Hall of Famer Moses Malone, a true giant who broke barriers, dominated the boards and imposed his will on the interior like few others in basketball history, died Sunday. He was 60.
Malone was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player three times — twice as a member of the Houston Rockets, after the 1978-79 and 1981-82 seasons, and once with the Philadelphia 76ers, following a 1982-83 season that also saw him earn Finals MVP honors for leading the Sixers to the NBA championship.
News of Malone's passing first came from Mark Berman of FOX 26 in Houston:
Calvin Murphy devastated his close friend Moses Malone died today in Norfolk, Va where Calvin says it was from an apparent heart attack
— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) September 13, 2015
Calvin Murphy says Moses Malone died this morning in his sleep in Norfolk,VA where the two Hall of Famers were to play in a golf tournament.
— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) September 13, 2015
His passing comes as a shock, as Malone just this weekend attended the induction ceremonies for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2015. Malone was already a long-tenured member of that particular establishment, having earned enshrinement in 2001.
"We are deeply stunned and saddened by the passing of Hall of Famer Moses Malone, an NBA legend gone far too soon," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a league statement. "Known to his legions of fans as the 'Chairman of the Boards,' Moses competed with intensity every time he stepped on the court. With three MVPs and an NBA championship, he was among the most dominant centers ever to play the game and one of the best players in the history of the NBA and the ABA.
"Even more than his prodigious talent, we will miss his friendship, his generosity, his exuberant personality, and the extraordinary work ethic he brought to the game throughout his 21-year pro career," Silver wrote. "Our thoughts are with Moses' family and friends during this difficult time."
The Petersburg, Va., native was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996, but he started his career in the freewheeling ABA, becoming one of the first players to go from high school right to the pros when he decided not to attend the University of Maryland, but rather to join the Utah Stars, who selected him in the third round of the 1974 ABA draft.
Well, he didn't go right away. According to longtime friend and Terrapin legend John Lucas, Moses did make a brief stop in College Park:
John Lucas on Moses Malone passing away.Were college roommates for 1day."I woke up 2take him to class & he said I think I'm going 2the pros"
— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) September 13, 2015
You can understand why he decided to make the leap; the 6-foot-10 Malone was a star from the jump, and he knew it, as memorably recounted in Frank Deford's great February 1979 feature on Malone:
Turning down the University of Maryland, Malone went with the Utah Stars. "I knew what peoples was saying." Malone says, "and so I told the Stars, `It don't make no difference how old I am, because I still think I can bust y'all. You just watch my action.'
Watch they did, as Malone averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds per game as a 19-year-old, earning an ABA All-Star berth in what would turn out to be his lone season with the Stars. When Utah folded before the 1975-76 season, the Spirits of St. Louis purchased Malone's rights; he played with them for one season before the NBA-ABA merger sent the rising star into a brave new world.
After some ping-ponging around the NBA landscape — the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the ABA dispersal draft, but promptly traded him to the Buffalo Braves for a future draft choice; the Braves, in turn, shipped the 21-year-old to Houston after just two games — he'd quickly come to dominate his new surroundings. Malone instantly became one of the league's premier rebounders and shot-blockers, showing the tenacity and talent that would result in 12 more All-Star appearances in the NBA over the course of a career that would span three decades.
Malone suited up for nine teams during his illustrious career, spending more time in the red, white and yellow of the Rockets — six seasons, 464 games — than he did with any other franchise. He is, however, perhaps most closely identified with the 76ers, thanks to his monstrous production alongside Julius Erving in the '83 run to the ring — 26 points, 15.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals in 40.3 minutes per postseason contest, capped by a 24-point, 23-board performance in Philly's Finals-clinching Game 4 victory over the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Prior to that title run, Malone made his iconic "Fo', fo', fo'" proclamation that the loaded Sixers would sweep through the postseason undefeated in 12 games. Moses, Doc and company would fall one game shy of that prediction, dropping Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, but otherwise rampaging through a 12-1 postseason that ended with the third championship in Sixers history, which remains their most recent crown.
“To this day, Moses says that at the end of Game Four in Milwaukee he was open under the basket and if Andrew Toney had thrown the ball inside it would have been 'Fo', Fo', Fo,’” teammate Earl Cureton told Patrick Sauer of The Classical back in 2013. “They’ve been arguing about this for 30 years.”
With a core of Erving, Toney, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones already in place, the Sixers had risen to the ranks of the NBA's elite, making the 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals before losing to the Lakers on both occasions. Philly needed a boost to get over the top. The Rockets, who were coming off a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the Seattle SuperSonics after Malone's second MVP campaign, allowed their top gun to test restricted free agency.
The 76ers signed Malone to an offer sheet, which Houston matched before trading the reigning MVP to Philly in exchange for center Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first-round draft pick that would be used on Rodney McCray.
With all due respect to Caldwell and McCray, that turned out to be a pretty good deal for Philly.
After inking a six-year, $13.2 million contract, Malone came to the City of Brotherly Love determined to prove he was worth every last cent.
"There are lots of things that I can do that the public hasn't seen yet," he told Sports Illustrated's Anthony Cotton in a November 1982 cover story. "The people will see how much I'm an all-around player [...] I can do so many things that people don't recognize yet. If people want to find something bad about Moses this year, they won't be able to find it. I'm not gonna fool anybody, not gonna promote myself to people. I just want them to respect me."
