By Sean C. Bowers
Petersburg, Virginia’s own prodigal son, basketball’s Moses Malone died this past week after a sixty-year love affair with the game and life.
Moses grew up in the early 1960-70’s racially charged old South. He attended Petersburg High School, leading them to undefeated back-to-back Virginia State AAA championships. Moses’ family was dirt poor and basketball became his salvation and the path to a better life for him and his family. He had a literal hunger to succeed.
My mother, who also grew up and attended PHS, regularly took me up to visit my grandparents during those years. I would get dropped off to practice at the main outdoor playground courts and watched Moses do his work. He was a man among boys even as a skinny 6’7” kid.
His forte was the aspect of the game that dictates winning and losing; he was a rebounder. It was almost as if he was starving and ate rebounds by gobbling them up as they were the only thing that seemed to satisfy his appetite. Those pick-up games were legendary.
Moses dominated with sheer will, hustle and tenacity. He would control the game, win and always be there practicing- even alone by himself. I never saw him lose a game. He was the King, way before today’s Lebron.
In fact, I tell young basketball players who think they are hard workers in the game how Moses earned his nickname, “Chairman of the Boards.” At sixteen, Moses had already easily beaten all the Petersburg-Richmond area talent. He instinctively knew he needed to find rougher, bigger, better competition. So he regularly visited the local Virginia maximum security corrections facility, playing against and stunning the much older, stronger, more mature male inmates.
Those sessions prepared Moses to become basketball’s best rebounder. Rebounding is, at its simplest, a battle of position of the ball. Moses won those loose balls through a relentless passion to own the ball, play after play, day after day, year after year, rebound after rebound.
Moses rebounded his way straight from his downtrodden neighborhood to skip college and go directly to the American Basketball Association’s Utah Stars. The first thing Moses did was build his mother a new house outside Petersburg in Matoca, so she could live comfortably in her early retirement.
Moses was a shy man of few words, but when he spoke, like E.F. Hutton, people listened. He had a stuttering speech impediment, but he commanded such respect that everyone just said, “That’s Moses.” As he grew into his 6’11” body, few people had the desire to agitate him.
While he set many individual records, Moses is best remembered for teaming with “Doctor J.,” Julius Erving, to bring the Philadelphia 76’ers a National Basketball Association title in 1982-83. Moses predicted to the media that the Sixers would win the three playoff series “Fo-Fo-Fo” straight games, sweeping all their opponents on the way to their championship.
In actuality, that team was 12-1 in their quest. Moses was his usual unstoppable self, easily dominating the Lakers who had beaten the Sixers in both 1980 and 1982 for the title. Many consider that team to be one of the best teams with respect to the Bill-Russell-lead Celtics of the 1950’s-60,’ who won eleven championships in a different era.
Moses re-defined rebounder. He rebounded from his upbringing to become a hero and world champion both on and off the court. He was always approachable, a nice man, and a role model for the game’s incentive and reward tenet of hard work.
In many basketball circles Moses is considered the hardest worker the game has ever produced as he earned every rebound the old-fashioned way. He worked for them.
My High School coach, Don McCool, then of West Springfield HS, coached against Moses in the state championship game. McCool showed me the grainy old Black and white film and said they wanted to send a message on the first play of the game when Moses tried to go to the basket.
“We sent all five guys to foul him as hard as they could. Moses still dunked the ball on the way to a two-point win, and instead, he sent the message that he was not to be denied.” If older players and coaches were polled about having to get one rebound on one play, their nearly unanimous choice would be my man, Moses Malone.
Moses took young players (like rookie Charles Barkley) under his wing, showing them the level of commitment and practice habits it would require for them to succeed and become true professionals. Barkley even called Moses dad. One of his more famous quotes, when speaking about the then-young Hakeem Olajuwon was, “I learned him too good.”
Moses, you led us all to the Promised Land and you learned us too good.
Sean C. Bowers is a local progressive youth development coach, author and poet, who has written for the New Journal and Guide for seventeen years. His recent book of over 120 NJ&G articles detailing the issues is available via e-mail at V1ZUAL1ZE@aol.com and he does make large-scale solutions presentations upon request.