Remembering Moses Malone: Great player, unforgettable man

INGLEWOOD, CA - 1988: Moses Malone #2 of the Atlanta Hawks stands on the court during a NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California in 1988. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

Credit: Mark Bradley

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Credit: Mark Bradley

I saw Moses Malone's 11th professional game. He and I were both 19. I was a sophomore at the University of Kentucky. He was a millionaire.

Moses was from Petersburg, Va., and in 1974 he was the nation's No. 1 recruit. He signed with Maryland, which was coached by Lefty Driesell, still trying to make the Terrapins the UCLA of the East. Had Moses actually matriculated in College Park, Maryland might well have claimed the 1975 NCAA title won by ... why, UCLA. (He would have teamed with John Lucas.) But Moses didn't go to college.

He took $3.3 million to sign with the Utah Stars. Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby would soon follow, but Moses was the first to jump from high school to the pros.

That's correct. The Utah Stars, not the Utah Jazz. The Stars were an ABA franchise, and even though the league with the red, white and blue ball was on its last legs, it still wasn't above making a splash. By the next season, Moses was playing with the Spirits of St. Louis, the Stars having folded. But he was a Star when he came to Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 6, 1974.

My roommate and I -- being UK students, we followed college recruiting -- bought tickets to see the Stars play the Kentucky Colonels, then the ABA's best team. (Based in Louisville, the Colonels played a handful of games in Lexington.) My first impression of Moses was how skinny he seemed alongside the massive Artis Gilmore. Moses, who scored 15 points in a loss that night, wouldn't be skinny much longer.

Wilt had the Dipper Dunk and the finger-roll and the banked fallaway jumper. Kareem had the Sky Hook. Hakeem had the Dream Shake. Moses never had a staple offensive move, and it never mattered. He once told Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated: "Anybody can shoot a jump shot."

He also said: "I just go to the rack."

Moses Malone will stand forever as the greatest pure rebounder in the history of basketball. When he became a Hawk, we'd giggle over what were known as "Moses Rebounds": He'd grab somebody's miss; he'd blow the putback; he'd grab his own miss and follow it home. One sequence, two points, two offensive rebounds. We always wondered whether that was by design.

By the time Moses joined the Hawks, he wasn't quite as irresistible as he'd been with the Rockets, with whom he won his first two MVP trophies, and the 76ers, whom he'd famously powered to their long-deferred "We Owe You One" championship. He was 33 when he signed here as a free agent in the summer of 1989, and his was a 33 with miles on it. (Remember, he'd turned pro at 19.) That's not, however, to say the man still couldn't play. He could.

Moses average 16.5 points and (but of course!) 10 rebounds in three seasons as a Hawk. For the team, alas, those were failed seasons. Moses arrived in tandem with Reggie Theus, and the two were supposed to supply the oomph to nudge the Hawks -- who'd just lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis in Boston Garden -- to the top of the East if not the league. Didn't happen.

Kevin Willis hurt his knee and missed the 1988-89 season. Theus never meshed with teammates or coaches. Moses kept his head down and did his job -- Moses wasn't much for talking -- but his power game on the low block was at odds with the crash-the-lane forays of Dominique Wilkins and Doc Rivers. The Hawks were eliminated in Game 5 of Round 1 by the Milwaukee Bucks on a stunning Sunday when the plodding Paul Mokeski was the center who made a difference.

Everything else was diminishing returns. Moses left after the 1990-91 season, by which point Mike Fratello had stepped aside as coach and Bob Weiss was in charge. (Theus was gone after one year.) I do regret not getting to cover Moses in his prime. I do not regret the time I spent around him here.

That part about him not being much for talking? That was true, except for those rare occasions when it wasn't. When Moses got going, he was among the funniest men I've ever known. (Belying his stoic image, he had a wonderful deep voice, and his eyes would dance when he was telling a story.) I was witness to Charles Barkley -- whom I'd known since he was an Auburn freshman -- and Moses ripping one another for a half-hour. I've never laughed so hard.

Moses, then a Hawk, stuck his head in the Sixers' locker room to say hi to his former mates. I was sitting with Charles, who said: "Hey, Mo. Did you come to visit your hair?" (By that time, Moses' hairline was tracking north.) And they were off.

Moses recalled the Hawaiian junket he and Barkley had shared. Seems they were treated to a round of golf. "They asked him what his handicap was," Moses said, warming to the tale. "He said 12."

Here Moses paused for effect. "He shot ... "

Longer pause, greater effect.

"A hundred and FIFTEEN! Hit SEVEN balls in the WATER! A hundred and FIFTEEN!!!"

All the Sixers were laughing so hard as to dislocate something. (It wasn't often Barkley was one-upped.) It was surely no accident that the Hawks won by 42 points that night. The visitors had spent themselves on pregame hilarity.

Everyone who was around the Hawks had a Moses story. The late Jeff Denberg, who covered the Hawks for the ol' AJC, remembered Moses bringing his sons into the locker room and introducing them as "Harvard" and "Yale" -- because that's where the non-collegian planned to send his offspring.

Steve Holman, venerable voice of the Hawks, did an interview with Moses in which the latter spoke of the blame game ongoing after the team had fallen short of expectations. "Last year it was Theus," Moses said. "This year it's me. Someone's got to scape the goat."

Dominique offers this. Halfway through his first season here, Moses looked over and asked, "Who's that little dude?" He pointed to a guy walking through the locker room wearing a suit.

"That's Brian Hill," Wilkins said.

Moses asked what Hill did. "He's an assistant coach," Wilkins said.

"Oh," Moses said.

That was Moses Malone. He cared nothing for nuance. He just went to the rack. He wasn't the greatest talent, but he became one of the game's greatest players because he was its hardest worker. He died Sunday at age 60. There was never a player quite like him. There won't be another.