Moses Malone Dealt Twice before Ever Playing Minute in NBA
Buried on Page 178 of ''The Breaks of the Game,'' David Halberstam's illuminating 1981 book about professional basketball, is a telling and amusing passage underscoring the dumbfounding disposability of Moses Malone early in his Hall of Fame career.
As a result of the 1976 merger of the American Basketball Association with the N.B.A., and the dispersal of players from the folding A.B.A. teams, Malone and his hefty $300,000-a-year contract had gone to the Portland Trail Blazers. Among others, Bill Walton warned that Malone, only 21, was too talented to trade, but Portland's front office loathed to overpay for what figured to be Walton's backup at center on what turned out to be a championship team.
Halberstam wrote: ''Portland called New York and Eddie Donovan'' -- the Knicks' general manager -- ''had asked, 'Is he better than Gianelli?' ''
A little bit, apparently. John Gianelli enjoyed a modest career. Malone went on to win three Most Valuable Player Awards, power the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1983 N.B.A. title and grab 2,133 more offensive rebounds than his nearest competitor -- not including the 651 he ripped down in the A.B.A., for a grand total of 7,382.
''Most guys rebound because they have to,'' said Pat Williams, the Orlando Magic senior vice president and former 76ers general manager, who signed Malone as a free agent in 1982. ''Moses rebounded because he loved to.''
After Malone died of cardiovascular disease at age 60 last weekend in Norfolk, Va., it was persuasively argued that he was the most underappreciated great player in pro basketball history.
The Knicks might have found a few minutes for him in the late 1970s and 1980s. In fairness to Donovan, there was no A.B.A. cable package available for scouting, and he wasn't the only N.B.A. executive to think foolishly that Malone's 18 points and 14 rebounds a game as a 19-year-old rookie (right out of high school) for the Utah Stars were counterfeit, the products of an inferior renegade league.
Destined to be haunted by injuries to centers (Walton, Sam Bowie, Greg Oden), Portland dealt the extremely durable Malone to Buffalo for a first-round draft pick without ever using him in a regular-season game. Buffalo (soon to become San Diego, then the Los Angeles Clippers) auditioned Malone for six minutes in two games before shipping him to Houston for two No. 1 picks.
By the next season, Malone was averaging 19.4 points and 15 rebounds. ''Oops'' was the operative refrain heard east to west.
Del Harris, who coached Malone in Houston and Milwaukee, believed that Malone's parsimonious use of words, often garbled and possibly by design, made evaluators suspect he was not intelligent and, by extension, uncoachable.
''He was just so different,'' Harris said in a telephone interview. ''A child of the playgrounds from Petersburg, Va., who wasn't comfortable speaking, who certainly wasn't eloquent, but with no nastiness at all, no meanness, and a lot more intelligent than people back then were willing to realize.''
As Halberstam wrote, Malone, after hearing Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell try to dissuade him from turning pro by invoking God's will, was smart enough to say, ''Stop jivin' me, Coach.''
Harris added, ''There was the myth and there was the man.''
Affiliated with 10 pro franchises over 21 years, Malone knew a few people. Like many others, Harris had seen Malone -- the person he most credits for his long head-coaching career -- at the recent Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass. Less than 48 hours later, Harris received a phone call from Kevin Vergara with the news that Vergara had found Malone's body in a Norfolk hotel room after his longtime friend had not shown up for breakfast before a golf outing.
Malone was wearing a heart monitor, having seen a doctor in Houston, where he lived, after experiencing a skipped beat during a workout.
''Nobody knew, but that was Moses,'' Harris said. ''He took care of business, took care of himself.''
If Malone was celebrated for anything, it was as the ultimate inside operator, the definitive clock puncher. Williams recalled the 76ers' 1983 championship parade turning onto a packed Broad Street in Philadelphia, and a dozen or so blue-collar guys holding up their hard hats in tribute when Malone's float passed.
''That, to me, summed up Moses,'' Williams said.
It didn't completely explain him. Harris said Malone was much more athletic than given credit for. He had a first-class drop step for a short turnaround jump shot and could torture taller, more lumbering centers -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, most notably -- with quickness off the dribble. When the Rockets ran sprints, Malone would regularly beat smaller teammates to the finish.
Harris recalled Robert Reid, who was 6 feet 8 inches, once jumping up and tapping his head to the rim with a running start. Malone, at 6-10, said, ''That's nothing,'' walked over and did it from a standing position.
''That was his secret to all those offensive rebounds -- quickness off his feet, the second or third jump,'' Harris said.
Malone was not known for a signature move -- a sky hook, a power slam -- and in a league growing increasingly flamboyant, he was less than sexy as a commercial sell. Even as M.V.P. of the league and the finals in 1983, when the 76ers swept the Los Angeles Lakers, Malone was easily overlooked, if not lost, in the aura of his mercurial teammate, Julius Erving.
Malone didn't care, Williams said, as long as he got paid. He left Houston in 1982 when the 76ers offered $13 million over six years and because the Rockets' new owner, Charlie Thomas, was not about to pay Malone more than he had paid for the franchise.
Malone went to Philadelphia for a news conference to learn that Caldwell Jones -- who had been a part of a center tandem with Darryl Dawkins on strong 76ers teams that could not close the championship deal -- had been awarded to Houston by Commissioner Larry O'Brien as compensation (the rule back then) for the free-agent signing.
Williams said it had been hard to fathom that Jones, who had been Malone's teammate briefly in St. Louis with the A.B.A. Spirits, died at 64 last September and Dawkins died at 58 in August. The one championship of the era, he added, hung in the balance when Malone threatened to back out.
''He's sitting there saying, over and over, 'That's why I came, to play with Caldwell,' '' Williams said.
Harold Katz, the owner, was summoned. Malone capitulated. The first question he fielded from reporters was how he would coexist with Erving, Dr. J.
''Moses always said things twice, and he said, 'This is Doc's team; this is Doc's team,' '' Williams said, his voice endearingly mimicking Malone's. ''With Moses, it was never a dissertation, but he got his point across, just like with fo, fo and fo.''
He meant Malone's most enduring quotation, his forecast of a 76ers' four-game sweep of every 1983 playoff series, a promise that fell one defeat short. It was an unforgettable line by an easily overlooked star, who died on the opening weekend of the N.F.L. season.
''So outside of Philly, it unfortunately wasn't going to be that big a story,'' said Bob Costas, who broadcast Spirits games and had a courtside view of the young, explosive Malone.
For Costas, this was no bitterly symbolic ending, or at least not the one he chose to embrace. He had last seen Malone at a Sprits reunion in St. Louis in April, hosted by Daniel and Ozzie Silna, the team's co-owners, who negotiated a lucrative lifetime deal related to N.B.A. television revenue in exchange for folding the team.
''I believe that all surviving members of the franchise were there, but there was one remarkable aspect,'' Costas said. ''Of all the people that night who got up to speak, the most voluble storyteller was Moses Malone, the guy who 40 years ago barely said anything at all.''
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