A moment in a Sports Illustrated profile of NBA legend Moses Malone perfectly summed up what made the man tick.
Driving through Houston in his $50,000 Mercedes, Malone stopped in at a fast food outlet to grab himself some lunch – a $2.50 bucket of chicken wings and a soda.
On the court, Malone was filet mignon. Off the court, he preferred filet o’ fish.
The fellow with the biblical first name never put himself on a pedestal and wasn’t one to assess that what he did for a living made him into any sort of iconic figure.
He was just “playin’ ball,” as Malone often would say. Even though there were aspects of his game Moses performed at a level few who’ve ever held a basketball in their hands could aspire to achieve. “Anybody can shoot a jump shot,” Malone once famously said.
It could be argued that Malone, who died in 2015 of natural causes at the age of 60, was the LeBron James of the 1970s. He jumped right from high school ball into the pro ranks and instantly was a dominant performer.
It can also be debated with significant merit that, to this day, Malone remains one of the most underrated and underappreciated players in the history of the NBA.
Malone turned down a scholarship offer from the Maryland Terrapins to join the ABA’s Utah States. He signed a five-year $1 million contract at the age of 19 to become the first player in basketball’s modern era to move directly into the professional game.
He was named both an ABA All-Star and earned ABA All-Rookie Team status in 1974-75, leading the league in offensive rebounds while still a teenager. After the Stars folded, Malone moved to the Spirits of St. Louis for the ABA’s farewell season in 1975-76.
During his two-season ABA career, Malone produced per-game averages of 17.2 points and 12.9 rebounds.
Malone debuted in the NBA with the Buffalo Braves in 1976 but was dealt to the Houston Rockets for 1977, and 1978 first-round draft picks after just two games in the Western New York city. Suiting up for the Rockets was an appropriate destination for Malone, as his career was about to skyrocket into the stratosphere.
“Moses is an intense competitor, with the heart of a lion and the spirit of a thoroughbred,” Del Harris told the Windsor Star. Harris was Malone’s coach in Houston and later in his NBA career with the Milwaukee Bucks.
A physically dominating presence at 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds, Malone pulled down an NBA-record 437 offensive rebounds his first year in the league. Just two years later, he’d shattered his mark, grabbing 587 offensive boards. In Game 2 of the 1976-77 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals against Washington, Malone established another NBA watermark. His 15 offensive rebounds were a single-game playoff standard.
Moses averaged 17.9 rebounds per game in 1978-79 to lead the league for the first time. He shot a career-high .540 from the field that season, averaging 24.8 points per game. Malone was selected to the All-NBA First Team and was a Second Team All-Defensive choice. Voted by fans as the starting center in the NBA All-Star Game, Malone was also recognized after the season as league MVP.
In 1980-81, Malone led the Rockets to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. He topped the league in rebounding for what would be the first of a then-record five successive seasons. The following season, Malone won his second league MVP award, averaging 31.1 ppg.
After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1981-82 NBA Finals, the Philadelphia 76ers saw Malone as the missing piece of the puzzle and acquired him from Houston.
The plan came together almost instantly. Malone won both regular season and NBA Finals MVP honors as Philadelphia captured the league title. Behind Malone’s rallying cry of “fo’ fo’ fo’,” the Sixers lost just one game the entire postseason. It was to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference final. Thus, when the Sixers were outfitted with their championship rings, each bore the inscription fo’ fi’ fo’.
“Let’s not make-believe. The difference from last year was Moses.”Billy Cunningham, NBA.com
A Quiet Superstar
Malone’s NBA career would also take him to Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and San Antonio before he called it a day in 1995.
He was philosophical about his time in the game during a 1991 interview. “I’m just going year by year at this point in time,” Malone said. “I’m just trying to stay in shape.
“As long as the Lord gives me the ability to go out there and get the job done, I’ll still be around.”Moses Malone
That Malone was happy to fade into the background rather than trumpet his own horn is perhaps why the public hasn’t embraced his legend as openly as his peers do.
Malone was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year of eligibility. He concluded his career with the most combined ABA and NBA offensive rebounds (7,382). He holds NBA records for the most offensive rebounds in a career (6,731), season (587), and game (21). Malone was a 13-time All-Star and earned eight All-NBA selections.