Moses Malone: The Hardest Working Man in the NBA, 1980

[Over the next couple of days, I’m going to run through some stories about Moses Malone. Up first is an article from the magazine Pro/College Basketball Scene 1979-80. Malone is fresh off of winning his first NBA MVP award and has started to feel more comfortable doing interviews, which is great thing. Too many people jumped the gun to label Malone as a simpleton who could barely put three words together. Nothing could be further from the truth. Donald Dell, who negotiated Malone’s contract with the ABA Utah Stars, described Malone to me as a bright kid. If memory serves, Dell used adjectives such as “shrewd,” “smart,” and “savvy” to describe his business sense coming out of high school. 

In this article, penned by Mike Rathet, you get a sense of just how shrewd Malone really was. More than that, you get to remember how number 24 was the ultimate competitor jostling for position in the paint.]

Moses Malone, a man of few words and many rebounds, had just been notified he had been voted the 1978-79 Most Valuable Player in the National Basketball Association. Now he had to meet the press and deliver the obligatory acceptance speech.

“I never thought I’d be the most valuable player or lead the league in rebounding,” Malone said with the proper touch of humility demanded at such occasions. Then, he quickly added, without the trace of a smile: “I got a lot of help from my teammates—they did a lot of missing.”

It was, some said, Malone’s first attempt at public humor since moving directly from high school to the pros five years before. More important, it was stunningly simple as a measure of Malone’s talent, completely underscoring his unique ability. 

His Houston Rocket teammates miss; Malone doesn’t. What they miss, he grabs.

He is merely the best offensive rebounder in NBA history, possibly the best overall rebounder in NBA history—better than Bill Russell, better than Wilt Chamberlain, better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, better than Artis Gilmore. 

He is so good at what he does that those who have tried to put it in words have credited him with as many as eight appendages. “There’s no question about the rebounding area,” says Atlanta Coach Hubie Brown. “He already is as good an offensive rebounder as anybody who ever played the game. He just refuses to concede, whether he’s going for a rebound or going up for a shot. He turns into an animal when he gets within five feet of the basket. He just turns into an animal!”

“He just never stands still,” says Philadelphia center Darryl Dawkins, who like Malone also jumped directly from high school to the pros. “He spends every single second fighting you for position. You have to fight him and bump him and go to the boards and try to outjump him. You feel like you’re trying to box out an octopus.”

“His hands are like flypaper when he gets up there going for a rebound,” says teammate Mike Newlin. “Even though his body is twisted and contorted, he gets those arms out quicker than any man I’ve ever seen. It’s almost like a frog’s tongue nailing an insect.”

Frog. Octopus. Animal. Whatever description is used, the words hardly seem as indelible as the statistical evidence. 

The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Malone pulled down 10 or more offensive rebounds in 22 games last year and 20 or more total rebounds in 32 games. He set a league record for offensive rebounds with 587 and, with 857 off the defensive boards, had a total of 1,444—an average of 17.6 per game. 

Jabbar had only 207 offensive rebounds among his total of 1,025 (12.8 average) and Gilmore had just 297 among his total of 1,043 (12.7 average). In three direct confrontations with Jabbar, Malone averaged 23 rebounds a game to 11.3 for Kareem. 

It is difficult to compare Malone against Russell and Chamberlain for two reasons. They played in different eras, and the NBA has separated rebounds into offensive and defensive categories only since the 1973-74 season. 

But there is one yardstick that gives us a fairly accurate picture—no player in NBA history has accounted for a higher ratio of his team’s rebounds as Malone. Malone last year pulled down 39 percent of Houston’s, far better than the previous record of 36.3 percent by Chamberlain in 1962-63. 

Finally, since the NBA has been distinguishing between offensive and defensive rebounds, the only name appearing in the record book is Moses Malone. He set the records of 437 in 1976-77, his first full season in the NBA, and broke it last season. 

“He plays the game like no other center has ever played it,” says teammate Rick Barry, who plays the forward position the same way. “Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem all own their own distinctive styles, but Mo fits into a different category altogether.

“No one ever had the quickness for his size, plus the instinctive ability to be around the basketball. Without question, he’s proven he’s the best offensive rebounder in the history of the game.”

And, in all of this it should not be forgotten that Malone is only 24; if he had gone to college, he would only be entering his sophomore season in the NBA. “If he had stayed in college,” says Barry, “he would have been outlawed by his junior year.”

The same threat just might surface in the NBA. According to Tom Nissalke, the former Houston coach who has been Malone’s guru since he joined the pros as a member of the ABA Utah Stars, Moses is far from a finished product. 

“He’s only scratched his surface potential,” Nissalke insists. “I think he’s the greatest rebounder since Russell and Chamberlain. But he’s only 60 percent of what he can be.”

Calvin Murphy was ecstatic after Malone’s showdowns with Kareem. Murphy left no doubt what he thought. “Kareem was always the best big man in the game,” Murphy said. “But not anymore. Moses is.”

Indeed, if there is anything that bothers Moses when it comes to all the furor he has created with his ability to rebound, it’s that his rebounding is the only thing everyone talks about. If anything angers Malone, it’s that his ability to score never is spotlighted. 

“I can do it all, rebound, score the points,” Moses says. “I’ve always been a player. People just talk about my rebounding, but I don’t buy that, no way. I’m a player, I’m a scorer. I can do whatever I have to.

“But all everyone talks about is my rebounding. Why don’t they talk about my scoring, too?”

