Around the NBA the lane, that 16'x19' area from the foul line to the baseline, has come to be known as "the paint." That's a pretty benign name for what is actually a combat zone, a place where fancy moves and behind-the-back dribbles meet crunching reality. No one plays the paint harder—and loves it more—than Houston Rocket Center Moses Malone. The lane is his home. He owns it. And he doesn't enter it flashing toothy endorsement smiles. He goes in wearing a mouthpiece.
In 1974 Malone became the first high school player to jump directly to the pros, and despite his lack of collegiate experience, he has become the NBA's preeminent re-bounder. Indeed, he has done for the offensive rebound what Bill Russell did for the blocked shot, refining it into an art that his peers can only envy.
Malone broke in with the ABA Utah Stars and bounced to three other teams before landing with the Rockets in 1976. In the five seasons since, he has won two NBA rebounding titles, finished second twice and third once. With 24.8 points and a league-leading 17.6 boards a game in '79, he was named the league MVP. The numbers this year: 14.8 rebounds, more than two a game better than anyone else, and 27.8 points, second in the NBA. In postseason play, starting with a 38-point, 23-rebound game in a mini-series opener against the defending-champion Lakers, and continuing against San Antonio and Kansas City, Malone has been all but unstoppable. He's the reason the Rockets have become only the second team with a losing regular-season record (40-42) ever to reach the NBA finals.
"I love to rebound." he says, convincingly. "Scorers will have off nights. But the boards. They'll be there."
After he grabs a rebound and kicks it out to a guard. Moses' slow gait downcourt, with his small hands swinging at his sides, seems to reflect a disdain for all that between-the-legs stuff. But when he gets his 6'10", 235-pound frame to the paint, he's a study in perpetual motion, the hardest worker in the league. It's his weapon, his way of countering those who have always wanted to beat him by beating him up.
"In high school, they had three guys just work on me," he says. Malone's Petersburg (Va.) High team used to play exhibition games against inmates at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. "You know they were rough," he said. "They had this guy called Milkman, who was bigger than I was and knew no fouls."
Why'd they call him Milkman?
Moses smiles and shakes his head. " 'Cause he killed one, man."
Malone may be all business on the court, but he's the Rockets' practical joker off it. Early this season he helped tape a Houston rookie into the rook's hotel room before the team bus left for the airport, and on another occasion he brought boxing gloves onto the court before a game with San Antonio and its famed front line, the Bruise Brothers.
Moses has always been a man of few words. One Utah radio man dubbed him Mumbles Malone his rookie year because he looked at his feet when he talked and spoke the language of his poor Southern roots. But at 26. Malone has grown. He's still aloof—preferring to answer an interview request with something like. "Yeah, I'll talk. Did you bring my check?"—but he's no longer uncomfortable. This year he has taken to calling Houston writers by their names instead of their papers, Post and Chronicle.
"It all gets back to that high-school thing," Malone says. Indeed, for all of his accomplishments, Malone is still called High School Boy by razzing fans. The suggestion is that he's too dumb or even too un-American—Dump college? For shame!—to ever amount to anything.
Malone is one of just three NBA players—along with teammate Bill Willoughby and Philadelphia's Darryl Dawkins—who skipped college. "People thought we had problems and that's why we didn't go to college. But they're the fools. We had to have strong minds to do what we did. Shoot, there're guys from college who aren't in this league anymore. So I got no regrets. All along, I thought that if I make mistakes, it's going to be me that makes 'em. It was a chance I had to take, and now I'm where I want to be."
Malone views his championship battle with the Celtics' massive front wall much as a professional fighter would a title bout. "You know you can't move all those big guys," he says. "So I'll just jab at them here and there. And I'll move, move, move."
On offense, Malone will shoot a lot in an attempt to draw the Celtics' shot blockers, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, into foul trouble. On defense, his main concern will be to keep Boston's big men "off my boards."
"Moses plays better against the burlier big guys," says one Rocket official. "I don't know. Maybe he likes those finesse centers a lot and doesn't want to run up 40 points and 25 rebounds on them. But against the brutes, it's always a knockdown, drag out. And he doesn't back down from anyone."
"It took our players a long time to realize they were playing with the greatest," says Houston Coach Del Harris. "Early in the year they griped about how much they had to sacrifice their game for Mo's."
Now Rocket Forward Robert Reid is unabashedly proud of performing in Malone's shadow, he says. "All these players that walk around and talk about how great it was to have played with Wilt and Russell and Mikan. Hey, when my grandkids grow up. I'm going to tell them about this big fella. By then he'll be known as the best of them all."
Malone's life story: great boards but no college.