CHICAGO – Moses Malone, the Hall of Fame center who died Sept. 13 of a heart attack, was a man of few words.
The fewest anyone in sports probably ever said about a momentous occasion were his most famous.
It was “fo, fo, fo,” Malone’s monosyllabic prediction for reporters about the 1983 playoffs with his Philadelphia 76ers.
Malone missed by one when the 76ers rumbled through the playoffs 12-1 to win their only title with Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
It was the culmination of almost a decade of Philadelphia expectations and promises since Erving joined the 76ers with the demise of the rival American Basketball Association in 1976.
The 76ers went to the NBA Finals in 1977, but they never could finish until they acquired Malone for the 1982-83 season. They immediately won the championship, sweeping Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals.
When they talk about the great centers of all time, the list starts with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, the greatest individual player and greatest team player. Then it’s generally Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the greatest longtime scorer, Shaquille O’Neal, the greatest physical force, and Hakeem Olajuwon, who had the greatest moves. Sometimes they’ll even mention George Mikan, the greatest and most dominant big man in the league’s inaugural era.
Moses’ name doesn’t come up that much, but it should.
There wasn’t a greater offensive rebounder in the history of the game. He’s still the all-time leader in offensive rebounds 20 years after he last played in the NBA. Nobody ever went to the basket—the rack, as Moses liked to say—with more fervor, determination and effect than Moses Malone.
And what a trait.
Here was a man who never gave up, never quit on the ball no matter the circumstances.
Maybe there should be a special category for Moses. He led his people like his namesake.
In many respects because he also was the first high school player to go directly from high school to the NBA. It wasn’t popular or accepted when Moses did so in 1974 with the Utah Stars of the ABA. The NBA was having nothing to do with underclassmen, and wouldn’t until Spencer Haywood sued and the courts forced them to.
Moses grew up dirt poor, barely living on more than dirt in rural Virginia.
He wasn’t well schooled, and given his tendency to avoid conversation, the consensus became he wasn’t intelligent. It was Moses’ wink at the world because he knew who he was, what he wanted, how to get it and how to succeed. Moses outsmarted many of the college kind.
“Anyone can shoot a jump shot,” he once explained. “They don’t pay me to pass.”
Though one of my favorites from Moses was when he said he would rather play for a team in the southern United States, where the climate is benign. “You live in a cold city, you got to get married,” he said.
Moses’ high school exploits were so impressive that his team won 50 straight at one point. He would play in some exhibitions one half for one team and the other half for another to make the games close.
He was recruited by American universities as intensely as perhaps any prep player ever. The rumors were so many colleges were sending illegal bribes to agents and family members to try to influence him that dozens of schools supposedly would have gone on probation had he not turned pro.
The NBA didn’t take the ABA seriously, viewing it as an outlaw league of lesser talent, though when the NBA finally took in just four ABA teams, the All-Star Game the next season had as many ABA players as NBA players. It’s why the NBA’s worst decade after the introduction of the shot clock in 1954 was the 1970s. Half the best talent was in the ABA.
Moses was dominant for the Stars, but the league soon folded and no one quite knew what to make of him. Though he had become a lumbering physical force for the 76ers, he was a skinny, springy kid back then. So New Orleans passed on the chance to take him and he went in the dispersal draft.
Portland with rights preferred Maurice Lucas, and then Moses was considered a power forward and they believed Lucas would be better. Moses went to Buffalo, which didn’t use him and dumped him off to Houston.
But there Moses found his NBA promised land. He led an average Rockets team to the 1981 finals, won two league MVP awards and led the league in rebounding three times. He decided to leave the Rockets as a free agent after the 1981-82 season.
The Rockets had the right to match the offer, but his price was too high and they ended up trading him to the 76ers. There with Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Andew Toney he delivered on the 76ers promise and was league MVP a third time, two times more than O’Neal and Olajuwon.
Perhaps because of the way his career began and the way it ended, Moses bouncing to Washington, Atlanta and Milwaukee as those three franchises sought that elusive missing piece, Moses gets overlooked.
He finished up more than 20 pro seasons with a look in at Philadelphia again and in San Antonio. He averaged 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in his career, and bettered those marks in almost 100 NBA playoff games over 12 NBA playoff years.
The joke was Malone would inflate those rebounding numbers by putting up shots, perhaps intentionally missing them, to get the rebound and score.
But he was a family anomaly with both his parents small and Moses growing to 208 cm. He had unusually small hands for an NBA star and big man. He couldn’t dunk and control the ball like even so many small guards.
So he just was relentless, working the angles off the missed shots like Dennis Rodman, coming at them like Shaq and as elusive as Hakeem.
Moses had a big heart. The day he died he was preparing to help raise money for another children’s charity, which he did much of his post playing career.
His heart didn’t hold out long enough, but if there ever was a player who represented the heart of a competitor, it was Moses Malone.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”