Malone, Moses Eugene

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MALONE, Moses Eugene

(b. 23 March 1955, in Chesterfield County, Virginia), professional All-Star basketball player known for his fierce rebounding and high-scoring games.

Malone was an only child and was raised primarily by his mother, Mary Hudgins Malone, a nurses' aide and meat-packer. Malone and his mother moved to Petersburg, Virginia, after her separation from his alcoholic father. Malone embraced the game of basketball early and practiced incessantly. By age twelve he was already six feet, three inches tall, and a local youth league required that he play guard and stay out of the key area. That injunction, designed to keep taller players from dominating the area around the basket, only improved his dribbling and shooting. A personal prediction placed in the family Bible forecast that Malone would be the best player on the local high school team; a second, placed slightly later, predicted that he would go immediately into professional leagues. Malone's basketball statistics at Petersburg High School, from which he graduated in 1974, were 31 points, an astounding 26 rebounds, and 10 blocked shots per game.

Not surprisingly, in spite of Malone's poor grades more than 300 colleges offered him scholarships. Malone signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Maryland, then changed his mind and signed a six-year, $3 million contract with the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association (ABA), thereby becoming the first modern player to go directly into professional basketball from high school.

Malone explained that his reason for the jump to the professional league in 1974 was not strictly financial. He had watched both collegiate and professional games and judged the undergraduate matches to be "too soft." Malone immediately established his toughness in his rookie year with the Stars, averaging almost nineteen points and fifteen rebounds per game and making the Western Division All-Star team of the ABA. He led the league in offensive rebounds, one of the most important statistics in the game. Observers were impressed by Malone's incessant drive at either end of the court, his quickness, and his leaping ability. Less impressive were his shooting and pass-catching.

Malone was injured the first half of the 1975–1976 campaign and the Utah franchise folded at midseason. The St. Louis Spirits picked up his contract and he averaged 14.6 points a game for them. When the entire ABA disbanded after the season, Malone bounced among several teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Finally, he went to the Houston Rockets, coached by Tom Nissalke, his mentor at Utah; Nissalke built the Rockets around Malone's talents. Malone reached his playing height of six feet, ten inches, and developed into a 255-pound powerhouse. He prospered with Houston and Nissalke. He was a five-time All-Star and was NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1979 and 1982. At the age of only twenty-one, Malone set a new season record for offensive rebounds with 437. He led the Rockets into the playoffs, taking them as far as a losing effort to the Boston Celtics in the 1981–1982 season. He perennially led the league in offensive rebounds and total average rebounds and was among the leaders in scoring. While Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the era's most famous center, Malone perfected the offensive rebound and was as dominant in the overall game. Jabbar's elegant skyhook recalled the earlier days of the game, Malone's pound-it-inside methods foretold the tough, defensive wrestling that characterized basketball for the rest of the century.

Despite his lack of a college education, Malone was astute in contract sessions. Already making more than $1 million a year in 1979, he signed a six-year, $13.2 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982. In his first year he earned (with bonuses) almost $3 million, the highest salary in professional basketball. He invented a number of bonus clauses. If Malone seems mercenary, consider that during his career he was sold once, selected twice in dispersal drafts, traded four times, and signed four free-agent contracts.

Malone's greatest year was 1982, in his first season with Philadelphia. Teaming up with the legendary forward Julius Erving and All-Star guards Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney, Malone and the 76ers won sixty-five games during the regular season then roared through the playoffs, losing only one game and winning the championship easily from the Los Angeles Lakers. In 1983 Malone was voted MVP of the regular season and the playoffs. He led the NBA in rebounding, a feat he repeated the next two years, although the 76ers lost key players to injuries and could not defend their crown. Malone was a highly consistent player who mapped the area around the basket in an unceasing struggle for rebounds and dunks. Anticipating the rebounding exploits of Dennis Rodman, Malone often tipped the ball to himself when boxed out. Other players remarked that his hands were like flypaper. A cagey defender, Malone holds the record of 1,027 games without fouling out.

In the summer of 1986, following the curious logic that because Malone had skipped college his career was four years older than his chronological age, 76ers owner Harold Katz traded Malone to the Washington Bullets. Although he accepted the trade placidly, Malone later forecast that he would never lose to his old team. The deal was a disaster for Philadelphia. Jeff Ruland, Malone's replacement, had an injury-prone career, while Malone terrorized the 76ers every time the teams met. He averaged more than twenty-nine points and fourteen rebounds against his former teammates and led Washington to four straight victories until an overtime defeat late in the season. In fact, Malone had forced the trade to Washington when he demanded an extension of his earlier contract.

Malone played well with the Bullets, averaging more than twenty points per game, but the team did not win and allowed him to sign a contract worth at least $4.6 million a year with the Atlanta Hawks in 1988. He earned his twelfth straight All-Star berth in 1988 and led the Hawks into the playoffs. In 1990 Malone signed with the Milwaukee Bucks. In 1993 he returned to Philadelphia to help the 76ers with their seven-foot, six-inch center, Shawn Bradley, although in spite of Malone's teaching Bradley never developed into an outstanding player. Malone spent his final year playing for the San Antonio Spurs. He ruptured a tendon at midseason, an injury that forced him into retirement.

Malone spends his retirement at his home in Sugar Land, Texas, raising his two sons. His former wife, Alfreda Gill, from whom he was divorced in 1992, lives in a nearby town. Malone closed out his career with more than 27,000 points, fourth best in the history of the NBA, and 16,212 rebounds, also among historic leaders. During his career Malone was a mentor and role model for such stars as Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley. His credo for his career was, "Playing hard is not about the money, it's all pride." Malone was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.

Biographical material on Malone can be found in Current Biography Yearbook (1986). Malone is featured in Jack McCollum, "Back to Haunt the Sixers," Sports Illustrated (15 Mar. 1987), and John O'Keefe, "Catching Up with Moses Malone, NBA All-Star Center," Sports Illustrated (12 Apr. 1999).

Graham Russell Hodges

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