It’s been a couple of days since Moses Malone died unexpectedly at age 60 Sunday in Norfolk, Va. Even in this era of 24/7 news coverage, some of the appreciations and remembrances of the legendary NBA center still are getting posted and published. One, from the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, provided some details of Malone’s passing and cause of death (hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease), along with a glimpse into Malone’s recent post-NBA life. Another, by L.A. sports columnist Mark Whicker, recalled the clamor-bordering-on-uproar generated when Malone, intensely recruited as a high school senior, decided to skip NCAA basketball entirely.
First from the Times-Dispatch:
On Tuesday, Malone visited a doctor in Houston, where he lived. Malone was working out when he felt his heart skip a beat. The doctor found nothing wrong, but gave Malone a heart monitor. When Malone was found Sunday, he was wearing his heart monitor.
Police and EMS responded, and they told [Malone’s best friend Kevin] Vergara that Malone probably died of in his sleep.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for Virginia said Malone died of natural causes. The cause of death was listed as hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
“He was always very health-minded,” said Vergara, who noted Malone didn’t drink or do drugs, and skipped sodas and fried foods in favor of grilled chicken, fish and salad. “He’s vigorous about working out.”
Even when Malone traveled, he frequently rose early and visited the hotel fitness center. So when Malone didn’t show up at breakfast at 6 a.m. Sunday morning, no one was worried at first. When he didn’t answer his phone, Vergara went to his room and knocked on the door. Still, there was no response.
Vergara obtained a room key from the front desk. He tried to open the door, but the latch was locked from the inside. That’s when he knew something was wrong.
The story, by Richmond reporter Eric Kolenich, also mentioned Malone’s girlfriend Leah Nash, their 6-year-old son Micah and his two older sons Moses Jr. and Michael. It also spoke of the Malone’s friendships.
“We talked every day, literally,” Vergara said. Even though Malone lived in Houston and traveled frequently, and Vergara remains in Hopewell, they kept in constant contact, often talking about Moses’ love of the Dallas Cowboys and Vergara’s love of the Washington Redskins. As Malone’s mother aged, Vergara cared for her.
And Vergara got to know Malone better than most. Malone had a reputation of not being very smart. But that wasn’t the real Malone, Vergara said.
“He is very smart,” Vergara said. “He was a shy person, but when he got to know you he opened up. And he knows the game. … He would have been a good coach.”
But that wasn’t the route Malone took. Instead, he spent retired life doing speaking engagements and playing in charity golf events. He was still under contract with Nike, which occasionally sent him on trips. He worked out, but he didn’t play basketball much anymore. Golf became his sport of choice.
On Sunday, he was scheduled to play in NBA referee Tony Brothers’ golf event to support single mothers. Malone had participated each of the past six or seven years.
Malone talked about operating his own charity golf event in Petersburg. Vergara says he might start one in Malone’s memory.
Whicker wrote about Malone as a highly sought prep star who ultimately disappointed all of college basketball by signing directly with the ABA Utah Stars. Within two years, he was tearing up the NBA, averaging 25.5 points and 14.1 rebounds through his first nine seasons in the league (1979-87), numbers that no player has matched in a single season since then.
Malone, elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2001, wound up as one of four high school-to-NBA stars who won both NBA championships and Most Valuable Player awards (three in Malone’s case). The others: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. But in simpler media times, when word-of-mouth mattered, there was an undercurrent of excitement about Malone’s game and potential that stirred a frenzy among college coaches:
Malone somehow became as good as the college recruiters thought he was. New Mexico had a late-season game against Florida State, and assistant coach John Whisenant went from Tallahassee to Petersburg. And stayed. He was at the Howard Johnson motel until Malone signed in June, with Maryland.
Whisenant now works in commercial real estate in Albuquerque. Malone was his friend. After he signed, he drove to the hotel to tell Whisenant.
“I don’t know whose car it was,” Whisenant said Monday. “I know Moses didn’t have one. The whole thing was the most bizarre recruiting story you’ve ever seen.”
Whisenant would accompany Malone to high school all-star games, throughout the country, and then fly home with him. Malone would hang out at the motel before he went home. Together they watched Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run on TV. Sometimes Malone would bring his best friend Nathan, who was a manager on the high school team.
“They would sit there and sing,” Whisenant said. “Nathan was a great singer and Moses would do backup. They sang Motown songs. Sometimes I hear songs on the radio and think of those two.”
Malone and Nathan would take Whisenant to the Mouse Trap, the local nightclub, and Whisenant would sit there as the only white person in the place and think how far he’d come from Gore, Okla.
“I was trying to hold off the entire ACC,” Whisenant said. The Maryland people were everywhere. Lefty Driesell was an all-world recruiter. His obsessive assistant, Dave Pritchett, was known as Pit Stop. They would visit the hotel, too. That’s where Whisenant met an intense Detroit coach named Dick Vitale.
Sometimes Driesell would call Whisenant and imitate Malone, just for fun.
Driesell asked Malone who the toughest playground player in Petersburg was.
“Well,” Malone said, “there was The Milkman.”
Why did they call him The Milkman?
“Because he killed a milkman, man,” Malone replied.
The best part of that story is that it is possibly true.