Perhaps the most relentless big man in NBA history has passed from the scene way too soon, but not before having defined what we mean by a big man in the NBA.
Moses Malone was with the Philadelphia 76ers for a total of only four complete seasons, but his impact was one of a man who spent a career with the franchise. That’s probably because the Sixers would not have won an NBA title during the Dr. J era without Moses.
Beginning in 1976 and through 1987, when Julius Erving retired, the Sixers were a playoff team. Through most of those seasons, they were an elite team. In 1977, through the first two games of the finals against Portland, Philadelphia looked like it would roll to a championship. And there were big guys on that team – Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins, George McGinnis and, of course, the Doctor. But there was no Moses Malone. In 1980 and 1982, the Sixers vanquished the Celtics and seemed ready for an NBA title – again, with some real big guys. But there was no Moses Malone, and the opponent had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It looked hopeless until owner Harold Katz, surveying his dejected team’s locker room at the end of the 1982 finals, decided to get the missing ingredient. There was no doubt that it was Moses Malone.
Moses not only led the Sixers to the promised land, he had no doubt about his ability to get them there. He famously announced that they’d go “fo’ fo’ fo’” and sweep all opponents out of the way. And they came close, losing only once, against Milwaukee.
Moses Malone was what an NBA big man needed to be. He worked hard for the money, as Marc Zumoff would put it now, relentlessly working the boards, garnering more offensive and defensive rebounds than anyone else on the floor. He was on a mission.
The stats were indeed impressive. Moses Malone, in that MVP championship season, averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds per game on a team that was not exactly challenged in terms of offensive options. Moses scored his points by ferociously rebounding and bulling his way to the basket like the force of nature he was. He wasn’t gifted with the large hands of Julius Erving; in fact Malone had small hands for a big man, such that you would not see him doing circus dunks or spectacular windmill slams. He just did hard work under the basket – exactly what the Philadelphia 76ers needed to get to the title they had so long seemed destined to achieve, but had not.
The sad truth about memorable Sixers’ big men is that they leave us too soon. Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the NBA’s best ever, died at 63. Caldwell Jones, the strong, solid presence in the middle for several years, at 64. Darryl Dawkins, who played with unmatched joy, was just 58. And now Moses, the relentless one, at 60. Great athletes, all seemingly invincible. Philadelphia basketball was enriched by them all.