Moses Malone, a nine-time all-star and three-time most valuable player, is probably no different in one respect from thousands of kids around the country. They, and he, can only dream about soaring to the basket with the acrobatic, high-flying, slam-jam.
Their style, grace and spectacular play above the rim have enabled the National Basketball Assn. to take off in the consciousness of the general public. But that’s not Moses Malone’s game. His style is based on one essential: pound the opposition into submission, physically and mentally.
There are occasional moments of rebellion from this 6-10, 255-pound center--an unexpected 360-degree spin before attempting a shot, a behind-the-back dribble moving through traffic. But for the most part Malone, now 31, is content to stay within himself.
“I’m just a basic ballplayer,” he said. “I work hard and try to contribute to the team. Big men can’t be too flashy. Small forwards and big guards handle the ball so much and they’re quicker than us--they should be doin’ all those things.
“But the big guys control the whole situation.”
That certainly has been the case throughout Malone’s career. In Houston, he led a group of overachievers into the 1981 NBA finals and extended the Boston Celtics to six games. Two years later, he joined a collection of all-stars in Philadelphia, led them to a near record-setting regular season, then set the pace as the 76ers posted the best playoff mark (12-1) in league history in winning the title.
And now, although there has yet to be a noticeable improvement in the record of his new team, the Bullets, it may be happening yet again in Washington.
In just 18 games, Malone has defined the Bullets with his relentless work ethic, scoring 23.6 points a game and leading the NBA in offensive rebounding while averaging 11.7 rebounds overall. He is second in scoring to guard Jeff Malone mostly because he has been double- and triple-teamed, a standard part of opponents’ game plans.
New Jersey guard Leon Wood, a Bullet in 1985-86 and through much of 1986 training camp, said of Moses Malone: “It was his team from the minute he walked into the locker room.”
That’s to be expected when a man with Malone’s credentials joins a struggling franchise. But no one knew what to expect from Malone after the fracture of the orbit bone beneath his right eye late last season with the 76ers.
“I knew he’d be back, I never doubted that. He would have done the same thing if he were still here,” said Philadelphia forward Charles Barkley, referring to the June trade that sent Malone, forward Terry Catledge and two No. 1 draft choices to the Bullets for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson.
“I miss him a lot, off the floor, too. He’s one of the fellas,” Barkley continued. “Nobody can keep a team loose like he did. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever played with; one of the few people I know making $2 million a year who isn’t a jerk.”
According to Washingtonian magazine, Malone’s reported $2.1 million contract makes him the highest-salaried employee in the Washington area. That was no surprise to Barkley, who said, with a straight face, “He’s the best rebounder in Washington, ain’t he?
“Moses is probably the best center in the league behind Akeem (Olajuwon of Houston),” Barkley said, a thought apparently not shared by 76ers owner Harold Katz, who described Malone as an old 31.
Katz also pointed out that Malone’s field-goal percentage has gone down each year for the past five seasons. After a seven-for-20 effort in Friday’s 91-87 loss to Milwaukee, this season’s percentage fell to 44.1, which would be the lowest of his 11 NBA seasons.
And yet, with each successive season, stopping Malone has become a greater priority for opponents as man-to-man defenses have begat sagging zones, and the double- and triple-guarding he receives now. His career high from the floor--52%--came in that 1981 season, when Malone first began to dominate in the NBA.
During the years, Malone has never had much reputation as a passer. Why bother? After he gets the ball in the low post, it’s likely that any field-goal attempt Malone makes will draw a foul call from the referees.
He has already shot 188 free throws this season. After Malone made 15 of 15 in a two-point victory over Chicago, Bulls Coach Doug Collins said in a mixture of admiration and disgust, “He’s made a living at the line for 20 years.”
How many big men have made three of every four free throws during their careers? Artis Gilmore and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both with a soft touch at the foul line, have career marks of 72%. Malone is close to 76; this season he’s converted better than 82% and is a threat to top his career high of 81% two years ago.
Malone has always been a man of few words, even as a high school superstar who went straight from Petersburg (Va.) High School to the pros, after briefly committing to play college basketball at Maryland.
But make no mistake, he also has keen basketball savvy, and he already has begun to make more adjustments to the defenses he has been facing this season. The spinning, fadeaway jump shot he uses to escape the congestion inside is one example, as is the pull-up jumper he hits from the outside enough that the opposition must play it honestly.
Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery said that, after seeing Malone on a daily basis, he realizes “he’s really a good outside shooter.”
“I try to do all the basics,” Malone said. “I strengthen them during the summer. I study the guys I play against then, too. . . . I’m trying to be smarter about the game.”
Malone has said his long-term future in basketball is at power forward, but some say it’s hard to envision him keeping up with players such as Larry Nance, Kevin Willis and Barkley--the supersized, superathletic hybrids that populate today’s NBA.
Loughery said, “How many real pivot stars are there now? There’s Kareem and Moses but people like (Jack) Sikma and Joe Barry (Carroll), their stats are down. There used to be lots of deep post players, but now even ‘four’ men (power forwards) are popping out for jumpers.
“It’s tougher for true centers than it’s ever been before, because of the defenses being played. And smaller players have a plus factor over pivot players because they’re getting the ball on the perimeter, where it’s tougher to double-team and they have the whole width of the court to work with.”
Still, only Jordan seems to be threatening the theory that a team cannot win without a dominant center. Malone is well aware of it.
“There’s a lot more young talent in the game than before but that doesn’t mean the game has changed,” Malone said. “The game hasn’t moved away from the big man. Those little guys got all that great talent, how many rebounds do they get? Two or three? They can’t do that and win without a big man.”
And, as always, winning is Malone’s main objective.
“I’m not looking for individual stats, I want to win games,” he said. “I want my team to get to .500, then .600, then .700. If it does that, it’s been a good year.”
An important measuring stick will be how the Bullets fare in their six-game regular-season series against the 76ers. The first meeting between the teams isn’t until Christmas night in Philadelphia, which has given both sides plenty of time to build up a head of steam.
“We’ll be here,” said Barkley. “If we don’t show up, Moses will know we were scared of him coming back.”
In his first appearance in Washington after June’s trade, Malone promised to “shut Harold Katz’s mouth up.” Since then, he said little, as usual, but those close to him say his feelings haven’t changed.