The passing of Moses Malone last week marks the loss of one of the great legends of NBA history. He is remembered as a relentless rebounding machine who didn’t say much. In fact, when you think about Malone, there are not many memorable stories or highlight plays. Rather, just a long career of rebounds, rebounds, and more rebounds. But there are plenty of fun forgotten stories that tell us a bit more about Malone and the time he played in. This is a good time to dwell on a few of those forgotten stories.
This is a good time to take a look at the under-the-radar Moses stories that are both interesting and illuminating. Before turning to those stories, let’s do brief bullet points of Malone’s career the way most NBA fans remember him:
-Moses went straight to the ABA from high school
-After the NBA/ABA merger, Malone went to Houston and became an instant star. He dragged a very mediocre Rockets team to the 1980-81 NBA Finals and gave the Larry Bird Celtics a decent fight.
-In 1982, Malone was signed by the 76ers. He helped put Philly over the top as a title team and led them to a 67-15 season and a title in 1982-83. Malone, who was usually very quiet with the press, boldly predicted that the Sixers would sweep all their playoffs that season, giving a glib prediction thusly: “fo, fo, fo” (as in , they would sweep each series in four games).
-In 1986, the 76ers surprisingly traded Malone, Terry Catledge, and two picks to the Bullets for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson (the USC Robinson, not the head-banded Robinson out of UConn). Malone continued to play well for several years.
-In 1992-93, Malone had back surgery, effectively ending his career as a starter. He stuck around in a reserve role for two more seasons, before retiring at age 39 after the 1994-95 season.
NCAA versus the ABA: A fight for Moses Malone
While the basics of his career seem pretty straightforward, Moses’ career had some really interesting parts. Perhaps most interesting was how he even got to the ABA. Let’s go back to the beginning and fill in the story. Malone grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s in a small town called Petersburg, Virginia (the population as of 2010, was 32,420. This was actually a decline from 1970, when it had 36,103 people). Even in this small town, Malone made a name for himself as a potential star in the future and a ton of colleges, especially the local team, the University of Maryland and its coach Lefty Driesell noticed him. According to Terry Pluto in “Loose Balls,” Malone scored 32 points as a ninth-grader in his first varsity game and his team won 50 consecutive games and two state titles.
It may seem that the crazy NCAA recruiting wars are a relatively recent development but 40 years ago things were not really any cleaner. Pluto wrote that “ACC Commissioner Bob James called the Malone [recruiting] case ‘the worst recruiting mess I’ve ever seen.’” Malone’s family was receiving envelopes filled with cash and one school gave him a new car. In addition, Pluto quoted a story by writer Larry Donald that alleged that Malone was a poor student, but that he “became an A student in his last semester, which made him eligible, barely, to accept an NCAA scholarship.”
Donald also claimed that Malone charged each prospective college $200 for a recruiting visit. Malone initially committed to Clemson but later agreed to go to Maryland, whose recruiters apparently accrued $20,000 in bills staying at a local Petersburg Howard Johnson’s.
According to Sport Illustrated in 1974, Malone found the recruiting process to be patronizing. He told SI that “[t]hey dragged me to as many as 24 schools. Sometimes they brought me in to meet the president of the university, who talked to me like he wanted to be my father. That made me laugh. They fixed me up with dates. Then when I got home those girls called me long distance and pretended they were in love with me. What kind of stuff is that.”
The story also reported this doozy: “Perhaps the strangest of these episodes occurred when Oral Roberts showed up at Malone’s home in Petersburg, Va. and offered to cure his mother of her bleeding ulcer [if he would commit to Oral Roberts].”
Despite the competition, the Malone’s needs were best met by sending Moses Malone to pros, and he signed with the Utah Stars. Larry Creger, who was then an assistant coach for the ABA’s Utah Stars, set an interesting picture in “Loose Balls” as to how the recruiting went down: “I went to Petersburg to check out the situation and I spent a month there at the Howard Johnson motel, along with all the other college coaches trying to get him….[His mother] had some serious health problems and wasn’t supposed to work anymore…It was obvious that they were broke. The house had no paint. There wasn’t any grass where the lawn was supposed to be….So I knew that Moses needed money. I also heard that whatever college got Moses would end up on probation because there were NCAA investigators all over the place and everybody was supposedly breaking all kinds of rules to get him….What a joke it was for some of these coaches to be talking to Moses about the value and sanctity of a college degree. At that stage of his life, Moses couldn’t even put a sentence together. He’d just say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or he’d grunt or give no answer at all. From that school system, I could understand why he was so far behind….To me, the key point was that no one [from the Malone family] ever said, ‘Moses has to go to college.’ They agreed that they needed money and they agreed that Moses wanted to play basketball. When I heard that I knew we had a great shot at getting [Moses to sign with the ABA].”
