We heard the stories before we met the man.
Like the one about how he was lost in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and trying to find his way to McCaskey High School for a basketball game. Eventually he found the school, but not the driveway. So rather than be late for the start of the game, Moses Malone did what he always did …
He took the shortest route to his destination.
In this case, it meant Moses drove his Ford Bronco up over the curb and through two baseball fields, a soccer field, a playground and along the entry way to the football stadium. That’s where he parked the Bronco — about a short bank shot from the basket.
It wasn’t an easy trip or necessarily graceful, but it was effective and that’s how Moses did things.
Moses Malone died Sunday (see story). He was 60 years old.
If you were lucky enough to watch Moses play basketball on a regular basis, there was nothing about it that looked easy. No, he wasn’t what anyone would label smooth and he was a constant oscillation of wasted movement. Because he had relatively small hands for a 6-foot-10 guy, Moses always seemed to be clinging to the ball with extra might.
Add in the fact that Moses was covered with a drenching sweat seconds after the opening tip, and it added to the image of a guy busting it out there. He was no force of nature like many NBA superstars we have seen, but he brought a rare championship to Philadelphia and became one of the NBA’s all-time 50 greatest players through force of will.
The same way he drove his Bronco — up and over and through anything in its path — was the same way he played basketball.
More than anything, Moses was a rebounder. He’d park himself on the low block and run a tip drill when a ball came off the rim. If the ball didn’t go in after one of his tips, he’d get it again … and again until the play was finished. Considering he broke in with the Utah Stars straight out of Petersburg High School in Virginia in 1974 and didn’t retire until 1995 just illustrates the point.
He wasn’t giving up on anything. He couldn’t quit. It’s not how he was raised in that shotgun shack on St. Matthew Street in Petersburg. It was in that modest home where Moses left a note in the family Bible in which he promised his mother, Mary, that he would become a basketball player and take care of her. Not long after that promise, Moses was lured away from the University of Maryland by the ABA’s Utah Stars when the GM laid out thousands of dollars in cash on the only table in his home.
It was his if he skipped college for pro ball.
Again, no fluff and no messing around. At 18 years old, Moses was already a man and had a knack for not taking shortcuts to his final destination. He knew where the goal was and went directly there.
There’s another story about Moses that he confirmed for me when I was barely a teenager and hanging around the Sixers’ training camp at Franklin & Marshall College. The story was that Moses was already so advanced as a basketball player in high school that there was no competition for him in Petersburg. But because there were no AAU tournaments or All-Star basketball camps for all the best players in the country, Moses had to seek other means for improving his game.
So he went to prison.
Actually, Moses was allowed to play pickup games with the inmates at the nearby state penitentiary. It’s where he said he went to college and where he learned his no-frills, aggressive style of basketball. To grow up where Moses did had to be tough. To do a basketball apprenticeship by choice with the prisoners in the state pen — that’s another level of toughness.
Lefty Driesell, the coach who nearly had Moses at Maryland, told the Washington Post the story about learning about the prison games.
"He's so quiet," said Driesell, "The first time I talked with him I tried to draw him out by asking him where he got so good. There wasn't anybody around Petersburg that could make him that good, I told him.
"He said, 'I play in the state pen, man,' referring to the prison at Petersburg."
Driesell continued the dialogue:
"You mean they've got some good players in prison?"
"Yeah, lots of good ones. Aggressive."
"Anybody your size?"
"One guy about 6-8. They call him Milkman."
"Milkman? Why do they call him Milkman?"
"Cause he murdered a milkman, man."
"How do you get into the prison?"
"They stamp me when I go in, and then they check it under a lamp when I leave."
"What if you sweat too much and the stamp rubs off? They'd keep you there."
"Naw. They know me."
Recently, Kevin Love, the big man for the Cavaliers, brought Moses’ name back into the spotlight a bit. Love has a knack for rebounding just like Moses, though he learned his craft a little differently. The son of NBA/ABA player, Stan Love, and nephew of Beach Boys singer, Mike Love, the younger Love didn’t hone his game playing against prisoners. Instead, he went to UCLA for one season and straight to the NBA.
A few years ago, Love broke Moses’ record of consecutive games with a double-double. In 1978-79, Moses got at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in 50 straight games to set the modern day record. Of course, Wilt Chamberlain registered 227 straight double-doubles during the NBA's statistical dark ages. That was back when a guy like Wilt could average 50.4 points per game (1962) and lead the league in assists another season (1968). Better yet, Wilt is the only player in NBA history to get a double triple-double when he got 24 points, 26 rebounds and 21 assists in a game for the Sixers in the 1968 season,
But, we're counting Moses' 50 straight double-doubles as the modern day record.
So, during the '78-'79 season, Moses got nearly 25 points and 18 rebounds per game during the regular season and then 24.5 points and 20 rebounds during the playoffs to win his first of three MVP awards.
Think about 50 straight double-doubles for a second … that means no nights off, no mailing it in and no resting on a back-to-back or even a stretch where the Rockets spent a weekend with games in Phoenix, Portland and Seattle with games on three straight nights that season. Better yet, Moses pulled off the feat despite playing on the same team as noted ball hogs Rick Barry and Calvin Murphy.
If Moses wanted the ball, he had to go get it himself.
Asked about why rebounding was so important back at Franklin & Marshall, Moses told me, “Anybody can shoot a jump shot. I go to the rack.”
Love ended up with 53 straight double-doubles, surpassing Moses. However, there was a huge difference. Love was all his Minnesota team had. Someone had to score. With the Rockets and then the Sixers, Moses was a star amongst stars. And yet he took a backseat in his team’s offense to Barry, Murphy, Julius Erving and Andrew Toney.
“He was not a great leaper, but he has incredible hands and a great feel for where the ball is coming off the rim,” former Sixers player and coach Doug Collins remembered back when Love was bringing attention back to Moses. “There’s a knack for offensive rebounding and knowing where the ball is going to come off and he goes out and gets it.”
And that’s how it always was with Moses. He went after it and got it. He brought it home for Dr. J and Philadelphia. Forget about “fo’, fo’, fo’,” without Moses the Sixers never would have gotten to the Promised Land. He led the way and he didn’t take the scenic route.