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Frank Deford
February 19, 1979
Moses Malone jumped from high school to the pros, where he has become the game's top rebounder
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February 19, 1979

Bounding Into Prominence

Moses Malone jumped from high school to the pros, where he has become the game's top rebounder

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Anybody can shoot a jump shot.

Moses Malone is an original. He not only cut a new path to glory, but he also performs as no one else ever has. He was the first basketball player to go directly from high school to the pros, and he is the first to make a name in the craft of offensive rebounding. The game is a different one with him on the floor.

There are no tricks to the way he plays it. "Basically, I just goes to the rack," he says. Rack is a rather obscure colloquialism, meaning the rim of the basket, but the way Malone gives voice to it, the rack takes on the aspect of a specific territory, demarcated as surely as the lane or the crease or the mezzanine or the city limits; you'll know just where to find him.

Malone is not particularly articulate about all this. Indeed, in his heavy bass voice, speaking in the argot of his impoverished Southern subculture, he sometimes seems obtuse. He grew up in a tumbledown frame house with only his mother, who had left school after the fifth grade; the only literature on the premises was a worn Bible and, later, newspaper clippings of his exploits. But syntax and structure are not everything; young Moses Malone has always had the most express vision of these two places: the rack and the future. And that, for him, has been quite enough.

Although he is one of the leading candidates for Most Valuable Player in the NBA, to most fans he is famous only for one thing—for having had the brass to pass up that great linoleum dream, a college education. In 1974 Malone chose to go directly from Petersburg High in Virginia to the ABA, taking the money instead of what he calls "the big pub," the stacks of publicity invariably accruing to a championship college player, which immediately he would have been at almost any school. Because he has played with a succession of generally undistinguished professional teams—five in his first three seasons—in generally out-of-the-way cities, Malone's swift emergence this season as probably the best center and the most dominating figure in basketball has taken place without most people knowing what he looks like, or even whom he plays for, which now happens to be the Houston Rockets. Moreover, because Moses is shy and reticent—"I sit around, watch the scene, be quiet; I don't run my mouth off"—he only fuels the backfires of the one image he does possess: that of the goon who didn't have the brains to go to college.

As Terry Bradshaw would explain, if, you know, he only could, the hardest knock an athlete has to live down today is that of deficient intelligence; even the choker can get off the hook more easily. If he is big and black, it's twice as hard. A quarter of a century ago, Willie Mays, overwhelmed and untutored, was generously accepted by newspaper reporters who turned his intellectual shortcomings around, using them to create a happy-go-lucky myth, our own Say Hey Kid. But Moses Malone, who comes from the same sort of black Dixie background, was publicly mocked as "Mumbles" Malone by a Salt Lake City disc jockey. Nowadays, any athlete who cannot express himself capably is fair game. Now that the TV microphones are on all the time, there can never be another Pygmalion.

Those who know Malone make it a point to protest allegations of ignorance. Moses himself, though, stays above the fray, refusing to discuss almost anything he deems "personal." If people insist upon dwelling on how he talks instead of on what he has attained, then that is their dumb fault. He grows increasingly more confident socially, more witty, more outgoing all the time, but he cannot be bothered with enrolling in speech classes, as his lawyers have suggested. What's the point? His friends understand him—"When you're alone with Mo, you can't shut him up," says John Lucas of the Warriors—and he knows that no matter how carefully he enunciates, nobody is ever going to hire him to fill in for Bruce Jenner.

No, Malone realizes today, as he always has, that his fortune is to be found around the rack. Charles Moses, a pharmacist who helped advise the Malones when the teenager was being recruited by hundreds of colleges, says, "If you can't express yourself correctly, it doesn't mean you're a stupid kid. Stupid? Listen, he was the first one to understand that he was a franchise. Moses was the one who figured it out."

Turning down the University of Maryland, Malone went with the Utah Stars. "I knew what peoples was saying," Malone says, "and so I told the Stars, 'It don't make no difference how old I am, because I still think I can bust y'all. You just watch my action.'

"I was very homesick, but I kept my eyes open. I kept a cool head about things. Peoples could say things about me, but I didn't pay no attention. I didn't wants to know what they was saying because I was the only one knew what's true."

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