In “The Breaks of the Game,” David Halberstam described the simultaneous negotiating process Malone had going on with Utah coach Bucky Buckwalter and Driessel. Buckwalter had argued that the family needed the money while Driessel came to town and argued that college was best for Malone. While Buckwalter and Driessel argued: “Buckwalter kept a close on Moses Malone. Then he had a sudden epiphany: all the visitors in the room were white and believed that Moses, because he was young, black and silent, was dumb. But Moses, Buckwalter was convinced was not dumb; he understood more clearly than anyone else what was happening….That made it easier for him, for Moses clearly knew the rules, and the battle was fairer….[As the negotiations continued, t]he Malone requests became more sophisticated….’Mo,’ Buckwalter had said, ‘when you sign, [the cash] is yours. This is for you and your friends. This is not like Maryland where you never really see anything.’…There was one last meeting with Driesell, now distraught, who quoted at length from the Bible and told Malone, ‘The Good Lord won’t mind you waiting for a year or two.’ He talked more about the Bible and Moses’s responsibility. ‘Stop jivin’ me, Coach,’ Malone said, and the battle was over.”
Moses Crosses to the NBA
Malone was an immediate impact player in the ABA, putting up 18.8 ppg and 14.6 rpg as a rookie for Utah. When Utah folded in 1975-76, Malone went to play with the St. Louis Spirits and continued to play well after recovering from an early season broken foot. After the season, the ABA folded and absorbed a few teams and disbanded the others (Kentucky and St. Louis), and these remaining ABA players were subject to a dispersal draft.
One would think that Malone would have been a hot commodity for NBA teams, since he was 20 years old and seemed to have pretty high potential. In anticipation of the draft, Sport Illustrated at the time, predicted that Malone would land somewhere between second and fourth in the dispersal draft (Artis Gilmore was the consensus top pick and Malone would be in a tier with Marvin Barnes and Maurice Lucas).
Ultimately, Malone went fifth in the draft. Here are the results of that draft, along with the age of each player and the VORP the players would go on to put up in the NBA:
- Artis Gilmore, age 27, Chicago: 909 games, 39.6 VORP, 20.2 PER
- Maurice Lucas, age 24, Portland: 855 games, 13.4 VORP, 16.3 PER
- Ron Boone, age 30, Kansas City: 379 games, -0.1 VORP, 13.3 PER
- Marvin Barnes, age 24, Detroit: 171 games, 0.6 VORP, 13.4 PER
- Moses Malone, age 21, Portland: 1,082 games, 41.8 VORP, 22.8 PER
- Randy Denton, age 27, New York Knicks: 45 games, -0.4 VORP, 11.2 PER
- Bird Averitt, age 25, Buffalo: 55 games, -1.1 VORP, 10.3 PER
- Wil Jones, age 29, Indiana: 159 games, 0.8 VORP, 11.4
- Ron Thomas, age 26, Houston: Did not play in NBA
- Louie Dampier, age 32, San Antonio: 232 games, -1.4 VORP, 12.4 PER
- Jan van Breda Kolff, age 25, New York Nets: 434 games, 3.3 VORP, 9.7 PER
- Mike Barr, age 26, Kansas City: 73 games, -0.3 VORP, 10.3 PER
Drafting isn’t an exact science now and it was even less so in 1976 but you do have to wonder how Boone went ahead of both Barnes and Malone, two very young big men. Boone was a pretty good player and put up nice numbers that first year for KC (22.2 pg, 19.2 PER). But K.C. was coming off of a 31-51 season and needed youth and height and not a two guard near the end of his prime.
Taking Barnes over Malone looks silly now but this was somewhat understandable because Barnes was a star back then and played ahead of Malone on St. Louis. Presumably, Detroit did not do much due diligence on Barnes because it would not have been difficult to see that he had some issues. By 2015 standards of player evaluation, Malone’s age and efficiency would’ve made him the natural top pick to any rebuilding team (both Chicago and Portland were looking to contend immediately, so Gilmore and Lucas looked like rational picks).
1976-77, a weird time for Moses to wander
The Blazers were set at power forward with Lucas and at center with Bill Walton. They saw Malone as an asset to be traded. This was not a bad idea in theory but they really undersold him. According to a 1979 Sports Illustrated story, the Blazers first almost sold Malone to Denver but the Nuggets, instead, took veteran Paul Silas (who was 33 and a solid veteran power forward). It was evident that Portland, Denver, and the rest of the NBA didn’t quite understand the value Malone had. The Blazers then sold Malone to the Buffalo Braves for cash and a pick (who ended up being Rick Robey).
