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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Three-Time MVP Moses Malone Dies Unexpectedly at Age 60

Moses Malone and Julius Erving at the 2005 ABA Reunion in Denver
(photo copyright David Friedman)

This has been a terrible recent period for the NBA family. Darryl Dawkins passed away less than three weeks ago, Roy Marble just succumbed to his battle with cancer, Flip Saunders is taking a leave of absence to fight cancer and it has just been reported that Moses Malone (who replaced Dawkins at center for the Philadelphia 76ers) passed away. Malone jumped straight from Petersburg (Va.) High School to the ABA in 1974 and he enjoyed a 21 year career during which he became one of the most decorated players in pro basketball history, winning three regular season MVPs (1979, 1982-83), one NBA Finals MVP (1983) and six rebounding titles (1979, 1981-85). 

Malone made the All-Star team 13 times (once in the ABA and 12 times in the NBA), earned eight All-NBA Team selections (including four All-NBA First Team honors) and was twice chosen for the All-Defensive Team. Malone led the league in total offensive rebounds a record nine times (this statistic has been charted since 1967-68 in the ABA and since 1973-74 in the ABA). He ranks third in pro basketball history (behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell) with 17,834 career rebounds and he ranks seventh in pro basketball history with 29,580 career points.

The numbers and honors speak to Malone's dominance, durability and dedication but you had to see him play to fully appreciate his impact. Malone was not flashy but he was relentless, energetic and powerful. He was the best rebounder of his era by far and the most dominant inside player in the NBA from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s. He was also a tremendous scorer who finished in the top five in that category five times, including two times as the runner-up (27.8 ppg in 1980-81 and a career-high 31.1 ppg in 1981-82). Although best known for his rebounding and scoring prowess, Malone was an above average defensive player as well.

Malone posted his best individual statistics during his six year run with the Houston Rockets and he carried the Rockets to the 1981 NBA Finals but he will always be most remembered for his four year stint with the Philadelphia 76ers. When Malone arrived in Philadelphia in 1982, the 76ers had posted the best overall regular season in the league since the 1976 ABA-NBA merger and had made it to the NBA Finals three times but they could not get over the hump. The 76ers had no answer in the middle for Hall of Fame centers like Bill Walton, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. Malone changed all of that. Malone teamed up with Julius Erving to form one of the best single season one-two punches in pro basketball history as the 76ers made a run at 70 wins before settling in at 65-17. During the playoffs, they were even more dominant, setting a record by going 12-1, punctuated by a 4-0 sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers.

Injuries and aging ensured that the 1983 championship represented the culmination of the Julius Erving era as opposed to the start of a dynasty but for a one season stretch that starting five was as good as any that has ever been assembled: Malone (the 1982 MVP who went on to win the 1983 MVP) and Erving (the 1981 MVP) had great chemistry together, point guard Maurice Cheeks was a top notch playmaker, defender and efficient shooter, shooting guard Andrew Toney was headed for the Hall of Fame before injuries shortened his career and power forward Marc Iavaroni did all of the dirty work (five-time All-Star Bobby Jones ranked fifth on the team in minutes played, providing firepower of the bench en route to capturing the 1983 Sixth Man of the Year Award).

The last hurrah for the Malone-Erving 76ers came in 1984-85, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling in five games to the Boston Celtics. Near the end of the 1985-86 season, Malone suffered an orbital bone fracture that forced him to miss the playoffs. The 76ers traded Malone prior to the 1986-87 campaign, which turned out to be Erving's "Farewell Tour," and in the nearly 30 years since that time the 76ers have never come close to matching the sustained success that they enjoyed during Erving's prime.

On a personal note, I met Malone during the 2005 ABA Reunion in Denver. Malone was famously reticent in his dealings with the media and he declined my request for an interview--but he agreed to let me take a photo of him alongside Erving (see above). I will always treasure the memory of sharing that moment with the two stars of the 1983 NBA champions and I think that the arm in arm pose aptly captures the feelings of camaraderie that the two men shared. When Erving and Malone teamed up it was never about who was the man but only about one thing: winning the title together. It is a shame that they did not join forces about five years earlier, because it would have been a sight to behold if they had been paired during their primes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:06 PM


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At Monday, September 14, 2015 12:48:00 PM, Anonymous Mike S said...

Its easy to see Moses' unique impact: he is the only reason a 42-40 team like Houston makes it all the way to the NBA Finals in 81 and wins two games from the Celtics including Game Two in Boston Garden.
Secondly, only the 83 Philadelphia 76ers break the title dominance of Los Angeles and Boston and Moses was the difference there as well.
As much as he is talked about- the truth remains that Moses Malone has always been somewhat underrated.

At Tuesday, September 15, 2015 2:32:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Moses is criminally underrated. He's one of the six best centers ever, and a strong case could be made that he has as much claim to "best ever" status as Kareem/Russell/Wilt/Shaq/Hakeem do. Really a tremendous, unique, and dominant player.


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