Fact is, everyone does talk about his rebounding and overlooks his scoring. And his scoring shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Moses had his best season as a scorer last year when he collected 2,031 points—only one of three players to crack the 2,000-point mark (George Gervin of San Antonio and Lloyd Free of San Diego were the others).

His 24.8 per game average left him in a tie for the No. 4 spot in the league with Bob McAdoo of the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics, behind Gervin, Free, and Marques Johnson of the Milwaukee Bucks. Not bad for a guy who is known only for his rebounding. 

“I could always score,” Malone says. “But you can’t put it in unless you get it. If they want to go to me, I’ll score them some points. You just got to know what I can do and where I need the ball to put it in.”

Meanwhile, Moses Malone says, he’s just going to continue doing what he’s doing—working harder than anyone else—despite the MVP award. The MVP award, insists Malone, does not mean he’s the best player in the league—yet. 

“In this case,” he points out, “I got the most votes, so that made me the choice. But I’ve got a lot of things to work on. I don’t think I’m the best player. I’ve got to work hard all the time.

“I just go out there and play the only way I know how, the way I’ve been playing since I was a kid. There’s a lot of players better than me. But it takes a lot of work to play this game. There are a lot better players, but I don’t want there to be any harder workers.”

He is a product of the decision he made when he finished high school in Petersburg, Va., and passed up an opportunity to attend the University of Maryland, so he could continue his basketball education in the pros. 

“I’m a basketball player first,” Malone said at the time. “I did what I felt I had to do. I’d seen the pros on TV, and I figured I was quicker. People talked about experience, but I never thought experience meant that much under the rack (rim).”

Basketball is what he wanted. It was what he knew, what he did best, what he could be successful at. He knew what he wanted and, unlike some others, he has continued to chase it with unceasing fury every season, every game, every rebound. 

“His whole expression of life is out on the floor,” says Calvin Murphy, the littlest Rocket. “Mo’s always had a hard time articulating his thoughts and feelings to strangers. He’s always been an introvert. Each night he shows everyone his overwhelming desire to succeed. He has an unbelievable drive to be great.”

Everyone underscores that whenever they talk about the reasons for Malone’s success. “I’ve coached two great offensive rebounders—Paul Silas and John Drew,” says Kansas City Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. “They both wanted the ball. But Moses wants it more than either. That’s where you start when you discuss Moses Malone—his overwhelming desire to get the basketball. No. 1 and foremost, he wants the ball.”

“The one thing about Moses,” says new Houston Coach Del Harris, “the reason he is the game’s best rebounder is because he will go after 150 rebounds a game. His percentage isn’t any better than a lot of people’s. But he gets 20 out of 150. Other rebounders go after 20 and get five or six. 

“Moses pursues a minimum of 100 a game. He doesn’t forfeit any rebound unless it’s just totally a hopeless situation.”

“What sets him apart,” says Nissalke, now coach of the Utah Jazz, “is the fact that he’s a tremendous competitor. It’s not his second effort that is the great thing. He has that great third and fourth effort that most players just don’t have.”

“When you play against Moses,” says Mitch Kupchak of the Washington Bullets, “you have to be looking at him every second. He is the hardest guy for me to play. He’ll go after everything. You have to keep boxing him out, making sure he doesn’t sneak along the baseline.”

“You have to box him out every damn time, every time the ball goes up,” says Rich Kelley, the No. 2 rebounder in the league last season. “It just wears on you, mind and body. The other good centers learn to cruise for a quarter. They pick their spots. Not Moses. By the end of every game against him, you’re whipped.”

The big question is why the Mitch Kupchaks and Rich Kelleys are more tired than Moses Malone. When the others are huffin’ and puffin’, Moses still seems ready to cruise and bruise. Moses has a simple answer: he enjoys what he’s doing. 

“I love a lot of contact,” he explains. “I’d like to feel that bumping around. If I get a lot of contact around the boards, I just get stronger. A guy might hold me off for a quarter or two. Even block me out for three quarters. But I’m just waiting and waiting for that BIG quarter. 

“You keep moving, and it’s going to pay off. He’s going to be so tired fighting you, he won’t have anything left. Things change in that money (fourth) quarter. A man figures he has boxed you out for three quarters, he’s confident. He’s dead-tired, so he lets down a little. 

“Now he kinda forgets about me, but I’m still coming. The only time I have trouble getting a rebound is if they put two or three guys on me. If it’s only one guy, I can get the rebounds.”

Nothing is more indicative of that than the third meeting last season between Malone’s Rockets and Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers. Each team had won one of the previous games—this was the rubber match between the teams and the rebounding giants. Another of the NBA’s giants, Bill Walton, was there to witness the event and labeled it “the matchup for the MVP Award this season.”

The Rockets won it in overtime with Malone playing 50 minutes. He hit on 16 of 23 shots from the floor, while accumulating 34 points and grabbing 25 rebounds, stealing the ball twice, passing offer three assists, and blocking one shot. Kareem also scored 34 points, but only had 14 rebounds. 

The most-important statistic, however, was, as usual for Moses, offensive rebounds. He had 11—two more then the entire Laker team, Kareem included. 

Kareem was thoroughly impressed, but wouldn’t say Malone was better. 

“He’s an exceptional player who uses his talents very well,” Kareem acknowledged. “His anticipation and timing are uncanny. He’s extremely quick and jumps well. Is he the best young center in the league? I don’t know. But you can’t be too far off to say that.” 

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