The Chairman of The Boards

<h3>Moses Malone Did More Than Help Doctor J Win His Only Title And Facilitate The Transition from Hakeem To The Dream. He Also Re-Wrote The Ten Commandments of Basketball.</h3>

My previous column touched on the endearing relationship that Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon had with his mentor, the inimitable NBA legend Moses Malone, and how that friendship accelerated Hakeem’s transition from a raw prospect into one of the most devastating and delicious weapons the game has ever seen.

So naturally, I’ve spent the past week meditating on Moses. I find myself disappointed that his contributions to our beloved game, and his historical significance, like many of the game’s former titans, are mere footnotes, if even that, for many young kids whose interest in hoops was sparked by guys like an Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter.

Don’t get me wrong, I love those guys. But when I fell in love with basketball as a kid, due to the brilliance of guys like Magic Johnson, Bernard King, George “The Iceman” Gervin and Julius Erving, among others, I was also very curious about those who came before them. I’d often walk long distances or catch a bus en route to a very exciting place, the local library, to ingest any book I could find on the history of the game.

I don’t see that same hunger to be well- read, informed and knowledgeable today. And just a quick FYI, please do not support any arguments in an intelligent a sports debate based on something you just read on The Bleacher Report, because it was probably written by some 16-year-old kid in Des Moines who, in addition to being on punishment, was simply regurgitating something he just saw on SportsCenter or in his local paper.

Maybe I’m just talking to the wrong kids. Or maybe I’m in the beginning stages of being that crotchety old dude who romanticizes over the past and unfairly discredits the current 25 and under demographic.

Or maybe, with so many folks feeling naked without being tethered to their smart phones, dreaming their lascivious music video fantasies that simply revolve around “Money, Hoe’s and Clothes”, or immersed in the virtual reality and mind-deadening abyss of video games, Jersey Shore or Real Hip Hop Atlanta, I’m actually correct.

Either way, when I walk into a high school gym and see a tenacious, relentless, ferocious rebounder with an unrelenting work ethic, I’m always tempted to advise him to study Moses’ work.

Because those are the words – Tenacious! Relentless! Ferocious Rebounder! Unrelenting Work Ethic! – that immediately come to mind when I think of one of the game’s true pioneers.

He was the modern era’s trailblazer, the first who went from ashy to classy, directly from high school to the pros, and blossomed into one of the greatest big men the game has ever seen.

Moses Eugene Malone grew up in poverty and was raised by his mother, Mary, in Petersburg, Virginia. Mary, a nurse’s aide, raised her son in a two-bedroom row house that was less than a block away from the Virginia Avenue playground.

By the time he was 12 years old, the young boy, who was admittedly shy and clumsy, already stood 6-foot-3. The game of football, with the religious fervor it engenders in certain parts of the southern American tapestry, held his interest early on.

But once he cradled a basketball in his hands, the single-mindedness and determination that proved a hallmark to his later success became evident.

“When Mo first started playing on Virginia Avenue, he was still growing fast and he was very awkward,” his close friend David Pair told Sports Illustrated’s John Schulian in 1974 during Malone’s senior year in high school. “They used to laugh at him and beat him all the time. Now when we have games there, we make Mo agree not to come inside. He has to shoot from outside, or we don’t let him play.”

“I didn’t pick up a basketball until I was 13 and a half, but I worked hard even then,” Moses said in a 1984 Playboy Magazine interview. “Every day after school, I’d go over to the playground and play ball until about two in the morning. The only trouble I had was I kept wearing out my shoes. Back then, I didn’t get no high-priced shoes; I had to get them old P.F. Flyers. I’d wear them for about five days and then it was time for a new pair.”

The 6-foot-11 man-child led Petersburg High School to 50 straight victories and back-to-back state championships, initiating an avalanche of salivating recruiters that descended on the town.

Howard Garfinkel, the legendary scout and Five-Star All-Star Camp czar, once said, “Moses is the first kid that’s been bigger than the camp itself. He’s the best we ever had.”

At Five Star, players were ranked from one to five stars, with five being an elite player with remarkable potential. Moses earned a ranking of seven stars from Garfinkel.

One of my friends, role models, advisors and mentors, the visionary college basketball coaching legend, Mr. George Raveling, who so graciously allows me the privilege of sharing my thoughts in this esteemed space, once said, during Malone’s senior year in high school when he averaged a mind-boggling 36 points, 26 rebounds and 10 blocked shots a game, that “Moses will re-write the Ten Commandments of Basketball.”

In the first ever McDonald’s Capital Classic game in 1974, which matched a team of U.S. All-Stars against the best from the Washington, D.C. area, perimeter guard play was on prominent display as the New York City sensation, Butch Lee from Dewitt Clinton High School, earned Most Valuable Player honors with his electrifying 23 points. But Moses grabbed 17 rebounds and rejected many a weak shot into the stands, while altering countless others.

Over 300 colleges offered the big man a scholarship. A lot of them came bearing gifts while dangling cars, cash, houses, girls and the moon. Oral Roberts himself, the fantastically wealthy Methodist-Pentecostal televangelist, showed up and went so far as to promise that he’d cure his mother of a bleeding ulcer if Moses attended Roberts’ eponymous university.

