream Shake. Moses never had a staple offensive move, and it never mattered. He once told Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated: “Anybody can shoot a jump shot.”

He also said: “I just go to the rack.”

Moses Malone will stand forever as the greatest pure rebounder in the history of basketball. When he became a Hawk, we’d giggle over what were known as “Moses Rebounds”: He’d grab somebody’s miss; he’d blow the putback; he’d grab his own miss and follow it home. One sequence, two points, two offensive rebounds. We always wondered whether that was by design.

By the time Moses joined the Hawks, he wasn’t quite as irresistible as he’d been with the Rockets, with whom he won his first two MVP trophies, and the 76ers, whom he’d famously powered to their long-deferred “We Owe You One” championship. He was 33 when he signed here as a free agent in the summer of 1989, and his was a 33 with miles on it. (Remember, he’d turned pro at 19.) That’s not, however, to say the man still couldn’t play. He could.

Moses average 16.5 points and (but of course!) 10 rebounds in three seasons as a Hawk. For the team, alas, those were failed seasons. Moses arrived in tandem with Reggie Theus, and the two were supposed to supply the oomph to nudge the Hawks — who’d just lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis in Boston Garden — to the top of the East if not the league. Didn’t happen.

Kevin Willis hurt his knee and missed the 1988-89 season. Theus never meshed with teammates or coaches. Moses kept his head down and did his job — Moses wasn’t much for talking — but his power game on the low block was at odds with the crash-the-lane forays of Dominique Wilkins and Doc Rivers. The Hawks were eliminated in Game 5 of Round 1 by the Milwaukee Bucks on a stunning Sunday when the plodding Paul Mokeski was the center who made a difference.

Everything else was diminishing returns. Moses left after the 1990-91 season, by which point Mike Fratello had stepped aside as coach and Bob Weiss was in charge. (Theus was gone after one year.) I do regret not getting to cover Moses in his prime. I do not regret the time I spent around him here.

That part about him not being much for talking? That was true, except for those rare occasions when it wasn’t. When Moses got going, he was among the funniest men I’ve ever known. (Belying his stoic image, he had a wonderful deep voice, and his eyes would dance when he was telling a story.) I was witness to Charles Barkley — whom I’d known since he was an Auburn freshman — and Moses ripping one another for a half-hour. I’ve never laughed so hard.

Moses, then a Hawk, stuck his head in the Sixers’ locker room to say hi to his former mates. I was sitting with Charles, who said: “Hey, Mo. Did you come to visit your hair?” (By that time, Moses’ hairline was tracking north.) And they were off.

Moses recalled the Hawaiian junket he and Barkley had shared. Seems they were treated to a round of golf. “They asked him what his handicap was,” Moses said, warming to the tale. “He said 12.”

Here Moses paused for effect. “He shot … ”

Longer pause, greater effect.

“A hundred and FIFTEEN! Hit SEVEN balls in the WATER! A hundred and FIFTEEN!!!”

All the Sixers were laughing so hard as to dislocate something. (It wasn’t often Barkley was one-upped.) It was surely no accident that the Hawks won by 42 points that night. The visitors had spent themselves on pregame hilarity.

Everyone who was around the Hawks had a Moses story. The late Jeff Denberg, who covered the Hawks for the ol’ AJC, remembered Moses bringing his sons into the locker room and introducing them as “Harvard” and “Yale” — because that’s where the non-collegian planned to send his offspring.

Steve Holman, venerable voice of the Hawks, did an interview with Moses in which the latter spoke of the blame game ongoing after the team had fallen short of expectations. “Last year it was Theus,” Moses said. “This year it’s me. Someone’s got to scape the goat.”

Dominique offers this. Halfway through his first season here, Moses looked over and asked, “Who’s that little dude?” He pointed to a guy walking through the locker room wearing a suit.

“That’s Brian Hill,” Wilkins said.

Moses asked what Hill did. “He’s an assistant coach,” Wilkins said.

“Oh,” Moses said.

That was Moses Malone. He cared nothing for nuance. He just went to the rack. He wasn’t the greatest talent, but he became one of the game’s greatest players because he was its hardest worker. He died Sunday at age 60. There was never a player quite like him. There won’t be another.

Reader Comments 0

29 comments
SportsTopFan Sports
SportsTopFan Sports

E X C E L L E N T  article AJC Mark Bradley ! ! !


Moses Eugene Malone was a GREAT, GREAT, GREAT basketball player.


Rest In Peace (RIP)  ! ! !

B_D
B_D

I remember on a program once that Barkley credited Moses with saving his career.   He said when he was in his 2nd year Moses told him he was "fat and lazy".   That made him change is diet and begin to workout with the big fellow.  It was not long after that Barkley worked off the fat and was able to become the Hall Of Fame player he is.

JackPod
JackPod

The 1983 Sixers starting 5: Bobby Jones, Dr. J, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, and Maurice Cheeks. Awesome!

Savdon
Savdon

This:  "Moses kept his head down and did his job..." 

 And he did it well.

I suspect those who knew him best, when they think of him, they will smile.  What more could one ask for?


JackClemens
JackClemens

I was a huge Sixers fan during the Doctor J era. All three centers from that time have now died, Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins and now Moses Malone.

MaybeMaybeNot
MaybeMaybeNot

Moses brought the 76ers to the Promised Land!

Fillmore West
Fillmore West

Thanks, Mark. I was lucky enough to live in the Philadelphia area in '83, and root for that great team and their great, tireless, hard-working center. As you said, a great player, an unforgettable man.

