Missing Moses Malone, Whom I Never Really Knew

A father, mother and son all understood Moses Malone in different ways. That doesn't mean they were acquainted with him underneath.
Share |

We stopped missing Moses Malone long before he died earlier this fall at the age of 60. The subsequent grieving mostly mourned the loss of a public figure, and yet Malone had for quite some time ceased being a focal point in the NBA world. What we as fans mourned then, for the most part, had already been lost to us, and what we did not mourn, we did not know. It’s only when a larger-than-life figure departs that we are made to ponder how little of this figure was truly public in the first place.

I was alive for much of Malone’s playing career, but my youth prevented my being conscious of his dominance. It’s possible I witnessed him in person towards the end of his career, when he came off the bench for the Atlanta Hawks, just before his scoring average plummeted into the single digits and he washed up on the shores of old Milwaukee. Yet, even if this is true, I still watched him from the nosebleed sections of the old Omni Coliseum, squinting down at him from a steep canyon’s rim.

At these games, the 6’10”, 215-pound Malone would have appeared to me like Ant-Man in miniature. Besides not being able to make out any of the players from afar, I probably spent most of the game trying not to spill Coca-Cola out of a plastic souvenir cup while my father explained how Dominique Wilkins was inferior to Michael Jordan.

Any other glimpses I caught of the basketball giant were in NBA highlight reels, the pre-YouTube editions whose content was dictated by television networks who cut them with flash in mind. While Moses Malone was always a featured face, his play was not. His lone highlight reduced him into the monosyllabic: Fo Fo Fo. And, for the most part, this was how I knew him.

When he passed in September, I took to YouTube and propped open the door to the past once more, but I was still glimpsing more than I was seeing. The blood and sweat of Moses Malone’s time has all coagulated into well-told mythologies about how the NBA found itself through Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and, eventually, Michael Jordan. When I watch Moses Malone and his 76er teammates now, I see them through the residue of decades gone by—I am squinting as they walk in slow motion, coolly removing those deep powder blue warm-ups. The moment is there and yet not.

No matter how many times I watch Malone bully a too-thin Kareem or torch the Celtics frontline in playoff moments, I can’t help but know the man by how little I truly know him -- and how much I wish I could.  It’s the way lawmen in dusty Westerns often would ponder the old timers; you know the story, but not the men. You can’t escape staring into the past. You want to understand.

***

The most frequent contact I had with Moses Malone was not in the Omni’s far-off altitudes nor the digital haze of YouTube. The name most often appeared in my father’s refrain: “Moses Malone is the best rebounder I ever saw.” He said it most often whenever commentators praised a rainbow-haired Dennis Rodman, especially during the years when Rodman played beside Michael Jordan with the Bulls. I remember hearing it when my father talked about the essentialness of boxing out and outworking one’s opponent. “You’ve got to be workmanlike,” he’d tell me. I think he knew being workmanlike was my only real basketball talent.

In seventh grade, I spent all winter inside a middle school gym.The only thing louder than the hardwood squeaks was the way Coach Hooker yelled my name in a veiled threat of inspiration to more talented players: “Don’t let Harvey outwork you!” As it happens, the most talented of them all was named Moses, too. Quentin Moseswould go on to record double-digit sacks for the University of Georgia and to play in the NFL.

In seventh grade he was already a man amongst boys, the way Moses Malone was for so much of his life.  Receiving an elbow or two from Quentin in practice—perhaps even a bloody nose or two—was about the closest I ever came to measuring myself against Moses, be it Malone or the prophet. The results were not kind. Even then, I knew I was out of my league.

***

Halifax County rests in the part of Virginia that is much more like rural North Carolina than cosmopolitan DC. The place is tobacco country, full of heat and horseflies and sadly leaning sheds. Time is kept on John Deere calendars and a list of names: those who died and those who moved away. I learned about hard work and sweat in that place, and that place is where, at least for me, the name Moses Malone grew tall for the harvesting. 

My mom attended Halifax County High School during the early 1970s. She participated on the yearbook committee. Today those glue-and-mildewed tomes of southern Virginia’s yesteryears act as a time warp. Their pages reveal how the past is not so different from the present. Tin roofs may have held less rust, and the curing sheds may have leaned a little less in the wind. But the Halifax world is largely the same, minus a Burger King or two.

She and her fellow students remembered their school days from cancellations due to extreme weather (photographs reveal flood levels up to the handles on the local gas pumps). They registered hairstyles and fashion trends. They wrote editorials asking if the lunch room’s seating arrangements revealed patterns of self-segregation. I pored through these books a long time ago and remember most of all a full page spread titled: “And then came Moses.”

It was rather curious; Most yearbooks praise their own, after all. Yet, there in the middle of the Halifax County High School yearbook was a full page layout of Moses Malone. He attended Petersburg. His team defeated Halifax in the state playoffs, twice, but the memories of those losses, at least with time, appeared not so much bitter as they did awestruck. Even decades later, I understood the testimony of this man from another high school stretching his frame like some mighty totem across the length of the page. His arms rose above his head into the rafters, and I do not remember whether he was shooting or blocking a shot. But, regardless, I imagine a miracle and I try to understand how it moved and breathed and filled not only a yearbook page but a gymnasium full of eyes and memories and beating hearts.

I imagine him alive and in his youth, before the world found him and brought him into the light.

When Moses Malone died, I thought about my mom’s high school yearbooks for the first time in many years. My wife and I drove down from our house near Manassas to my parents’ home in Fredericksburg shortly after his passing. On the way down, I mentioned that I wanted to take a look at that yearbook spread, that monument to youth and might—to a force that could not be classified as just another game on the schedule. I wanted to glimpse, through the light and shadow of amateur photography, something greater and more unknown than the stories I actually knew the details of. After all, the photograph was not of the Moses Malone who went head to head with Larry Bird’s Celtics. This was before that, in that widest of spaces: the untold story.

Monuments, whether they are statues or photographs, tend to do this. We cling onto whatever we can. We relive the past through what we can hold or see and somehow believe. YouTube felt like a hologram, lives reduced to digital apparitions. The yearbook felt of the flesh. It had weight. And I wanted to hold Moses, or something silly and selfish and sentimental. Perhaps I wanted Quentin Moses’ elbow to draw blood once more.

When we arrived at my parents’ house, I asked my mom about the yearbook spread. She remembered it and went down into the unfinished basement to find it. Earlier in the week, my dad had found a snake down there on the concrete slab and killed it. Its body hung from a tree branch outside the backdoor, promising rain. But Moses was nowhere to be found. He was in some other book, possibly still in my grandparents’ recently vacated farmhouse or tossed out in the garbage with everything else that had lost its meaning.

What would I have done if we had found him? Was he even the Moses I was chasing?

***

Before driving down to Fredericksburg, I spoke with my dad on the phone about Moses Malone one more time. The day of that conversation, I’d heard Lefty Driessell on one of the DC radio stations telling a tale about recruiting Moses Malone to the University of Maryland.

In the story, Lefty asks Moses how he got to be so good at basketball, and Moses tells him, I play against the best. Lefty asks him where a player might find the best, and Moses tells him, in prison. In prison?, Lefty belts out. Yeah, Moses says. There’s one guy who’s really good. You should try to recruit him, Coach. We could play together. Lefty asks what the player’s name is. They call him The Milkman, Moses answers. The Milkman? Lefty can’t believe it, and says that name doesn’t sound so tough. The coach asks how a guy in prison could have such a name. Moses says, well, Coach, he murdered a milkman. Lefty drawled on a bit more, but ended the story by suggesting he did beg the Virginia state governor to pardon The Milkman in light of his potential. 

My dad listened to me repeat this story. I asked him if he had heard it before, figuring old college coaches might be prone to repeating themselves. He said he hadn’t heard the story, but that Lefty must have embellished it some. After all, he said, the Moses he knew - shy and mumbling - couldn’t possibly have told such a story, at least not with the same narrative acumen and wit as Lefty had conveyed it. This led him to remind me of something that is just as true in death as it was all those years ago in life: “Moses was the best rebounder I ever saw.”

I thought about this, and ultimately I came to the conclusion I couldn’t say, nor would I ever truly be able to. After all, I never knew Moses Malone, not in the flesh, not on the parquet, not really. To me, he is The Milkman. Isn’t every player that we cannot see?

Share |

Comments

No comments yet. Login to post comments.