(RVASN Social Media/Broadcast Director Rob Witham offers his thoughts on the life and career of Moses Malone, who died suddenly Sunday morning in Norfolk at age 60...)
Before it became standard fare for high school basketball phenoms to declare themselves for the NBA Draft, before Kobe, Kevin, and LeBron, there was Moses.
A fitting name because he truly parted the sea of the long-held traditions of how you became a pro basketball player. When Malone burst onto the local high school scene at Petersburg during the 1972-73 season, freshmen still couldn't play college basketball. Come to think of it, it was still the era when just one conference team made the NCAA Tournament. Today's high schoolers surely cannot fathom how that was reality.
Two seasons, and two state championships later, Malone, after first deciding to go to the University of Maryland, where Lefty Driesell stormed the sidelines of the old Cole Field House in classic ACC rivalries with Norm Sloan and North Carolina State and Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels, he changed his mind.
But the NBA was not the option. It was the ABA, the American Basketball Association, the league with the red, white, and blue ball, the more flashy style of play, welcoming offensive innovation. They would've also welcomed, but, in the end, never received, financial stability.
Once upon a time, Julius "Dr. J" Erving sent home slam dunks in the Richmond Coliseum, the Richmond Arena, and the Norfolk Scope for the old Virginia Squires. Malone, though, headed to the Utah Stars, and became the first player to go straight from high school to the professional ranks.
Malone then, somehow quietly, began to build a Hall of Fame career. There was more talk about other players as the ABA declined to its eventual 1976 death, "merging" four teams into the NBA (can you name them?). Malone joined Dr. J, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, David Thompson and other ABA stars in the NBA. He was named NBA MVP in 1979, averaging, mind you, nearly 25 points and 18 rebounds per game. Per game!
But it was the Seattle SuperSonics and Washington Bullets who owned the Finals in '79, for the second straight year. Then, that summer, Magic and Bird arrived, and so did new era for the NBA. But Malone kept plying his trade with Calvin Murphy and others for Houston, and, two years later, he made his first NBA Finals.
It would be Bird and the Celtics victorious, however. It would take two more years, and a trade to Philadelphia, that gave Moses his shot at a championship ring. During the magical (no pun intended) NBA decade of the 1980s, the 76ers made The Finals three times. But it was 1983 when Malone, Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, and former UVA standout Marc Iavaroni, rolled to the NBA title, sweeping Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers in the most dominant Finals performance I've seen in my forty plus years of watching pro basketball.
Remember, the Lakers were Showtime. Worthy, Scott, Rambis, and the aforementioned superstars were all there. They had beaten the Sixers in six games a year before. But that was before Moses came to The City of Brotherly Love and led his team out of the championship wilderness.
After a two-decade career, Malone retired with 29,580 points, seventh all-time in pro basketball (NBA/ABA). Since then, more people discuss and remember Kareem, and Wilt, and Bill Russell, and later mainstay centers like Olajuwon and Ewing. But historians of the game know just how powerful, dominant, and memorable Malone was.
Those of us who watched him play knew, too.
But for all of his greatness of the court, I will most remember Moses Malone as someone who didn't forget his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia. He did not forget his roots there, whether in Utah, Houston, or Philadelphia. And a city, and the entire Central Virginia region, will always be in his debt.