"There's so much competition that you can't coast," says Paxson. "Especially someone like me. I was never a great player, never the focal point of even my college team [Dayton]. If I didn't work hard, I'd be out, and it would be my own fault. I don't want that to happen."
There even was a time early in Paxson's career with the Trail Blazers when it seemed he might not make the grade. Portland's first-round draft pick in 1979, Paxson averaged a mere 6.2 points per game his rookie year, shooting only 41%. The next season he blended a better understanding of Ramsay's precision offense with his tricky and tireless movement without the ball—a facet of the game at which he now has no peer in the NBA—and led the Blazers in scoring with 17.1 points per game. Last season he increased that to 21.7 and was named to the All-Star team for the first time.
The idea of having to "work" for a living hasn't been lost on the "natural" talents, either. "Guys like Mark Aguirre getting into weightlifting and aerobics classes—that's something you never saw in my day," says Dallas Assistant Coach Bob Weiss, who survived for 12 seasons as a player in the NBA because of his work habits—not his ability. "Ten years ago the trend was to come out of school and play every day in the summer for the first three years. Then you got a little bored and started playing golf and tennis in the summer. In those days the young guys were in better shape in training camp. Last year our veterans were in much better shape than our rookies."
With his lumbering gait and 255-pound body, the 6'11" Malone will never be confused with a Lou Ferrigno or a flashdancer, but that's not to say he wouldn't be in the NBA even if he didn't work so hard. Malone's skills are substantial, so in his case, hard work is mostly a matter of pride. "When Moses accepted the MVP trophy two years ago he said that he didn't consider himself to be the most talented player in the league...that he liked to think of himself as being one of the hardest-working," says San Diego Coach Jim Lynam. But it wasn't until he arrived in Philly last season and turned a perennial bridesmaid into a champion that skeptics were convinced that Malone's emphasis on hard work could reap such grand results.
In the 1977 finals, the 76ers' galaxy of stars lost to Ramsay's industrious Trail Blazers four games to two. Having watched that series and then having lost in a playoff series to a hard-working Washington team the next season, his first as the Philly coach, Cunningham realized the Sixers needed more work and less play. "Instead of thinking about the game, I was worrying about the people who had to resolve their various problems," says Cunningham. "I just don't have the personality to deal with that."
He decided that a few talented hard workers were superior to almost any number of super-talented underachievers, and the 76ers made major roster changes, acquiring or drafting such players as Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and Clint Richardson. But Cunningham continued to take a beating as the Sixers lost to Los Angeles in the 1979-80 league finals, blew a 3-1 lead in losing to the Boston Celtics in the 1980-81 Eastern championship series and lost to the Lakers in the finals again in 1982.
That last defeat almost caused Cunningham to retire from coaching, but he decided to stay on shortly before Malone showed up. There were doubts about how well Malone, a consummate rebounder who was not noted for his all-court game, would mesh with his new teammates. "I always felt that if I was the best at doing what I do—getting things happening inside—the team would win," says Malone. "That was enough for me. The more contact I get, the better I get to feeling about the game."
Everyone in Philly shared in that good feeling as the 76ers tore through the league, finishing with a 65-17 record. In the playoffs they won 12 of 13 games, sweeping L.A. in the finals. Malone was, as usual, the NBA's leading rebounder, MVP—and most diligent laborer.
Can Moses & Co. win another title? No team has repeated as NBA champion since the 1968-69 Celtics, and Malone's off-season was not all he wanted it to be. "Last summer has got to be the most I ever laid off without playin' ball," Malone says. "Seems like every time I looked, someone wanted me to do something. I was flying here and flying there."
Now, Moses says, those distractions are behind him. "I plan on working even harder this year," he says. "That's not a problem. You can't just play the game. In your mind you have to be stronger than the pain and everything else. Some guys may be great ballplayers but there are times when they say, 'I got it made, I don't have to work tonight.' I'm not like that. Even if I'm hurt, every night I try to give 110 percent."