But Malone was innately and intelligently able to see through the slick recruiting circus almost immediately, digesting the business side of the game in ways that most couldn’t.

“Sometimes they brought me in to meet the President of the university, who talked to me like he wanted to be my father,” Moses once told Sports Illustrated’s Pat Putnam. “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?”

Malone always wore a serious expression on the court, during his recruitment and while interacting with the media. His shyness and penchant for saying only what was necessary with a deep baritone, in the speech pattern vernacular of his southern upbringing, fooled many who falsely assumed that he was dumb.

“Some people mistake that shyness for stupidity,” Virginia Commonwealth Coach Chuck Noe once said. “But he’s a lot smarter than some of the people who are recruiting him.”

While Maryland Head Coach Lefty Driesell won the recruiting war, the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association drafted Moses in the third round of the 1974 ABA draft, a selection that very few took seriously. Many saw it as a shameless marketing ploy.

Moses at the ’74 ABA Draft

But the Utah franchise pursued Moses with vigor. Suffice it to say, Lefty was not enthralled when he learned that the Stars were offering his most prized recruit a $3 million contract.

But to his credit, Driesell understood what that life-altering sum meant, looked beyond his own National Championship ambitions, and advised Malone, who’d merely been enrolled in classes for a few days in College Park, to hire an attorney that would assist him with the negotiation process.

If the Utah Stars reps initially thought the deal was a slam dunk, they were soon corrected. They’d arrived in Maryland on a Thursday with no luggage, and a deal did not get done until a week later.
“It was unreal,” Bucky Buckwalter, the Stars coach once said. “We put 932 miles on the car in six days just going between Petersburg and Washington.”

Most thought Moses wasn’t ready and didn’t have the physical toughness required for pro ball. But a small yet significant detail that was largely unknown was that he’d already had some next-level exposure the combat zone near the rim. His high school team had actually played tons of exhibition games against inmates from the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond.

“You know they were rough,” Moses told Sports Illustrated’s great writer, Roy S. Johnson, in the early 1980’s. “They had this guy called Milkman, who was bigger than I was and knew no fouls.”

When Johnson asked how Milkman acquired the nickname, Moses laughed and shook his head saying, “Because he killed one, MAN!”

During his first pro season, at a slim 215 pounds, his rebounding and defensive abilities shocked many seasoned basketball executives and journalists, men who’d been around the game for years.

“He’s so quick it’s unbelievable,” Buckwalter told Sports Illustrated’s Pat Putnam. “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. 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.”

That quickness was augmented by innate instincts, almost a telepathy, around the rim. And the question of him being able to take the pounding quickly lost its mystery.

“There is the matter of toughness,” Buckwalter continued. “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!’ ”

As a 19-year-old rookie, he averaged 19 points and 15 rebounds per game.

After another year with the Spirits of St. Louis ABA franchise, the leagues merged and Moses wound up a Houston Rocket. In his first year in the NBA, he shattered Paul Silas’ offensive rebounds record (though the stat was not kept when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain played) and led the Rockets to the Eastern Conference Finals (they were in the East back then).

By his fifth pro year, which would have been his rookie campaign had he stayed in college at Maryland, at the age of 23, he was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player while putting up 25 points and 18 rebounds a night. Keep in mind that the incredible Kareem Abdul Jabbar was considered, hands down, the league’s best center during the 1970’s. But from the moment Moses entered the league, Kareem’s status was no longer a given.

Without going into his accomplishments, which would keep me here all day, understand that Malone dominated the paint on par with the best of the best. In 1983, after being named MVP again the previous year, he took one of the greatest teams ever, the Philadelphia 76′ers with Doctor J, Mo Cheeks, Andrew Toney a.k.a. “The Boston Strangler”, and Bobby Jones to the crescendo of the game.

Moses in the City of Brotherly Love.

The 1983 Sixers lost only one playoff contest as Moses averaged 26 points and 16 rebounds per game during the postseason. The previous year, without Moses, Philly lost to the Lakers in the Finals. In ‘83, he dominated Kareem on the boards as Philly swept the series, almost making good on his infamous “Fo, Fo, Fo” prediction for the postseason. (For folks that don’t speak fluent ‘Moses’, he’d predicted that the Sixers would sweep, winning four games in a row against each opponent to win the title while going undefeated in the postseason)

He was a professional’s professional for 21 years, one of the best big men, leaders, defenders and rebounders, particularly on the offensive end, that the game has and will ever see.

And the fantastic part was that he so willingly shared of himself with his protégé Hakeem, who would go on to coagulate into a vision basketball had never seen before.

Who was the first player in team sports history to earn $1 Million per year? Ummm, that would be Moses Malone. The first to earn $2 Million per? Again, the answer would be Moses. Who made it possible for LeBron, Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant to take the express train from the high school prom to the NBA Hall of Fame? Moses!

He wasn’t the fastest and didn’t jump the highest. And, by starting center standards, he wasn’t very tall. He simply showed up every day with his lunch bucket and became the Gold Standard, a guy who dominated a game through offensive rebounding and sheer will, a guy who, indeed, re-wrote The Basketball Commandments.