The University of Maryland men’s basketball team reached the Elite Eight in 1975.
But if a certain blue-chip recruit had followed through on his letter of intent, the Terps might’ve reached the Final Fo’.
Instead, Moses Malone went straight to the pros and eventually uttered one of sports’ most iconic quotes – “Fo’, fo’, fo’” – when he predicted that Philadelphia would sweep its way to the 1983 NBA title. He was off by one game, as the Sixers won in four against New York, five against Milwaukee and four against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Malone died Sunday in Norfolk, Virginia, at the age of 60. In case we had forgotten his impact on basketball or didn’t fully appreciate his greatness, his death served as an unwelcome reminder.
“With three MVPs and an NBA championship, he was among the most dominant centers to ever play the game and one of the best players in the history of the NBA and the ABA,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.
“Even more than his prodigious talent, we will miss his friendship, his generosity, his exuberant personality, and the extraordinary work ethic he brought to the game throughout his 21-year pro career.”
Before that, Malone became the first high school player to skip college and go directly to the pros. He never suited up for Lefty Driesell but the former Terps’ coach remained close to his one-time recruit and helped him sign with the ABA’s Utah Stars.
“When he went pro he could’ve forgotten about me,” Driesell told Norfolk’s WAVY-TV Sunday. “But he’d always call me and come see me whenever he was around here. Moses was just one of my best friends. And he’s the best basketball player that ever came from the state of Virginia.”
Malone didn’t need much of an adjustment period as a 19-year-old rookie. He played nearly 39 minutes per game and averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds. His ability to corral caroms stood out right away, leading to the Hall of Famer’s nickname: “Chairman of the Boards.”
“The young Moses Malone had virtually no offensive moves other than a devastating ability to get the ball off the glass,” former Utah Stars coach Tom Nissalke says in the ABA oral history Loose Balls. “He was so lightning-quick and just seemed to know where a rebound was going. I saw a playoff game in his rookie season where he had 38 rebounds, 23 of them off the offensive glass.”
Rebounding is inglorious work, lacking the splash of scoring and the flash of fancy passing. But Malone had a penchant and passion that stood out. He ranks first in offensive rebounds and fifth in total rebounds on the NBA all-time list. His effort on putbacks and steady improvement at the free throw line – he went from shooting .635 as a rookie to shooting .760 for his career – helped him average 20.3 points per game during his 21 pro seasons.
Malone was the first player allowed to prove that gifted teenagers can hold their own against grown men. A year after Utah drafted Malone out of Petersburg (Va.) High, the Sixers drafted Darryl Dawkins out of an Orlando high school. Dawkins, more colorful but much less accomplished, preceded Malone in death by just 16 days.
NBA teams didn’t draft any high school players from 1976 until Kevin Garnett broke the streak in the 1995 draft, which occurred a few weeks after Malone’s ended his career with San Antonio. Future Hall of Famers Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have thrived since making the leap, which was banned following the 2005 draft.
Malone would’ve destroyed college competition and the Terps surely could’ve used him. They failed to reach the NCAA tournament in 1976-78, what would’ve been his final three seasons. But considering the extreme poverty and academic struggles Malone experienced in Petersburg, he needed paychecks more than textbooks.
The closest he came to College Park was Capital Centre, where he played for the Washington Bullets in 1987-88 and 1988-89. They reached the playoffs both seasons but were bounced in the first round against the “Bad Boys” from Detroit.
Malone was still a great player, leading the Bullets in scoring and rebounding during his two years, but he and shooting guard Jeff Malone (no relation) didn’t have enough help. After Moses Malone departed for Atlanta, Washington reached the playoffs just once during the next 16 seasons.
The Bullets’ time with Malone was brief, although better than nonexistent like his Terps’ stint.
No matter the teams, basketball fans are forever grateful that Malone played. Voted one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, he did so like few ever.