Moses Malone: One of the NBA's original trendsetters

Yahoo Sports

On what would have been Moses Malone’s 65th birthday, Yahoo Sports looks back at his legacy.

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The list of three-time MVP winners can be rolled off the tongue by even the most casual NBA observer.

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There’s Kareem, and Michael and Wilt and Russell and LeBron.

Those come off easy.

Then you think of Magic’s run in the late 80s, which came right after Larry Bird pulling off the unprecedented streak of three straight from 1984-86.

That’s it, right?

Of course, there’s Julius Erving’s two ABA trophies followed by winning one in 1981 — if we’re counting everything from the red, white and blue era.

That’s the list, right?

Not exactly.

Moses Malone’s longevity could best describe his career, but he’s on that hallowed list as the aforementioned legends, winning three MVPs from 1979-83, the godfather of big men who followed through the 90s.

In some ways it’s easy to forget how he fits in history, and because he passed away in 2015 at the age of 60, he isn’t seen at the events the NBA uses to celebrate its rich history. But on what would’ve been his 65th birthday, Malone’s play deserves recognition.

Julius Erving, left, and Moses Malone, right, hold the 1983 NBA Finals after their Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in four straight games. (AP)
Julius Erving, left, and Moses Malone, right, hold the 1983 NBA Finals after their Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in four straight games. (AP)

During a five-year stretch where he led the league in rebounding four times, he was the league’s most imposing figure. His 1982 MVP campaign, where he averaged 31.1 points, remains the highest-scoring output for a center since 1980 — not bad for a man whose best skill was wanting it more than you.

His highlight film looks nothing like Shaquille O’Neal’s or Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson, no otherworldly athleticism. Light feet, soft hands and going tip-tip-tip on the offensive glass, almost toying with opposing big men.

It was his sweat-soaked aggressiveness that was so valuable during that time, carrying the only below-.500 team to the NBA Finals in 1981 as the leader of the Houston Rockets.

Malone gave the NBA so much trouble his name should’ve been included in Abdul-Jabbar’s famous line in the movie “Airplane” when he told a kid who chided his effort, “Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!”

There was no dragging Malone up and down the floor, not from Abdul-Jabbar or anyone else when he was rolling. He was relentless in his pursuit, most notably on the glass as perhaps the best offensive rebounder of all time. Such a monster Malone was, Nike’s pre-Jordan marketing featured a poster of Malone, draped in biblical-like garb true to his first name with the caption, “Chairman of the boards.”

He was a trendsetter in every way, going back to his forgoing college and jumping straight to the ABA in 1974, playing two seasons before the merger and landing in Houston in 1976 — next to Erving and perhaps including his future teammate, Malone was the best export. Long before Kevin Durant made the controversial move in being an MVP going to the previous year’s NBA Finalist, Malone tilted the balance of the sport with a similar move.

The league’s most irresistible force joined the Philadelphia 76ers via free agency in 1982, a team featuring a superstar in Erving but that had fallen short to the Lakers in two of the previous three Finals. So confident was Malone, he coined the phrase “‘fo, ‘fo, ‘fo”, saying his team would sweep the then-three rounds of the playoffs.

“I wanted 12 games, I wanted to get the summer going,” Malone later joked.

He and Erving proved to be the perfect duo as the 76ers etched their way to one of the best single seasons in league history, although they’ve been slightly forgotten in the annals since.

Erving was the face, Malone the engine as they swept lost just one game in the playoffs, sweeping the Celtics in the semifinals and exacting revenge on the Lakers in a convincing sweep that earned Malone and Erving their first and only NBA title.

Malone and the 76ers could never duplicate their 65-win season in 1983, although Malone had many more productive seasons in him, maintaining his All-Star status every year through the decade.

He mentored a young, chubby draft pick named Charles Barkley, telling the frustrated rookie he wasn’t getting playing time because “you’re fat and you’re lazy”, according to Barkley. It set Barkley on a pace that resulted in a Hall of Fame career, with Barkley crediting Malone for his development.

He was traded from Philadelphia in 1986, playing for Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Philadelphia again and a stint in San Antonio before retiring in 1995.

The big man has become extinct in today’s NBA, the post-up plodders being phased out year after year with a smaller, quicker game.

Who knows if someone as unique or as dominant as Malone would fit in the modern game, as there’s no reasonable facsimile to the way he played — perhaps Andre Drummond in terms of offensive rebounding.

But there’s no doubt of the mark he left on the league — just check the trophy case and the bruises on the big men he brushed aside to get to the boards.

Moses Malone led the Houston Rockets into the 1981 NBA Finals, the only sub-.500 team to get there. (AP Photo)
Moses Malone led the Houston Rockets into the 1981 NBA Finals, the only sub-.500 team to get there. (AP Photo)

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