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Rockets legend Moses Malone dies, a basketball nation mourns

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The NBA family lost a monumental figure yesterday as Moses Malone left us too soon.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Moses Malone died yesterday. He was 60, too young. He leaves a titanic-sized hole in the pantheon of the NBA and in Houston, where he started his NBA career, won two MVP trophies, and molded a teenage Akeem Olajuwon into an unstoppable force.

I am too young to have watched Moses play, so I can't tell you stories about other players bouncing off him as he missed his layups, jumped again, caught the rebound, missed another layup, jumped again, caught a second rebound and dunked it home.

I am too young to remember Moses' two MVP seasons in Houston, in '78'-'79 when, at 23, he averaged 24.3 points and 17.6 rebounds, played all 82 games and led the NBA in minutes per game at 41.2. I wasn't alive when, in his last year for the Rockets, he averaged 31.1 points and 14.8 rebounds per game and averaged 42 minutes each in 81 contests.

I wasn't there when Malone taught the Dream, before he was the Dream, how to compete when he was a teenager, straight outta Lagos, as told beautifully today by Fran Blinebury.

It was thought to be just another summer night on the steamy court at Fonde Rec Center, hard in the shadows of downtown Houston's skyscrapers, where the thick air was closer than the walls and the contentiousness in the paint was even hotter.

After nearly a year of banging heads and elbows, trading pushes and shoves, giving and taking lessons, the teenager took the ball in his hands, spun toward the basket and slammed it home with a force that rattled the backboard and sent Moses Malone sprawling onto the worn wooden floor.

"Offensive foul," barked out the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player from flat on his back.

"C'mon, Mo!" the gangly 19-year-old, then known as Akeem Olajuwon, replied through his Nigerian accent. "Be a mon!"

A threshold had been crossed, a bar had been cleared, a barrier had not just been broken, but shattered.

It was 1982 and Malone had just won his second MVP award with the Rockets (he'd claim his third the next season). Olajuwon had just finished his first season at the University of Houston.

"Oh Lordy," NBA veteran Robert Reid remembered years later. "The place got real quiet. It was on that play, at that minute, when a lot of us stood there and wondered, 'What do we have here?' "

What a shrinking world had in this most unlikely union that brought together a made-in-America big man off the streets of Petersburg, Va., with a wide-eyed sponge from Lagos, Nigeria, was perhaps the greatest teacher-student class project in basketball history.

And yet, as a kid growing up idolizing NBA stars of present and past, Moses was always this quiet, yet towering figure, of any NBA scholarly pursuit. While the 1980s were dominated by Bird and Magic, before either of them truly took the league by storm, there was Moses, the antithesis of what most think of when they imagine ABA players merging with the more rigid NBA.

Workmanlike doesn't go far enough to describe the muck Moses famously loved to wallow in. He was the first important player to jump straight to pro ball from high school — college was never where he was going to show his true genius — and he played every game like he was about to be shipped back to central Virginia. He won three MVP awards in five years, the third of which came in the season in which he helmed one of the most dominant teams ever, the 1983 Sixers.

In Houston, Malone stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Hakeem Olajuwon and Elvin Hayes as dominant centers who cemented that the legacy of this city, and this team, will always be in the paint. Ralph Sampson and Yao Ming are on pedestals slightly lower, and Dwight Howard will have to work hard, for years, to reach the levels of these giants.

Sixty is too young for anyone, but especially so for the center who was perhaps the longevitous of them all. Robert Parish is history's leader in games played and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played 8,000 more minutes than Moses, but no one spent as much time in the muck, pounding and pounding away, as Moses. And even though I never got the chance to see him play, I'll still miss him.