The late Moses Malone's life can be broken almost too perfectly into thirds, with the middle third comprising one of the greatest careers in basketball history. Moses meant more to the city of Philadelphia than just being the big man, the final piece of the puzzle, in what would be his only championship and the last major title Philly would see in 25 years.
When Darryl Dawkins passed away last month, fans mourned a personality as much as a player; Dawkins was an athletic embodiment of the George Clinton aesthetic first, and a (very good) basketball player second. He is remembered best as a crazy diamond of a human being and for the two or three times he destroyed the backboard and left an already fragile Bill Robinzine crying in Kansas City. Malone was a big personality in his own right, but he was also big, and the author of an outsized career that crossed three decades and the better part of a generation.
If I saw him play at all, it was in the twilight of his career, when he awkwardly re-joined the Sixers team that once traded him for Jeff Ruland; it says something about the duration of Malone's career that Ruland was the Sixers' assistant coach when Moses returned to the team. To say that they were able to get something out of a rookie Shawn Bradley would be a lie; the team was terrible. Even so, it was meaningful to have a legend from the glorious 1983 Sixers team there to root for—the honest-to-god regular season and NBA Finals MVP in a season when the Sixers dominated the league—among the misfits and flat-tired thirtysomethings and no-hopers. What Larry Andersen was to the 1993 Phillies, Moses Malone was to the end-stage Harold Katz Sixers.
Man and myth blurred early and often—Moses, after all, was his given name—and pro basketball in Malone's prime is largely unrecognizable from what we have today. The myriad of trades surrounding Moses over the course of his two decades in the NBA built (and decimated) NBA dynasties. In the end, such trades did both to the 76ers. To a nine year-old, Moses was interchangeable with the other NBA Malones—Karl and (forgive me) Jeff—but he also was a last link to the ABA.
But, as his era's ultimate one-and-done, Moses was a forebear of Kobe, LeBron, and Kevin Garnett. Even Fo' Fo' Fo', the mostly accurate koan of the Sixers' last title run, felt less Earthly than its humble, muttered origins. Moses Malone wrongly predicted that his Sixers would sweep through that postseason—they lost one game in the Eastern Conference Finals—but he cemented his myth all the same. Malone, who played his first professional basketball game as a teenager, knew how good he was: a Hall of Famer. That he knew it so well, and that he was able to harness that talent, is what kept him in the game for 21 seasons.
The secret of Philly sports, under all the animus and flying batteries, is that, deep down, we seek something really special to give us meaning. That's why even the hardcore atheists are mostly just complaining about logistics for Pope Francis' visit. That's why we still cherish Live Aid and Live 8. It's why Comcast SportsNet plays that one 11-10 game against the Mets in 2007 like it was It's A Wonderful Life. It's why I weep tears of joy when I watch the 1983 NBA Playoffs highlight film, That Championship Feeling, despite the fact that I hadn't been born when that season and that feeling lit up the city.
That Championship Feeling is by no means the first NBA finals highlight film; if you're a Cincinnati Royals fan you can watch them lose to the Celtics (or the Sixers) on YouTube as many times as you can manage. But this is the first one to use videotape—which, c'mon guys it's already 1983—and also further refined the use of contemporary pop music to patronize Bob Lanier for never winning the big one. The video's use of "Just Once" by James Ingram is the biggest "fuck you" to the Laniers and the Dave Bings and Connie Hawkinses of the world imaginable, and a trailblazing moment in triumphal undermining.
The whole hour of playoff footage plays like that. Norm Nixon (hopefully) jokes about getting some of his friends to break Moses' leg. Dick Stockton admirably narrates the Laker Girls' act without the skeeviness of Brent Musburger. You see a middle-aged Hubie Brown mutter to himself in defeat, and Maurice Cheeks relax in a Pepperidge Farm t-shirt. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's house burns down, and a guy dressed up as the biblical Moses is victorious before the throng of celebrators on Broad Street after the Philadelphia 76ers win it all.
A city that gets a transcendent sports moment roughly once a generation would not have gotten even that had Moses Malone stayed with the Houston Rockets. We don't get Harold Cunningham spreading the offense, using Earl Cureton only as a successful stopgap in Game 2 when Malone fouled out. We only get more grainy film of the Celtics beating the Rockets, the Lakers beating the Sixers, and the Lakers and the Celtics beating each other before the Bad Boys and Michael Jordan's Bulls arrive. Julius Erving, who kept pro basketball lively during its post-merger nadir, would have retired without a ring. So would have Moses Malone.
Most of all, had Moses Malone not joined Dr. J. and Mo Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, and, uh, Earl Cureton and Marc Iavaroni, all of us would have been denied the glorious last few moments of That Championship Feeling, where a starting-to-gray Julius Erving wills his team into a four-game sweep, all set to the theme from Flashdance. I can not tell you how many times I have clung to these seven minutes of heaven, when the #process takes a step back, and I envision apocalyptic images of Josh Harris and Sam Hinkie closing up shop before we finally reap the rewards of a healthy Joel Embiid in 2037. I cry tears of trivial joy, so as not to cry tears of trivial sorrow. Moses Malone will be missed. I've still never seen anyone greater.