Any who didn't before damn sure had to after Malone averaged 24.5 points, a league-leading 15.3 rebounds and two blocks in 37.5 minutes per game in leading Philadelphia to by far the best record in the NBA — the West-leading Lakers came up seven wins shy of the Sixers' 65-17 mark, tied for the 15th-highest win total in league history — en route to the club's first title since 1967.
"Let's not make believe," said 76ers coach Billy Cunningham after the Finals victory. "The difference from last year was Moses. He gave us the consistency inside that the Lakers had always gotten from Abdul-Jabbar. We got that and more from Moses."
The 76ers, like many others, mourned Moses' passing on Sunday morning.
"It is with a deep sense of sadness that the Sixers family mourns the sudden loss of Moses Malone," the 76ers wrote in a team statement. "It is difficult to express what his contributions to this organization — both as a friend and player — have meant to us, the city of Philadelphia and his faithful fans. Moses holds a special place in our hearts and will forever be remembered as a genuine icon and pillar of the most storied era in the history of Philadelphia 76ers basketball.
"No one person has ever conveyed more with so few words — including three of the most iconic in this city's history," the Sixers added. "His generosity, towering personality and incomparable sense of humor will truly be missed. We will keep his family in our thoughts and prayers and as we are once again reminded of the preciousness of life."
It's the second such reminder that the team and its fans have received of late. Another iconic big man, Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins, died last month at age 58.
After a 1985-86 season that ended prematurely both for him (thanks to a broken orbital bone around his right eye in late March) and the Sixers (thanks to Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey, Ricky Pierce and the Bucks), Malone again found himself on the move, shipped to the Washington Bullets with a pair of future picks and Terry Catledge in exchange for Cliff Robinson (no, not Uncle Cliffy, the other one) and Jeff Ruland. He'd average better than 20 points and 11 rebounds and make the Eastern All-Star team in each of the next two seasons for the Bullets, but after a pair of first-round defeats by Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, he signed on to man the middle for the Atlanta Hawks before the 1988-89 season.
By Malone's third year in Atlanta, he'd gone from an All-Star-caliber starting pivot to a 35-year-old backup to Jon Koncak, albeit a very effective one — he still put up more than 16 points and pulled down more than 12 rebounds per 36 minutes of floor time for Bob Weiss' bunch — and it seemed, after nearly two decades of nightly pounding, the relentless big man was finally starting to slow down.
After one more good year in the sun with Milwaukee — 15.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists in 30.6 minutes per game during the '91-'92 campaign, appearing in all 82 games and making 77 starts — Malone missed most of the following season while recovering from back surgery. He'd be relegated primarily to bench duty for the balance of a career that lasted three more seasons, capped by a return trip to Philly in 1993 and one last ABA-tinged hurrah, backing up David Robinson with the San Antonio Spurs in 1994.
Malone would hang up his high-tops — Air Force Ones, natch — following a 17-game stint in San Antonio, after hitting what has to be one of the coolest final shots in basketball history:
Not a bad way to finish off a 21-season career that still ranks among the greatest ever. Malone averaged (averaged!) 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game over the span of 1,455 games in 21 seasons, stretching between the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Malone stands as one of just four players in NBA history to amass more than 25,000 points and 15,000 rebounds, alongside fellow legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Elvin Hayes. Yet even that lofty statistical benchmark, and that all-time-great company, somehow doesn't quite tell the tale of just how dominant he was during a peak that saw him make eight straight All-NBA squads (four First Team, four Second) and finish in the top-10 in MVP voting nine times:
From 1979 to 1987: Moses Malone averaged 25.5 points and 14.1 rebounds per game. Since then? No player has averaged that once in a season.
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) September 13, 2015
Moses in 82-83: regular season MVP, All-Def 1st team, avgd 26-16 in playoffs while playing 40 mpg + shooting 54%, Finals MVP. No biggie.
— statcenter (@statcenter) September 13, 2015
Two decades after his retirement, Malone's name still appears all over the NBA's all-time leaderboard. He's still far and away the most prolific offensive rebounder in history, sitting more than 2,000 caroms clear of second-place Robert Parish, and sixth in the NBA ranks in total rebounds pulled down.
The Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki knocked him down a spot this past season, but Malone's 27,409 points still rank eighth on the NBA's all-time scoring list, and he remains among the game's all-time leaders in free throws made (second) and attempted (fourth), games played (12th), total minutes (15th), made field goals (18th) and blocked shots (24th).
You don't pile up such staggering statistics, numbers that truly stand the test of time, without immense natural talent. But the legacy of Moses Malone always has been, and always will be, one of peerless persistence, unbridled determination and a sheer force of will that could buckle even the very best big men in the world, as 10-year NBA center Rich Kelley explained to SI's Deford:
"He has quickness, timing, all the things you would expect, but the main thing is his tenacity. Eighty percent of Malone's game is on the offensive board. It changes everything. You play the Rockets, it's something entirely different, because I'd say a third of their game is Moses on the offensive board, keeping the ball in play. And that's completely unique to any team.
"What goes through your mind is that you have to box him out every damn time, every time the ball goes up. It just wears on you, mind and body. The other good centers learn to cruise for a quarter. They pick their spots. Not Moses. By the end of every game against him, you're whipped."
From the mid-'70s through the mid-'90s, you'd be hard-pressed to find an NBA big man who wasn't on the receiving end of that kind of whipping from Malone at some point. That singularly sensational brand of bully-ball carved out a career for the ages; the best way to celebrate it, I think, is to do what the man asked of the Stars all those years ago.
Just watch his action. One more time.
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