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As a practical matter, Malone's presence has enabled the Sixers to transform what had been a good running game into an exceptional one. "With Moses we anticipate we're going to get every rebound," Cheeks says. "So we start the break higher. And when we get a step on most teams, we're gone."
The instigator of all this, Malone, who came out of Petersburg (Va.) High in 1974 right into the ABA, has proved that if anyone is worth $2.2 million a year, it's he. He has averaged 37.5 minutes of playing time a game—he went 56 minutes in a double-overtime victory over Boston on Nov. 6—has massaged the boards and has been a timely scorer. When Cunningham has called on him to do so, Malone has also played power forward, giving new definition to that term while lending the Sixers a little versatility underneath. "It's never easy for Moses," says Moses. "Moses got to get out there every night and work hard."
Malone isn't interested in winning 70 games and then getting smoked in the playoffs. "All we got to do now is play ball and not let up," he says. "Can't take no prisoners. If we win the whole thing, that's a great team. I don't care nothing about breaking no records. Huh!"
One of Malone's greatest admirers is Irv Kosloff, who owned the team from the time of its transfer from Syracuse, in 1963, until 1976 and remains close to the 76er scene. "Moses reminds me a lot of Wilt when we won the title in 1967," Kosloff says. "Wilt hadn't won a title, and he worked hard for it. Moses hasn't won one either, and he works so hard that he makes the other players feel guilty if they don't put out as much effort."
Not everyone was convinced that acquiring Malone was such a bright idea. "I think some of the players questioned some of what we did in the off-season," Cunningham says. "But by December we had developed a clear personality and our confidence started growing. I think beating some of the better teams helped convince them." Erving, for one, had adopted a "wait and see" attitude when veterans like Dawkins, Caldwell Jones, Lionel Hollins, Mike Bantom and Steve Mix (the Doc's road roommate) were either traded or not signed to make Malone's enormous contract feasible. The Sixers started the season with four less costly rookies, more than any other team in the league carried, and gambled that the lack of depth on the bench wouldn't hurt. It hasn't. Cunningham even went so far as to put 26-year-old rookie Marc Iavaroni at the starting power forward position, despite the fact that Iavaroni had been bounced from three pro camps after his graduation from Virginia in 1978. He had spent the past four seasons playing in Italy and serving as Virginia's graduate assistant coach, which earned him playing time against Ralph Sampson in scrimmages. When Cunningham gave Iavaroni a chance, he made the most of it, diligently screening the opposition's rebounding forward off the boards so Malone could work in comparative peace.
Iavaroni did have some adjustments to make, most of them mental. On a trip to Atlanta, for instance, Cunningham told the players that the day-of-the-game shootaround would be 10 to 11. Iavaroni showed up at 10 minutes till 11 o'clock.
Besides the youth movement, another concession to Malone's contract is that the 76ers now get around out of town in rental cars, where once they traveled on more costly buses. Iavaroni was charged with the care of Erving's bags one night in San Diego, and when the Doctor was detained by reporters after the game, he instructed Iavaroni to "leave my luggage with the bellman." But instead of driving directly to Los Angeles, which was the Sixers' next stop, Iavaroni drove his car back to the San Diego hotel the team had already checked out of and gave Erving's luggage to the bellman there. The bags were eventually sent to L.A.
Obviously, the Sixers could not depend on Iavaroni to carry all the heavy load at forward, so last week they moved a step closer to the championship by filling one roster vacancy with veteran Forward Reggie Johnson, a 6'9", 205-pounder whom they purchased from Kansas City for a reported $150,000, and by trading rookie Forward Russ Schoene (and a No. 1 draft pick this year and a No. 2 in '84) to Indiana for backup Center Clemon Johnson (and a No. 3 pick in 1984). "I was ecstatic with the first part of the season," Cunningham said following the deals, "but we wanted to make ourselves stronger." Katz was overjoyed to get the two players, although both could be free agents at the end of the season. "I know Billy doesn't like to hear this kind of talk," Katz said, "but I believe this is the best team we've ever had in Philly, maybe the best team ever."
Katz has another reason to be pleased. The Sixers are doing boffo business. Though they have been an artistic success since Erving's arrival in 1976, they've been a financial failure. Attendance in 1980-81 had fallen to 11,448 a game, and though it increased to 12,362 last season, the 76ers still lost money. So the team raised ticket prices—a hefty 45% on the average. Although one can still get a seat for $6 (up from $5), the top ticket went from $11 to $16 and, taking a cue from the Lakers, the Sixers moved press row from the sidelines to behind one basket and installed a VIP row at $50 a seat. Nonetheless, as a result of the Sixers' superlative record, attendance has soared 25%, to a league-leading average of 15,229 a game. What's more, ticket revenue has zoomed by 72%.
But success has added a new problem. "We're expected to win every night," Assistant General Manager John Nash says. "Some people say there are only a couple of teams that can provide us with competition, so why come out? But that's a marketing problem."