It was Fentress who was instrumental in getting Malone to Houston. This hegira began when the Utah Stars folded in Moses' second year, while he was out with a broken fibula. He was consigned by lot to St. Louis, but at the end of the season the ABA went out of business, and Malone was put in the dispersal draft. His lawyers tried to get the Knicks to take him, but they had just gotten burned trying to pirate George McGinnis from Indiana and were gun shy. Instead, he was picked fifth by Portland—but strictly as a piece of merchandise. Denver almost bought him from Portland, but at the last minute the Nuggets decided they would be better off adding a proven NBA veteran and picked up Paul Silas instead. Nissalke pressed Ray Patterson, the Houston president, to buy Malone, but the Rockets were shaky financially, and Portland didn't like the color of the Houston money. Finally, Portland passed Malone along to Buffalo for cash and a draft pick.
He reported to his new team and found that nobody really wanted him. In the two games he played the week he was with Buffalo, he was used for six minutes, total. Malone was a forward then, and Tates Locke, the Buffalo coach, figured he was solid in the corners with John Shumate and Tom McMillen. The scuttlebutt filtered out that Buffalo had pegged Malone as a dummy, too large a reclamation project. It is also a fact that Locke was the coach at Clemson when the Tigers tried to recruit Malone and ended up in dutch with the NCAA because Mrs. Malone turned Clemson in for giving cash to a relative to buy Moses a car. "A lot of things went down in Buffalo," Moses says, dispensing with that bizarre interlude.
Fentress immediately started putting the heat on Buffalo to play the kid or move him. Finally Ray Patterson got lucky, but only because Buffalo had two owners—Paul Snyder and John Y. Brown—who were more in competition with each other than in concert. Brown was an old ABA man, and Malone was an old ABA player. Brown was also out of the country for a few days. When Patterson offered a deal to Snyder that gave him a quick turnaround profit, he took the cash and a couple of draft picks so he could wave them in Brown's face when he cleared customs.
McMillen was traded six weeks later and is now hanging on with Atlanta. Poor Shumate, who has a lung condition, hasn't played this season for Detroit. Locke was bounced in the middle of the season, and the whole franchise floundered until finally they backed a truck up to the door and took it to San Diego last summer.
"Moses made our franchise," Patterson says. "We were going down the tubes, and we wouldn't be in Houston today if Tom hadn't kept after me to make that deal."
At Houston in 1976-77, his first NBA season, Malone played forward opposite Rudy Tomjanovich, and the franchise had its first winning record ever. Last season, though, Tomjanovich was brutalized by an opponent's sucker punch, Malone broke his foot and missed 23 games, and the Rockets tumbled to last place. This forced Patterson to pay out $1 million to use Barry's name at the box office for two years. Unfortunately, Barry is 34 now, and he left his legs in San Francisco, and because Tomjanovich is also primarily a shooter, the whole burden of rebounding has fallen upon Malone. Says Slick Watts, one of the team's point guards, "Everybody be shooting, but the big guy, he just be roaming underneath."
Malone has also become the Rockets' leading scorer, averaging more than 23 a game. The book on him used to be, back off when he got the ball, because he liked to use his little hands to dribble, and he was easy prey for steals. This year, however, Malone goes right up and punches it at the rack. He has a nice little jump hook, too.
What Malone longs for is a chance to play on a running team, and that is the issue the Rockets are going to have to confront after the 1979-80 season, when his contract is up for renewal. Moses likes Houston well enough; he likes the coaches and the team, but he is also, as we know, the sort of fellow who makes up his own mind. The Rockets will have no choice but to ply him with great sums. If not, the franchise will lose its credibility in Houston, which is a gumdrop city, where there is no professional basketball heritage and just about everybody rolled into town the day before yesterday, all sweet and sure. Pro basketball and hockey clubs have gone under, but the wide-eyed still pay to see the Astrodome in repose.
The floor for Malone has got to be seven figures because David Thompson, a backcourt man, went for $800,000. By then Patterson will be off the hook for Barry, however, and at least he won't have to battle the whole league: Moses says he'll only play in Washington, near his old home, or for a Sun Belt franchise. "You live in a cold city, you got to get married," he explains. At his best, there is a certain Confucius-say quality to Malone.
For the next season and a half, though, he belongs to the Rockets, and he will not be diverted by thoughts of running teams or anything else. Malone is a very devoted person. After he signed with the Stars, it was two or three weeks before he returned to Washington and Dell and Fentress became his permanent management. In the meantime, all manner of agents, honest and bloodsucker alike, had beaten a path to his door. He had refused even to consider a single one, waiting for Dell and Fentress to return. He still stays in touch with Driesell and considers Maryland his old team. When the Stars folded and he was dished off to some other club, he was genuinely hurt. "I'm a Utah Star, man," he said. "I want to stay here."