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Moses Malone owned it, even with Utah Stars

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He was as good a rebounder as I’ve ever seen. – Former Utah Stars teammate Ron Boone

SALT LAKE CITY – The 1976-77 Houston Rockets had stars before Moses Malone. Plenty of them. John Lucas, Mike Newlin and Rudy Tomjanovich were all double-figure scorers. Calvin Murphy was a 20-point-per-night attraction.

So when Malone arrived as a third-year player, barely out of his teens, veteran teammates wondered about the first modern era player to be drafted out of high school.

“Coach,” Murphy complained to Tom Nissalke, the Houston coach, “you’ve created a monster. This guy is gonna be our star?”

Three games later, Murphy stopped Nissalke.

“I think he’s a star,” Murphy said.

“He was as good a rebounder as I’ve ever seen,” says Jazz color commentator and former Utah Stars teammate Ron Boone.

The man many consider the greatest rebounder in basketball history passed away, Sunday, at 60. Before Dennis Rodman turned board work into a specialty, there was Malone, “The Chairman of the Boards.”

The player also sometimes called “Mumbles,” due to his shy, low tones and quiet public demeanor, did get off at least one immortal phrase: “Fo’, fo’, fo’.” That was his succinct prediction in 1983, when asked how his Sixers would do in their playoff run. He figured they would sweep all three 4-game series. They nearly did, losing just one game on their way to the NBA championship.

Fo’, fi’, fo’ was inscribed inside their championship rings.

It was the crowning achievement in a career that included three MVP awards, 13 All-Star appearances and a place among the 50 greatest players in league history. He compiled the most offensive rebounds on record.

If the ball went up, Malone claimed it. He had size, strength, anticipation, desire and attitude. He arrived with the Stars in 1974, averaging almost 19 points and 15 rebounds as a 19-year-old. But that was all Utahns got to see up close. The next year the team folded.

Malone was on his way to a 10-stop, 9-team, 22-year career.

His potential was obvious, even though the Stars took a chance by calling him at such a young age in the third round of the ABA draft. He had originally planned to play in college, and every team in the country wanted him.

Recruiting in that era was far looser than today. Nissalke -- who was the Stars coach when Malone was drafted – tells of Maryland coach Lefty Driesell taking his players to Petersburg, hoping to entice Malone to sign with the Terps. The previous season’s team included All-Americans Lucas, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore.

Before a pickup game ensued, Driesell named Lucas to captain one team, with Malone leading the other. Malone got first choice and immediately chose a buddy from Petersburg. Lucas chose one of his college teammates. Malone took another friend, while Lucas claimed another Maryland player. It went like that until the teams were complete.

It was Maryland vs. Malone and Friends.

Malone’s team won.

He only stayed in Utah one year. But thanks to help from Boone and other veterans, he got through his first season in a strange place. Handlers put him on an allowance to keep the teenager from misspending his wealth – an initial $1 million. Malone was a nice man, often staying to take shots with kids Nissalke allowed on the court after practice.

However, he never got the chance to fully bond with Utahns. Stars owner Bill Daniels called a team meeting 16 games into 1975-76 season, arriving at the morning practice with his tie askew and a fifth of Cutty Sark in hand. He told them the bad news – the team was bankrupt. Some players kicked the ubiquitous red, white and blue ABA basketballs into the stands.

Malone grabbed a folding chair cart from the arena and began loading it with shoes and other items, as players cleared lockers. That’s how teammates, coaches and support staff remember Malone’s last day in Utah -- him pushing the cart down West Temple toward his hotel.

In hindsight, it was a natural thing. That’s how it he played basketball.

Anything in the area was his.

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