He turned the art of rebounding into a blood sport. He chased after every missed shot like a starving wolf tracking a pork chop. And more than anything, Moses Eugene Malone was absolutely, indefatigably relentless. I never saw the man take a night off.
Moses passed this weekend, at 60, and barely two weeks after another 76ers star, the effervescent Darryl Dawkins, was laid to rest.
Moses played a no-frills, elbow-slashing, get-out-of-my-way brand of basketball. He glowered and scowled and staked out the paint for himself and no one was in a hurry to trespass. The sweat ran off him in small rivers.
A man of few words, when asked to describe his craft, he said, in typical taciturn fashion: "Basically I just goes to the rack."
On the surface there was nothing to suggest that at his peak he was the best player in the NBA, and certainly the most valuable. His hands were inordinately small. There were better shooters, faster runners, higher leapers, and his posture was a slope-shouldered forward lean that brought to mind a man heading into the teeth of a gale-force wind.
Ah, but when the ball went up he was in his hip-bumping glory. It was ditch-digging work. There is nothing magical about rebounding. Or as Charles Barkley has observed, "Anyone can score. But rebounding, you have to let it all hang out."
This was Moses' secret: "Go after every miss . . . every one . . . not just every other one . . . every one."
At 6-foot-10 and 260 he was hardly small, but more forward than center, and there were plenty of centers taller than he, and yet he dominated in the paint. He specialized in grabbing offensive rebounds and tapping them back up, as though he was playing tap-tap-tap with the ball on the backboard. It was suggested that he seemed to miss on purpose just so he could snatch another. His reply was a cat-ate-the-canary smile.
When the Sixers acquired Moses, Pat Riley, then the Lakers coach, said: "They just got their missing link."
It was prophetic. The Sixers had been knocking on the door of a championship for years but were always one brick shy of a load, even with a team that had the likes of Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks and Bobby (The White Shadow) Jones.
Moses was the difference. Fittingly, then, it was a man named Moses who delivered them to the Promised Land at last.
And along the way he uttered the three most revered words in Philadelphia sports history. All together now:
"Fo . . .
"Fo . . .
In point of fact, there is a school of thought that thinks he might never actually have said it, and if he did he was answering somebody else's question.
Ah, but let the mists of time envelope it. Why spoil such a good story?
Let this, then, be its epitaph:
If it's not a true story, well, it should be.
Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist.