Moses Malone, baron of the boards

Rebounding is so important in professional basketball that no team has ever won consistently without it. Anyone close to the sport learns quickly that the team which controls the backboards usually controls the game.

Sometimes this can be a cooperative effort, but more often it has to be the chief contribution of one man -- the center. And the best in the business right now is 6 ft. 10 in., 235-pound Moses Malone of the Houston Rockets. He is a averaging 14.4 rebounds a game, while also checking in as the National Basketball Association's No. 2 scorer with a 28.2 figure.

Simply stated, rebounding is coming up with the shot that misses the basket. If the ball is taken off the offensive board, it means that your team now has a second chance to score a basket. If it's taken off the defensive board, it immediately puts the opposing team on defense.

To quote retired center Bill Russell, whose great work under the boards helped the Boston Celtics win 11 world titles in 13 years, "In rebounding, position is the key. No two objects can occupy the same place at the same time. Seventy-five percent of all rebounds are taken below the height of the basket, so timing is extremely important because everybody in the NBA can get up high enough to touch the rim."

Asked about his theory, Malome replied: "With so many players always near the basket, the one thing you can never escape is the physical pounding that comes with getting the ball. Establishing position is part of it, of course. So are strength and good hands. But the main thing is getting yourself into a frame of mind where you can ignore physical punishment, and a lot of centers won't do that.

"Anybody who stands under the basket and hopes that the missed shot is going to come off in his direction isn't going to get many rebounds," Moses continued. "You've got to anticipate a little, you've got to time your leap just right, and you've got to be moving or else somebody is going to box you out.

"That's one reason I got so many rebounds, because I don't let too many people get in front of me. The other reason is that, unlike a lot of centers, I don't just pick my spots. I go after everything that comes off the boards. Like I said, I'm willing to pay the physical price as often as I have to."

It is easy to call Malone an original because back in 1974 he was the first player to go directly from high school into the professional ranks with the Utah Stars of the now defunct American Basketball Association.

While a lot of people were wondering what a 19-year-old kid who grew up in a two-bed-room row house in Petersburg, Va., with only his mother to provide for him would do in that kind of environment, Moses wasn't one of them.

"I'd watched the pro game on TV plenty of times and I figured there wasn't anybody there I couldn't handle," Malone told me in the visitors' locker room at the Los Angeles Forum. "People talked about my age and my lack of experience and they made it sound like I wouldn't last. But hwne you're bigger than most guys, like I am, how much experience do you need?

"The thing that was hardest for me at first was dealing with the homesickness ," Moses continued. "I missed my mother and my friends, and on the road you don't stay anywhere long enough to put down roots. But once I got used to the traveling, things got easier. And the more I played, the more confidence I got in myself."

When the ABA's financial burdens became to heavy and the league collapsed during the Malone's second year with Utah, the Portland Trail Blazers of the rival NBA grabbed him in the ensuing disperal draft.

Possibly the Blazers would have shown more interest in keeping Moses if they didn't already have Bill Walton at center. Instead they listened to offers from the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, and Buffalo Braves, with the Braves eventually taking title to Malone for cash and a draft pick.

But Buffalo, which considered him a big forward and couldn't seem to find much floor time for him, really didn't seem to want Moses either. Finally he was traded to Houston, where he made the franchise, where 1,000-plus rebound seasons became commonplace, and where the fans discovered someone with a work ethic they could identify with -- even if he does scrape door frames and drive a two-tone Rolls-Royce!

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