From ‘Mumbles’ to ‘MVP’

Petersburg basketball icon Moses Malone dies at 60

Fred Jeter | 9/17/2015, 10:02 p.m.
Moses Eugene Malone, the Petersburg native and basketball icon whose talent took him directly from high school to the pros, ...

Moses Malone stands head and shoulders above his fellow Petersburg High School classmates in this June 1974 photo. He was the most heavily recruited high school basketball player in the nation, going directly from high school to the pros.

Moses Malone stands head and shoulders above his fellow Petersburg High School classmates in this June 1974 photo. He was the most heavily recruited high school basketball player in the nation, going directly from high school to the pros.

Moses Eugene Malone, the Petersburg native and basketball icon whose talent took him directly from high school to the pros, died of apparent heart failure while sleeping Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015.

The three-time NBA Most Valuable Player died in Norfolk, where he was to participate in a charity golf tournament with the Still Hope Foundation, an organization founded by NBA referee Tony Brothers and his wife, Monica, to assist single mothers in Hampton Roads.

Mr. Malone, 60, who resided in Houston, had been treated days earlier for an irregular heartbeat and was wearing a heart monitor when he was found unresponsive in a Norfolk hotel room.

The state medical examiner’s office said Mr. Malone died of natural causes and listed those causes as hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

Ranked with the greatest of all time, Mr. Malone was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, the first year he was eligible for the honor.

But before gaining celebrity status, he was just another youngster — albeit a towering one — growing up in the Heights neighborhood of Petersburg.

From such humble roots, no one then could have predicted his future greatness.

His home-away-from-home was the asphalt basketball courts at Virginia Avenue Elementary School, which is now closed.

“Mo was a fun-loving guy — a jokester — but he didn’t say much,” recalled close friend Ed Robinson. “In fact, if you didn’t see him, you wouldn’t know he was around.”

Virginia Avenue attracted many athletes with impressive resumes from high school and college, as well as players described as street legends.

Always on the lookout for stiffer competition, Mr. Malone and others engaged in pick-up games at Lee Park, Fort Lee — “playing the soldiers,” Mr. Robinson said — and Virginia State University “against college guys,” he added.

An only child, Mr. Malone lived with his mother, the late Mary Malone, in a modest home a block away from Virginia Avenue on St. Matthew Street. There was plenty of love in the house, but no real father figure.

Mary Malone, who died in 2012 in Huntsville, Ala., was a cashier at Safeway, sang in the choir at Community Independent Methodist Church on River Road in Chesterfield where she grew up, and was a renowned cook.

She raised her son alone.

“Yeah, Mo was poor. We were all poor. But we didn’t know it then,” said the 6-foot-6 Mr. Robinson, who succeeded Mr. Malone as a Petersburg High School center in 1974-75.

“Mo never drove a car that I knew of,” he said. “In fact, the first time I ever saw Moses driving was when he came back from Utah. He was driving a Rolls Royce.”

Mr. Malone was a 6-foot-8 high school sophomore when Petersburg High Coach Carl Peal summoned him to play for the Crimson Wave varsity late in the 1971-72 season.  

Sprouting to 6-foot-10 by the 11th grade, Mr. Malone went on to score 2,124 career points at the school, including 896 as a senior while averaging 35.8 points per game.

He combined height with rare quickness and agility, a soft touch around the hoop —dunking wasn’t allowed then — and fierce rebounding at both ends of the floor.

Petersburg High’s basketball team was 50-0 his junior and senior seasons en route to back-to-back State Group AAA titles.

“Mo was thoughtful and hard working,” recalled Coach Peal. “He ate and drank basketball. Early on, you could tell he wanted to play pro ball. He didn’t say much about college.”

Although a prodigious scorer, Mr. Malone was never considered selfish.

“Mo liked to move the ball around,” said Coach Peal. “He liked to see the other kids get their names in the paper.”

As the Malone legend grew, so did the crowds. All home games during 1973-74 season, when he was a senior, were moved from the old high school building on Washington Street to Virginia State University’s Daniel Gymnasium.

Petersburg High defeated Halifax 59-51 in the 1973 State finals and West Springfield, 50-48, in 1974. Both State events were played at the University of Virginia.

The State AAA Player of the Year was rarely quoted in high school. He suffered from a speech impediment and was extremely shy.

His teenaged nickname was “Mumbles.” 

Mr. Malone was easily the No. 1 recruiting target in America in 1973-74.

University of Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell and Norm Sloan of North Carolina State University were among the most persistent suitors. A posse of college scouts camped out in Petersburg, tracking Mr. Malone’s every move. It got to the point that he would sneak out of the house and stay overnight with friends to avoid the constant tug of war for his attention.

Also making a pitch for Mr. Malone was Virginia Commonwealth University Coach Chuck Noe, along with his assistant Charlie Moses.

“I remember us going to his (Mr. Malone’s) house one Saturday morning real early and Lefty was already there,” recalled Charlie Moses, who also owned Paragon Pharmacy in Richmond’s Oregon Hill.

“We knocked on the door, tapped on the window. Lefty tried to keep Moses’ mother from coming to the door. When we finally got in, Lefty went upstairs with Moses.”

It is purely coincidental that Moses Malone and Charlie Moses shared a name. Moses Malone confided in Coach Moses and befriended him for life. Coach Moses, now 91, has a Moses Malone poster that the Hall of Famer signed “To my No. 1 best friend.” They spoke frequently over the decades.

Coach Moses, and his influence on Mr. Malone, figured heavily into an in-depth 1979 Sports Illustrated article on Mr. Malone written by Frank DeFord.

Coach Driesell won the Malone sweepstakes but never cashed in. Mr. Malone signed a National Letter of Intent with Maryland, but instead of heading to College Park, he inked a professional contract with the ABA’s Utah Stars.

Along with all the college coaches who descended upon Petersburg, there was at least one pro coach — Utah Assistant Coach Larry Creger.

It was clearly the smart decision, in Mr. Malone’s unique case, to choose the money up front over a college classroom. With his initial bonus, he bought his mother a new house in Petersburg. The old home was soon condemned.

Mr. Malone was the first person to go straight from high school to the pros. To say he was ready for pro ball at age 19 would be an understatement.

Appearing in 83 games as a rookie in 1974-75, he averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds in 38.6 minutes per game.

From Utah, “Big Mo” went on to battle on the low post for the Spirits of St. Louis, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Milwaukee and San Antonio, retiring in 1994.

His brilliant career included being named MVP in 1979, 1982 and 1983, 12 all-star selections and six rebounding titles, earning the tag “Chairman of the Boards.”

He was the playoffs MVP after leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1983 crown.

Combining skill with a tireless work ethic, he accumulated 29,580 points, snagged 17,834 rebounds and passed for 1,936 assists.

Known for his blue-collar, no frills style, he was a hero of the 9-to-5 plugger. During the Sixers’ victory parade in 1983, a group of construction workers in hard hats raised their lunch pails, in unison, offering a tribute to Mr. Malone.

Mr. Malone’s No. 24 jersey is retired in Houston.

His NBA rivals included the game’s all-time greats — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Robert Parish, to name a few.

But before that, his No. 24 jersey was retired at Petersburg High, where early on he was banging the boards on Virginia Avenue.

Mr. Malone and his former wife, Alfreda, have two sons, Moses Jr., who played basketball at Houston, Texas Tech and South Carolina State universities, and Michael, who played football at Virginia Tech.