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Moses Malone Goes Up for Rebounds, Comes Down with $13 Million and Just Maybe An Nba Title

updated 06/06/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1983 01:00AM

All 6'10", 235 pounds of Moses Malone are collapsed onto a locker room bench at the Philadelphia Spectrum. There are ice bags on his aching knees and a towel draped across his sagging shoulders. But you should see the other guy! En route to a National Basketball Association finals showdown with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the 76ers have just taken another playoff game from the Milwaukee Bucks—and Malone's performance has been vintage. He has beaten his man—268-pound Bob Lanier, who plays the game like a wounded bull—with speed, hustle and, most of all, stamina. As a game goes on, other big men wind down. Malone, now 28, gets stronger. It's his trademark.

"The bigger they are, the more I be a greyhound," Malone once poeticized. "Pressure's on them to stop me." But the pressure is also on Malone to produce. With a six-year, $13.2 million contract, he is the highest-paid team athlete in the world. And what he is being paid for, specifically, is to produce a championship. Over the past seven years the 76ers have had the best cumulative record in the NBA. Yet even with the services of the sublime Dr. J, Julius Erving, they have not won a title since 1967. Moses, in his first year with the 76ers, is supposed to lead them to that promised land. Uh-huh, says Malone. "I've got all the money I need. The only thing I can't buy is a championship—and that's what I want. I'm just going to have to get more aggressive."

It's hard to believe he can get more aggressive. Malone, the greatest offensive rebounder in history, plays the game with ferocious intensity—even during the regular season, which too many players treat as sort of an 82-game warmup for the playoffs. In only his seventh year in the NBA, he seems headed for a third Most Valuable Player award. He has led the league in rebounding four times and averaged 23.9 points per game for his NBA career. Says George Shirk, a devoted Moses watcher who covers the 76ers for the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I've never seen him intimidated by anyone."

On the court. Off the court, Malone sometimes seems intimidated by life. Though he jokes and trades good-natured insults with teammates in the locker room, he remains aloof outside the clubhouse. Several times Dr. J has invited Malone to his home. Malone has yet to visit.

He is even more wary with sports-writers. Though he will grudgingly give postgame interviews, he refuses to discuss anything "personal." Moreover, he acts as his own quirky press secretary. When Shirk asked for an in-depth interview, Malone demanded $300 (which Shirk refused to provide). This, remember, from a man pulling down $2.2 million per annum.

Perhaps Malone's uneasiness with others can be traced to his boyhood. He grew up in grinding poverty. His ramshackle house in Petersburg, Va. was condemned when he and his mother finally moved out. The one book they owned was a dog-eared Bible. An only child, he was shy to begin with; bad teeth made him reluctant to talk, and when he did so, it was with his head down. Asked if it was true that her lonely, taciturn son would often shoot hoops until 1 or 2 in the morning, his mother, Mary, said, "Yes, he do that. He always love his basketball, and that what give that boy his courage."

All the courage in the world wasn't enough to prepare Malone for the ordeal of college recruitment. Three hundred institutions of higher learning begged to sign him. Recruiters slept on his porch. In the most inspired recruiting gambit of all, Oral Roberts himself came to visit and offered to cure Malone's mother of ulcers. When Malone decided in 1974 to become the first high school player to go directly to the pros—signing a reported $3 million, 10-year contract with the Utah Stars of the now defunct American Basketball Association—the colleges were outraged. So were the sportswriters, who cruelly dubbed him "Mumbles" Malone. One national magazine went so far as to run a story with the headline: "Don't Send My Boy to Harvard...Said Moses Malone's Mother."

That is all behind Malone now. Especially the poverty. Wife Alfreda and son Moses Jr., 3, live year-round in Houston, where Malone played until last year with the Rockets. During the season they occasionally visit Malone's luxurious condo in Philadelphia, where he is flat-out adored by 76er fans. "Moses is popular," says team owner Harold Katz, "because this is a blue-collar, hard-working town." And no one works harder than Moses.

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