According to a 1976 article reporting the trade from The Bulletin, a local Portland paper, Jack Ramsay, Blazers coach, “repeatedly had questioned whether Malone could fit into his team’s running, team-oriented style of play.” The Blazer’s PR representative at the time also justified the trade because Walton and Lucas would play a lot and that meant they “would have a valuable property just sitting around most of the time.” The article also implied that Malone’s value was lower because his ppg had fallen to from 18.8 as a rookie in Utah to 14.3 in St. Louis.
It doesn’t take Jerry West to realize that the 1975-76 Spirits already had Boone, Lucas, and Barnes sharing the ball with Malone, so Moses’ shots would naturally have gone down from Utah. It also doesn’t take a math genius to note that Malone scored 17.5 point per 36 minutes for Utah and that number went up to 18.9 in St. Louis. (Sigh)….gotta miss that critical analysis of the mid-1970s.
Halberstam laid out the awkward machinations that brought Moses to Portland and out of town: “It was clear that Portland had picked up Moses not as a player but as bait, either as part of a trade or to be exchanged for a draft choice and cash. Malone in those days bore a considerable stigma in the eyes of most NBA basketball people: his association with the ABA. There was a built-in prejudice against almost any ABA player, a belief that the other league was filled with gunners and hot dogs and that its statistics meant nothing.” The passage would go on to note that Malone was considered unintelligent by NBA front office types and that his salary was too high to carry with Walton already on the roster.
As Malone waited to be traded by Portland, he battled Walton in practice, and, according to Halberstam, talked a ton of trash back and forth. Ultimately, Malone impressed both the players and, perhaps even Ramsay, but Malone’s big contract prevented Portland from keeping him as a backup. Before a trade happened, Malone played his first exhibition game, and he put 24 points and 12 boards in 26 minutes. In the meantime, GM Harry Glickman had already negotiated the trade to Buffalo for a draft pick and cash. Halberstam wrote that Walton reportedly told Ramsay, “[y]ou didn’t trade him away, you gave him away.”
Buffalo kept Malone for two regular season games and only played Malone six minutes in that span. Buffalo then traded him to Houston for a couple of picks. The 1979 Sports Illustrated article speculated that Buffalo’s then-coach Tates Locke held a grudge against Malone, who had spurned Locke when Locke was the Clemson coach in 1974. To compound that, Malone’s mother later told the NCAA that Clemson illegally paid Malone’s family. Whatever the reason, the Braves traded Malone, who became an immediate star in Houston, putting up 13.5 ppg and 13.4 rpg in 30.2 mpg. And he only improved from there.
Malone v. the Best
Malone added some scoring to his voracious rebounding and led the league in PER and win shares in 1981-82 and 1982-83. His peak numbers are impressive but not quite up to the level of the top centers. Since 1976-77, Malone’s best PER (26.8 in 1981-82) is 19th, behind several seasons by Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, and some by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Just for fun, here is how Malone rates against the other centers in advance stats:
-Hakeem Olajuwon: 1,238 games, .177 WS/48, 77.1 VORP, 23.6 PER, 4.9 BPM
-Patrick Ewing: 1,183 games, .150 WS/48, 40.9 VORP, 21.0 PER, 2.0 BPM
-David Robinson, 987 games, .250 WS/48, 80.9 VORP, 26.2 PER, 7.4 BPM
-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1,560 games, .228 WS/48, 86.0 VORP, 24.6 PER, 5.8 BPM
-Shaquille O’Neal, 1,207 games, .208 WS/48, 74.0 VORP, 26.4 PER, 5.0 BPM
-Tim Duncan, 1,331 games, .211 WS/48, 86.9 VORP, 24.5 PER, 5.5 BPM
-Alonzo Mourning, 838 games, .166 WS/48, 21.2 PER, 1.7 BPM
-Moses Malone, 1,329 games, .178 WS/48, 22.3 PER, 1.8 BPM (NBA stats only)
These stats don’t tell the whole story but Moses appears to be more middle of this pack—above Zo and Ewing, but below most everyone else. BPM appears to really knock Mo’s defense. His blocked shots and DBPM numbers are on the lower side of the top centers. The whole package puts him about sixth (below Kareem, Hakeem, Shaq, Robinson, and Duncan), and there is a credible argument that he could be a bit higher. No matter his exact place in the group, what you have is a really nice career and a really nice life. Moses is gone too soon but he was truly a one of a kind player and person.