I'll never forget a moment in the championship locker room, with the trophy soon to be presented, champagne spraying, lots of noise and carrying on, and there's Moses with a tie added to his sweaty uniform, sparkle in his eye, standing behind whoever was interviewing at the moment, and he half leans in to say to his wife Alfreda (I believe) out in TV land, "How you like me now, 'Freda?" with a glint in his eye and a bit of exaggerated swagger...The king of the world at that moment, and he's showing off and flirting with his wife/girlfriend. That was such a lovely and fitting moment for such a hard-working no-nonsense kind of guy. It captured so much of him.

It's such a shame he's gone so young. He was one of those people you wished all the best.

My condolences to family and friends, on this very painful loss.

Thanks, Moses.

cloudodust
cloudodust

Basically quiet, unassuming. A player that played. My sympathies.

The-Truth
The-Truth

Nice write-up Mark. Your message radiated so much so, It was obvious it came from the heart.

To the family of Moses Malone: 

With deepest sympathy and Love,

From The Truth

billt50
billt50

Fine player and may he rest in peace as he certainly gave his all on the court. A previous comment mentioned 'fo-fo-fo' and he/she was right to say should have been 'fo-fi-fo'. There is a cool jazzy type song from the group 'Pieces of a Dream' from that time frame of the fo-fi-fo name that mentions Mo Malone in deference and respect. Check it out

JSSN
JSSN

I'm glad you mentioned his professionalism and work ethic. I'll never forget that run he went on in 1980 going 1981. You'll never see the likes of that again from an American born big man. Rest Well Big Mo!

Rick_James
Rick_James

One of my all time favorites along with the recently passed Darryl Dawkings...Rest in peace guys.

DawgVoiceofReason
DawgVoiceofReason

It was thrilling when the Hawks brought Moses to Atlanta,  We were sure he was going to push us over the top and win the NBA championship.  He gave it a great try but it just wasn't enough.  When Theus didn't pan out that sort of doomed the whole thing, but Moses made it a fun ride.


I too remember his way of rebounding that did seem to lead to multiple rebounds in a short period of time.  He also was a master at drawing fouls and making sure the refs saw that he had been fouled. I've never seen anything like it.


I'm proud and glad he played for the Hawks; one of the all-time greats!


RIP Moses Malone.

ChefTimDix
ChefTimDix

@DawgVoiceofReason We really thought we had bought a championship and even had a parade...


Before the season started!


Reggie was Josh in the corner with his hand up before Josh..


At least Josh never sweated the jerri curl.

JSSN
JSSN

@ChefTimDix

Fratello over coached that team. He had no idea what he was doing with 2 players who needed the ball on the low block. Moreover, he kept pushing him (Theus) out to the three point line. He was a shooter, not a long range shooter, just like Andrew Toney.

DrPhill
DrPhill

Nice article, and I'm not a basketball fan.

Ned Ludd
Ned Ludd

Thanks Mark...thoughts and prayers to his friends and family. 

slydawg
slydawg

Character, integrity, maximizing talent .... All the elements that are missing in today's sports .... In shock that all these greats are passing away at such a young age.

Judetheobtuse
Judetheobtuse

I have heard it told that one of his strategies for rebounding involved stepping on the foot of the opposing player. They couldn't even get off the ground! Anyone else heard this?

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

Fantastic article, Mark, on a great player.

Only quote I remember from Moses was before the 83 playoffs - "fo, fo, fo".  Turned out he should have said "fo, fi, fo"

drmaryb
drmaryb

Fee Fi Foe!

Wasn't this Giant Speak from a Kids Story Book?

Something like Friend or Foe?

DawgVoiceofReason
DawgVoiceofReason

@drmaryb No, "fo, fo, fo" was his way of saying the Sixers were going to win their 3 NBA playoff rounds 4 games to none.  Instead, they won 4-0, 4-1, and 4-0.

ImaNitwit
ImaNitwit

After being acquired in the summer of 1982, Malone had an MVP season for the Sixers in leading them to their first NBA title since 1967. He averaged 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds during the regular season in which the team compiled a 65-17 record.

In 13 playoff games, in which the Sixers stomped their way to the championship in three series, falling just short of Malone’s predicted “Fo, fo, fo,” Malone went for 26 points and 15.8 rebounds, garnering Finals MVP.

Two other former Sixers centers, Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, passed away recently from heart attacks also.


davidg32
davidg32

I enjoyed your story about Moses Malone, Mark.  I always wondered what would have happened had he actually gone to Maryland for a couple of years.
I've always thought that Moses Malone was the least talented great player ever.  I have a friend who's a high school basketball coach, and he always compared Malone to Darryl Dawkins.  Dawkins was an inch taller, every bit as big and strong, quicker, more athletic, could handle the ball well for a big man and had a pretty decent jump shot.  Yet Malone was a much better player, and did more to help his team win.  He did a lot of the garbage things...you write about his offensive rebounding (and his defensive rebounding was every bit as aggressive)...and how his entire attitude just seemed to be "take it to the rack".  Hakeem Olajuwan had the same sort of game, though he had a bit more variety in his offensive repertoir.  (A little more maneuverability and a softer shot inside of 15 feet or so)...but he also did a lot of things to help his team win.  Dawkins was always more entertaining, and could do some spectacular things.  But he was one of those big guys who always wanted to be a shooting guard.
I wish the Hawks had gotten Malone when he had a little more left in the tank...though I'm not sure the Hawks would have been able (willing?) to blend him into the team.  When Malone went to the 76'ers, Dr. J. gave a up a few shots and didn't go to the hoop at much, to free up the middle for Malone...and that let Philly win an NBA title.  I'm not sure Dominique would have done the same...
I agree with RangeRover...we can all be proud Malone was an Atlanta resident.

RangeRover
RangeRover

Proud to have call him an Atlanta resident.