Moses Malone once said that he could take four guys off the streets of his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia and defeat the Boston Celtics. This was when the 40-42 Houston Rockets were playing the Celtics for the NBA championship in 1981. Maybe the Rockets would’ve won that title if Malone could’ve played with the guys off the streets — the Celtics won the series 4-2. But if it had not been for Malone, those Rockets would’ve never gotten near that NBA title series.
Moses Malone was definitely not the most graceful man to ever step onto a basketball court. But I would argue that he was the most relentless, a perpetual machine with the goal of getting the rebound then putting the ball into the hoop. He took a huge beating every game, but without a doubt, he dished out far more punishment than he received.
Sports fans love to talk about players who put their teams on their backs and make everybody better. But for all of the talk of the greatness of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, none of them has ever done what Moses Malone did in the 1980-1981 season. Those Rockets barely squeaked into the playoffs that year. Yet despite that, through shear will and skill, Malone put that Rockets squad on his proverbial back and led that squad to the NBA Finals, losing in six games to the core of a Celtics squad that would form one of the best teams of the 1980s.
Moses Malone died yesterday at the age of 60, shocking fans, friends, and all who knew him, especially the people who began posting photos they’d taken with him just the day before, while he was attending the induction ceremonies at the Basketball Hall of Fame. He supposedly had heart issues. It’s difficult to imagine the mountain of physical power that was Malone could ever be felled by something that wasn’t supernatural.
Malone’s arrival with the Rockets is a long, complicated story that I’m not sure I’ll ever understand. It involved him turning pro out of high school, bouncing around the ABA in its final seasons (at times with Utah and St. Louis), and somehow ending up with the Rockets after a really quick stop with a Buffalo team that would soon move to San Diego before ultimately landing in Los Angeles. He arrived to find a talented team containing Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy, Mike Newlin, and John Lucas that would lose in the NBA semi-finals to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Malone won MVP awards, made numerous All Star teams and eventually won the title while playing for the 76ers as a teammate to Julius Erving, another of basketball’s all time greatest players. But Malone’s legacy should be remembered not only as one of the game’s great players, but also as one of the game’s great teachers. Because it was Malone who took a young Hakeem Olajuwon under his wing and taught him how to play the game of basketball.
Malone took over the court at the Fonde Recreation Center every offseason and turned it into his own personal clinic. Legend has it some of the games there were tougher than any played in the NBA as Malone, his contemporaries and some college players worked out and played games. Olajuwon was just this skinny beanpole of a guy who looked like he could be knocked down by a breeze, but Malone worked him and schooled him and helped create the legend that Olajuwon would eventually become. And Olajuwon wasn't not the only one influenced by Malone. Legends like Dominique Wilkins and Charles Barkley credit Malone for the players they became.
“The man I called 'Dad' passed today,” Hall of Famer Charles Barkley told the media. “Words can't explain my sadness. I will never know why a Hall of Famer took a fat, lazy kid from Auburn and treated him like a son and got him in shape and made him a player.
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“Every time I saw him I called him ‘Dad.’ I hope he knew how much I appreciated and loved him.”
And Wilkins said that “[e]ven before we played together, he was one of the first greats who truly mentored me and showed me how to be a professional. I never saw anyone work harder than Moses and away from basketball, he was just as kind and thoughtful.”
Moses Malone is without a doubt one of basketball’s all-time great players, and definitely one of the tops to ever play in Houston. He helped to cement the importance of the big man in a Houston lineup. But what should always be remembered is that Malone worked non-stop on the court and the off the court to turn himself into the fantastic player he became.
And here’s hoping that, even though he’s passed, basketball fans who haven't yet been born will learn of him as a legend. Rest in peace, big man.