The Archive: The night Moses Malone got his ring

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Moses Malone drives up court after a steal. (November 7, 1985)

(This story was originally published in June of 1983.)

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — It was the summer of '74, the little sliver of time in which the University of Maryland's basketball coaches could rightfully claim Moses Malone as theirs.

They camped out and they cajoled and they preached and they made late-night calls from toll-booth telephones. And they grasped him - and then, in a moment of weakness, opened their hands.

"I'll never forget it as long as I live," said Dave Pritchett, one of those coaches, nearly eight years later. "Everything was all set. And then Moses and Brad Davis and three guys off the street formed a team in the Urban Coalition League."

And then?

"And then," Pritchett said sadly, "they beat the Bullets. Beat Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld, all of them on the same team. That's when I knew we were in trouble."

Yes, the teenage Moses Malone, a college sophomore, and the equivalent of three guys from Petersburg, beating an NBA playoff team in its prime.

No one who saw it, no one who heard it, was surprised that the grown-up, fleshed-out Moses Malone, now with Julius Erving and Andrew Toney and several other champions beside him, predicted the Philadelphia 76ers would win the 1983 NBA championship in the minimum - i.e., "fo', fo', fo'."

"We had to settle for fo', five, fo'," said Malone, who seemed to like the quote the more he thought about it. "But that's all right. We'll take it."

The 76ers had just swept the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers last night in the finals, had just gone 12-1 in the playoffs.

Those who knew Moses Malone when - those who spent months in Petersburg, Va., hotels, those who grew to know Mary Malone's phone number better than their own - are more surprised about the one than about the 12.

Magic Johnson may be the world's best basketball player, with Larry Bird the first runner-up and Julius Erving a definite finalist, as well as Mr. Congeniality.

But Moses Malone brings more of an impact on a game, on a team, on a season than any other basketball-playing human being on earth. That is why he is about to become the league's MVP for the third time in five seasons, and that is why he now places a playoff MVP trophy next to his first championship since Petersburg High in '74.

The Sixers' first title since 1967 fulfilled all the poetic requirements. Erving's seven-year Man of La Mancha campaign ended when he single-handedly built a seven-point bridge in the last 2:03. The prevailing image is of Erving's incandescent grin as Maurice Cheeks dribbled the final seconds away and dunked - maybe the one time in five years that Cheeks saw Erving open and didn't deliver the ball.

But the second last bucket of this championship season, the last score that mattered, was Moses Malone dunking, and that, too, was as it should have been.

Malone has doggedly resisted all kinds of media attempts at clinical psychology. He has, instead, defined himself on the court. There, nothing about him can be called pretty - not even his basic solemn, baleful, step- across-that-line expression. He does not, repeat not, possess that cutest little baby face.

But he does have another face, and he showed it when he walked into the Sixers' champagne fest last night. Until a Sports Illustrated photographer snapped it at its peak a couple of weeks ago, few non-teammates had ever seen it. It's a smile, even though the corners of the lips are turned down - it's like a fifth-grader trying hard not to laugh when he sees the teacher's slip showing. It's a joke that Malone only knows. It's a look that's wise in the ways of the street and, perhaps, as close as Malone will ever come to full disclosure.

The Sixers, who were having a fairly sedate time until then, opened full fire on Malone. He gasped and winked and smiled that non-smile time and again.

"Man, I'm tired," he said. "I'm tired, now. But I want to say hello to Petersburg. I'm going to go to the parade and then get some rest. And, Philadelphia, here we come."

Malone, of course, gets about as visibly tired as a thunderstorm. He is the longest-playing one-man band around. Thus, it came as little surprise that the Sixers beat LA, 124-79, in the fourth quarters of these four games. The team, in more ways than that one, grew to reflect the personality of its center.

"Moses came here as a two-time MVP," assistant coach Matt Guokas said. ''He had his ways. He was set in his ways. But Billy (Cunningham) and Moses got together and said, well, this is the way we'll approach in light of all these other people. That is very tough to do.

"I think we've turned the corner in many ways. Attendance is one of them. And Moses is one big reason. He played all year and I didn't hear one person say, 'Oh, look at him getting $2 million. I can't believe it. 'Nobody said that. That in itself is hard to believe."

Malone nodded again, got a champagne facial again, smiled again.

"We beat the Lakers six straight times this year," Malone rumbled. "They didn't beat us. That's got to make them think about it a little bit. They gotta think about that.

"This team (the Sixers) played hard all year, did what it had to do. When playoff time came around, it worked a little harder."

But what about down the stretch? From where did the Sixers get the strength to wipe out the 11-point lead after three quarters, the seven-point lead with 7:49 left?

"We just decided to play," Malone said. "And I think the Lakers saw what we were doing. I thought they started to tighten up. I think they said, 'Look out. That big train's coming down the track again. Here it comes.' I could see them thinking that.

"I remember when we beat the Knicks in four. They said, well, we played 'em some close games. Milwaukee said the same thing. Now the Lakers are talking about their injuries. Well, I know one thing. We're the champions, and fo', five, fo' oughta to speak for itself."

Malone toured the locker room, trying to return all the champagne he'd received. He is like that - he likes to pay back in full.

Harold Katz brought him to Philly last August on a magic carpet of cash. It turned out to be not only a down payment on a championship but a deposit for credibility.

In the end, the Lakers were heaving three-pointers that resembled surrender flags. The Celtics were long since swept; the other ghosts had fled.

You put other athletes on the couch. You put the essence of Moses Malone in a trophy case.