There may not be a harder working or more tireless athlete in professional basketball than Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers. He also happens to be one of the game's most physical players, which makes it hard to believe he hasn't fouled out of a game in the last seven seasons. Julius Erving, his teammate, calls him ``a wrecking crew type,'' and that he is, bulling in for rebounds and shots. National Basketball Association referees clearly give him a little more latitude, just as they do most superstars. Spectators, after all, don't pay good money to see players of Malone's caliber ride the pine.
Preferential treatment, some feel, really became a factor during the latter part of Wilt Chamberlain's career. Chamberlain spent 14 years (1,045 games) in the league without a single disqualification, a record. His ability to stay out of foul trouble was so well known that it may have intimidated some referees from jeopardizing the streak by calling anything but blatant fouls.
Yet, as a colleague who followed Wilt's career points out, Chamberlain was that rarity in his day -- an agile big man. As such, he could avoid fouling much more easily than other, less-coordinated players his size. About the only player who really challenged him was Bill Russell, and Russell was not the kind of offensive threat who required zealous guarding.
Malone has escaped foul trouble playing in a far different era, however, one in which he frequently must stop big men who can shoot and maneuver. And yet referees seldom blow the whistle on him. In fact, he averaged less than three fouls a game last season, fewer even than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played only slightly more minutes and is known as more of a finesse player.
Malone, of course, would be in constant trouble if the league ever decided to crack down on the leaning and pushing that has become part and parcel of pivot play. Moses is often none-too-subtle in uprooting defenders who have planted themselves where he wants to be.
For the most part, though, referees permit him a large amount of nonpunitive banging in the name of ``incidental contact.''
And really, these shoving matches are pretty typical of what happens in every NBA game. It's just that the top centers can get a way with a little more.
The league could instruct officials to do a better job of policing such grappling, but the thinking must be that the bodychecking lends the the pro game an appealing element of physical struggle.