Sunday, September 13, 2015

Moses Malone: A Legacy Of Work

Steel Driving Shoulders
At 60 years old, it seems borderline insane that the man who led the Sixers to their most dominant post season, and last title, could be gone. But, well, he is, and the plain and simple fact of the matter is that athletes, even ones in relatively non-contact ones like basketball, don't last as long as you might think. I have no idea what took Malone out, or how anything would take someone as powerful as him out, but it did and there it is.

We are left with our memories of the man, not as sharp as they probably should be, but present nonetheless. Malone was the most workmanlike superstar in NBA history. In an era were smooth, sleek bodies without the benefit of modern conditioning were the norm, Moses was an utter rock. In an era where sleek play and mid-range jumpers dominated, Moses went to the rack. He was willing on defense and a better passer than you might remember, but what set him apart was just his relentlessness. Moses wore teams out.

It took some getting used to, to be honest, and it almost felt like cheating. The Sixers of my youth were greyhounds, with Julius Erving showing you something new every night, Bobby Jones making sure the other team's top scorer did nothing, and sheer talent and artistry overwhelming most opponents. When it didn't work, as it didn't every playoff, it wasn't just a team losing. It was artistry denied, and a reminder that in the mixture that is effectiveness against beauty, the latter was always a loser bet.

Then Moses came, and it felt, on some level, like the Sixers had sold their souls. Here was a brute, who when he got the ball down low, wouldn't give it up. He'd just take the shot, and sometimes, it seemed like he wasn't even trying to score on it -- just pass it off the backboard to himself, for the rebound and putback. There were any number of times where Malone would just pinball the ball to himself, driving the opposition to distraction or fouling. You'd see him do this early, and was as if he was just trying to get guys in foul trouble, so he could utterly destroy their back ups, too. And the man never, ever seemed to get tired, either of this single-minded approach, or from the sheer maddening fatigue that such an approach represented.

For a while, it didn't work -- and then the team just bought all in to the approach. Erving took a clear subservient role, especially in half court. Mo Cheeks would post and re-post Malone, and get him the ball where he needed it for immediate effectiveness. The Sixers could still beat you with pretty, but the hammer was there every night. They were as dominant a team during their championship year as any in that era. But since both of the lead players in this drama were older, and the later loss of shooting guard Andrew Toney to injury forever destroyed the spacing and chemistry, they didn't repeat.

I don't think players loved playing with Malone, to be honest. NBA players tend towards artistry, and sharing the ball, and movement; they don't go so much for wearing an opponent down like a battering ram. Malone was a nomad in his NBA career, and when the Sixers acquired Charles Barkley, they soon moved Moses along, rather than have two touch-intensive players in the low block.

In recent years, you'd see Malone occasionally on the sidelines or in summer league games for the Sixers, and you'd wonder just what he'd have to teach a young player. How to work harder, how to read the ball off the backboard for optimal position, how to have a butt that just made made it impossible to deny him position on the block. His gifts seemed primal, and his way of speaking -- low, limited, sparse -- didn't change the perception at all. If the Sixers were less successful, I'm sure I would have heard even more unfortunate things about him from my unenlightened relatives.

Godspeed, Moses. You were the hammer that made my childhood much happier, and an object lesson in the virtue of work. Relentless, unmitigated, extraordinary work.

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