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To the roll of drums, the Utah Stars began to peel away their warmup suits. For 10 days they had been training in rural northern Utah, in the gym of North Rich High School near Sweetwater Park Resort, and it was time to break camp. The only matter left on the pre-exhibition season schedule was an intrasquad game, something for the locals. As the drums rolled on, a squad of cheerleaders swept onto the floor, placed hands over young hearts and began to lead the crowd through the Pledge of Allegiance. On the sidelines one of the Stars, a 6'11" youngster of 19, a few months out of high school himself, covered his heart and joined in. Suddenly, thunk! A teammate sent an elbow crashing into his ribs. He gasped, surveyed the other Stars, all of whom were in various poses of nonattention, and quickly became a model of indifference. Moses Malone had been introduced to professional basketball.
Since that moment late in September, if the youngster from Virginia has ever again forgotten that he is being paid to play, no one has noticed. Not that he is tearing up the ABA, or even coming close. He is scoring, but not all that often, and hardly ever when he is away from the basket. His hands could be better and he does not always remember to move on offense, which means he will play whole halves and not touch the ball offensively more than four times. Except when he goes to the boards. There, and on defense, he's been something else.
"He's so quick it's unbelievable," says Bucky Buckwalter, the Stars' new coach and the man primarily responsible for luring Malone away from the University of Maryland last August. Bucky and a bundle of greenbacks, you understand. "One minute he's just loping down the court, maybe a little more than halfway, and then you blink and there he is coming down with a rebound," Bucky says. "He just stuns me. Here he is only an inch or so under seven feet and he's as quick as a guard. Hell, he's quicker than a lot of guards."
Add to that quickness an instinct for moving into position almost before the ball is put into the air, and tremendous spring, and it is hardly surprising that Malone has taken down 65 rebounds in the Stars' first six games. Twenty-seven of those were off the offensive boards. Six games, playing just 195 of the possible 288 minutes.
"There is the matter of toughness," says Buckwalter, grinning. "They know he's young and a lot of guys have really laid it on him, trying to intimidate him. Elbows, knees, grabbing, shoving, the whole bag. And he's given it right back. That kid doesn't back up an inch. I knew what was going to happen, so I told our guys to go after him right from the first day of practice. We had to find out. They used to kid him by calling him 'the rookie.' Then one day after a rough workout he walked into the locker room and told them, 'You guys can keep on calling me a rookie, but I'm the toughest damn rookie you ever saw.' "
For Malone, playing in the ABA is probably a picnic compared to what he went through the past year or so. First there was the assault by recruiters from three hundred dens of higher learning, most of them bearing gifts. "They dragged me to as many as 24 schools," says Malone with the disillusionment of a youngster who has discovered that the world can be one great rip-off. "Sometimes they brought me in to meet the president of the university, who talked to me like he wanted to be my father. That made me laugh. They fixed me up with dates. Then when I got home those girls called me long distance and pretended they were in love with me. What kind of stuff is that?"
Perhaps the strangest of these episodes occurred when Oral Roberts showed up at Malone's home in Petersburg, Va. and offered to cure his mother of her bleeding ulcer. Roberts left the Malones in no doubt that his university would be a fine place for Moses to play basketball. What kind of stuff is that?
In April, Malone became the third-round pick of the Stars. A high school graduate: no one took the choice terrifically seriously.
Then the Stars' first-round pick studied their offer and decided to further his education and the second draft choice was signed by the NBA. In June, Malone complicated matters by signing a letter of intent with Lefty Driesell at the University of Maryland. Meanwhile in Utah a new group headed by Jim Collier agreed to buy the Stars from Bill Daniels. "O.K.," said Daniels to Collier. "You run the club, you'll be running it soon anyway. Just consult me before you make any major moves."
Collier decided to go after Malone and figured who could be a better teacher for the youngster than Zelmo Beaty, the team's veteran center who had indicated he would be much happier anywhere but in Utah. Collier offered Beaty $150,000 to stay: $125,000 as a player, another $25,000 to become coach. Beaty was insulted. "If they had made it $100,000 to play and $50,000 to coach I might have taken it," he said.' 'But $25,000 to coach? No way." Then he left for the Los Angeles Lakers. Now the situation was really critical.