By Shawn Fury
Moses Malone was the first pro athlete to make me cry. On May 31, 1983, Malone scored 24 points, grabbed 23 rebounds, and threw down the game-clinching dunk in the closing seconds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 115-108 victory over my beloved Los Angeles Lakers, cementing a four-game sweep in the NBA Finals. Three weeks before turning 8, I sat in a chair near our television and spun in circles at the end of Game 4 while the tears rolled down.
Even at that age, and continuing over the decades, I proved adept at creating explanations and excuses for the sweep. James Worthy was out with a broken leg. Norm Nixon and Bob McAdoo missed time in the Finals and were hobbled when they played. But the Lakers still had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And no matter my protests as a young fan, the 1983 Finals weren't really about who wasn't there for the Lakers. They were about who was there for Philadelphia: Moses.
Malone died Sunday at the age of 60 (cause of death yet to be determined), and many reacted with shock and sadness while fondly remembering his legacy, numbers and that 1983 championship. A prep-to-pros pioneer, the 6-foot-10 center developed a reputation as perhaps the greatest offensive rebounder ever, a player both bullish and balletic, perfectly comfortable overpowering opponents or gracefully tipping the ball around the rim until he gained control. He grabbed rebounds so easily it looked like he was the only player on the court -- in that 1983 sweep of the Lakers, he had more offensive rebounds (27) than any other player had on the defensive end.
Possessor of one of the most unique games in NBA history, Moses didn't own the grace of fellow legendary centers Abdul-Jabbar or Hakeem Olajuwon. He wasn't as fierce on the defensive end as Russell. He didn't dunk like Shaquille O'Neal. The most memorable image of Moses on the offensive end is either him shoving in a two-foot put-back or standing on the free throw line drenched in sweat, as if he took a shower five seconds before tipoff. Yet he won three MVPs and between his ABA and NBA years scored 29,580 points.
There was no one quite like Malone, and that includes his name. The only Moses to ever play in the NBA, it feels strange to call him anything but that. Of all the NBA Hall of Famers, Moses also probably stands alone when it comes to being identified so completely by a single dominant season. Larry Bird had his majestic 1986 campaign, and Magic had 1987, and Barkley 1993, and Michael Jordan …1987 through 1996, but few owned a single year like Moses did in 1983. It started with a Sports Illustrated cover of Moses scowling for the NBA preview issue, surrounded by dozens of hopeful Philadelphia fans. It ended with Moses on another SI cover, this time with him alone near the basket, dunking on the Lakers. In between those two cover shots, Moses won the MVP while averaging 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds.
He transformed Philadelphia, turning the 76ers from a great team that came up short against either LA or Boston into a legendary one. That Sixers squad -- which started the year a remarkable 50-7 before finishing 65-17 -- makes every NBA historian's list of the all-time best teams, a legacy Philadelphia sealed by losing just once in the playoffs while nearly fulfilling Moses's famous proclamation of "Fo, fo fo" sweeps. Philadelphia had talent up and down the roster: Julius Erving, past his peak, remained a first-team All-NBA player. Injuries had not yet ravaged Andrew Toney and he lit up opponents on the offensive end, while Bobby Jones shut them down on the defensive end. Point guard Mo Cheeks artfully directed the entire affair. But the Sixers had those players in previous years, which ended in disappointment against the dominant franchises of that decade.
Finally, Moses arrived, and a championship followed. Determined and relentless, Moses made Philadelphia into a force. Further proof of Moses's historic greatness and uniqueness: He's the only superstar to eliminate the Showtime Lakers twice. Bird only did it once, as did Jordan and Isiah Thomas. But Moses powered underdog Houston over LA in 1981, and finished the Lakers off again in 1983.
Philadelphia couldn't duplicate that success, even as Moses continued his dominance for several seasons. He became a journeyman, with stints in Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee and San Antonio, although at the age of 34 with the Hawks he averaged 18.9 points and 10 rebounds.
Few people remember many details from the final few years of Moses's career, but when news of his death arrived every NBA fan who watched him play remembered his passion, his boards, his three MVPs and his one glorious championship season. And I recalled my disappointment as a child, while also filled with the knowledge that the great Moses was unstoppable and invincible.
Shawn Fury is a writer in New York City and the author of Rise and Fire: The Origins, Science and Evolution of the Jump Shot -- And How It Transformed Basketball Forever, available in February 2016 from Flatiron Books.