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It was merely an exhibition game in October in Providence, just the first of seemingly endless nights of missed shots and two-hand jams. The atmosphere, though, said "regular season."
The Philadelphia 76ers were playing the Boston Celtics, and the intensity level was right out of Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference championship in which the Sixers stunned the Celtics in Boston. The score was Philly 73, Boston 69 at 5:21 of the third quarter when Celtic Guard Gerald Henderson looped an innocuous pass toward Center Robert Parish, who was standing inside the top of the key.
The ball never reached Parish. Moses Malone, Parish's opposite number, deftly tipped it away, dribbled the length of the court and threw down a thunderous dunk. "The way the ball bounced away," said a still disbelieving Pat Williams, Philadelphia's general manager, after the game, "I was sure that it had to miss."
In his Philadelphia debut that night, Malone scored 22 points and had eight rebounds in only 23 minutes of playing time. The next night the numbers were 18 and nine against the New Jersey Nets. Both games were 76er victories. Malone blocked shots and ran up and down the court on even terms with Parish, the finest running center in the league, and then he shamed his predecessor in Philadelphia, Darryl Dawkins, into alibiing for his poor performance. Best of all, Malone and Julius Erving functioned on the same court with the same ball and seemed to actually like the process.
The 76ers will be paying Moses $13.2 million over the next six seasons, and they think they finally have found the man to lead them to the Promised Land.
Over the last six seasons the Sixers have had the NBA's best overall record and appeared in three NBA Championship series, losing in six games each time—to Portland in 1977, L.A. in '80 and L.A. again last June. But now, for the first time since Wilt Chamberlain was traded in 1968, the Sixers have a main man in the middle. Jelly Bean. Big George. All-World. Chocolate Thunder. They're all gone. The 76ers now have the 6'11" Malone—the NBA's rebounding king the last two years and the 1981-82 MVP—to dominate the middle and work with Erving, and everybody is going to be gunning for Philly.
"In last spring's series against Boston, we were the downtrodden team, David against Goliath," Williams says. "The whole nation was sympathetic to us. Now we're back to being Goliath."
The good news for Philadelphians is that while Malone makes CEO-class money, he always produces blue-collar efforts. Just like another relatively new Pennsylvanian, Charley Hustle. Pete Rose has self-promoted hustle to a status level, and he's always ready, willing and quite able to tell you exactly how and why he has attained his eminence.
Not Malone. In fact, his reluctance to discuss himself, combined with his sometimes unintelligible rapid-fire, rumbling voice, often leaves the impression that he can't. Throw in the unglamorous way he goes about his job and Malone creates his own mystique.
To Moses, it's all very clear. He's just "playin' ball," something he did this summer at least twice a day, five or six days a week. Not to prepare for his new role as Goliath, but because it's what he always does. On the playgrounds around his home in Houston, though, the game is different. "I can shoot 90-foot jump shots there and nobody says anything," Malone says.