Moses Malone Unexpectedly Dies at 60 after Launching an Unforeseeable Career at 19

Dr. J and Moses Malone AP

Basketball is my favorite sport
I like the way they dribble up and down the court
Just like I’m the King on the microphone
So is Dr. J and Moses Malone

—Kurtis Blow, “Basketball”

On Saturday, John Calipari, the Kentucky coach known for succeeding with one-and-done players treating college as a waiting-room diversion before gaining NBA eligibility, won enshrinement in the the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. On Sunday, Springfield lost Moses Malone, the first basketball player to call the pretense of college a farce and go straight to the pros. He sought to become the Chairman of the Boards, not the chairman of the board, and this aspiration did not require a sheepskin parchment from Basketball Behemoth U.

For many young players in the 1970s, the pros meant the ABA, the league that gave the NBA the three-pointer, the dunking competition, the Nets, Spurs, Pacers, and Nuggets, and, of course, Moses Malone, Dr. J., George Gervin, and Spencer Haywood, himself inducted into the Hall of Fame at this weekend’s ceremony. The ABA gave Malone something that college ball could not: the ability to immediately buy his mom a toilet that worked.

Drafted during the Nixon administration and retiring during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Malone grinded so long that several of the teams he played for—the Buffalo Braves, Washington Bullets, Spirits of St. Louis, Utah Stars—sound as surreal as a professional basketball league using a multicolored ball looked. The powerful power forward and center averaged 20.6 points and 12.2 rebounds over his 19-year NBA career. Before he said goodbye to the NBA, Malone suited up as the last active player who had competed in the ABA. He made history when he first laced ’em up in the pros and he made history when he last iced ’em up. In between, he captured six NBA rebounding titles, three MVPs, and an NBA championship, the last one for the Philadelphia 76ers in his first year with the team.

Moses Malone wore Nikes before Michael. He won three MVP awards before Larry and Magic did. He went to the pros straight from high school before King James, the Black Mamba, or even Chocolate Thunder.

Beating Moses Malone in 1981 played as such an accomplishment that Larry Bird famously (infamously?) theorized aloud in front of 500,000 people outside of Boston’s city hall just what he believed the man he beat liked to eat. Kurtis Blow namedropped Moses Malone second among the 22 players he paid homage too in his 1984 song “Baseketball.”

Malone played better than he trash talked. But fans in Houston and Philadelphia remember him saying in 1981 that he could beat the Celtics with four teammates snatched from the playground of his Petersburg, Virgina, hometown and prophesying “fo, fo, fo” before the 1983 playoffs. The former assessment missed the mark and elicited Bird’s unkind remark (which stemmed from glimpsing a profane sign in the crowd). The latter prediction nearly came true as the 65-17 Sixers swept the Knicks, dispatched the Bucks 4-1, and swept the Lakers in the Finals. Fo, fo-one, fo.

“When Moses was about 14 or so and began to appreciate how very good he was, he wrote out a message to himself and placed it in the family Bible, which was worn and dog-eared and had no cover, that Mrs. Malone’s father had passed on to her,” Frank Deford revealed in a 1979 Sports Illustrated cover story on the Houston Rockets center. “A great many people close to Moses know about this note. Apparently, it was a promise from Moses to himself that he would become the best high school player in the country by the time he finished his junior year. Then, that accomplished, it seems he sat down and wrote another note for the Bible, this one to the effect that he would become the first high school player to go directly into the pros.”

Moses Malone, author of “fo, fo, fo,” predicted his entry into professional basketball. His exit, like the notion of the son of a 5’2” mother and a 5’6” father playing as one of the NBA’s greatest rebounders or a big man lasting 21 seasons in the pros, came somewhat more unpredictably, as he launched a meaningless 80-foot shot through the rim at the buzzer. That was a very Moses Malone thing for Moses Malone to do: scoring his last basket on the only three-pointer during his NBA career.

It’s such unforeseeable outcomes that make sports, and Moses Malone’s life, so remarkable.