Under the shade trees just outside Turkey Thicket playground in Northeast Washington, the men wondered if a man with a "bad eye" was worth millions of dollars. At the bar at Jasper's restaurant in Greenbelt, most of the patrons simply marveled at the strength of the basketball player.
It was 6-foot-10 basketball center Moses Malone who captivated the conversations of fans around the area yesterday. If only for one day, the name Moses created more excitement over the Washington Bullets than has been seen in years.
In bars and on street corners nearly everyone offered whoever would listen an opinion on whether the Bullets were smart in picking up the 31-year-old National Basketball Association star from the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. They raised his name in polite assessments and in arguments peppered with four-letter words.
"It's the biggest news around!" said Karen Ruda, a waitress at Jasper's, a bar and restaurant frequented by Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry.
Malone isn't just any old player, after all. A three-time NBA most valuable player and nine-time all-star, he is considered one of the best centers in league history.
The Bullets were the sporting talk of the town in 1978 and 1979 winning the NBA title the first year and setting a franchise attendance record while advancing to the league finals the next year. Since then, the number of fans excited enough to make the trek to Landover has fallen sharply, along with the team's claim of any hold on the city's imagination. Yesterday, if only for a day, it seemed some of that old excitement had returned.
Fans speak of Malone in that same familiar tone they use to speak of people they have known for years. On the streets, he is simply Moses, a basketball player many of the fans watched grow up on the courts.
"Moses is a father figure now," Marty Hobbs, a host at Jasper's, said of Malone's coming. "The Bullets really need someone strong, a leader type."
Seated at the bar, Fred Christman, an ex-Philadelphian now living in South America, said he watched Malone play high school basketball. "I hope the Bullets made a wise decision," said Christman. "I hope they get at least three good years out of him. Washington is obviously thinking of a championship and he might be able to do it for them, depending on how long he can hold out."
Over a game of backgammon, John Annarilli admitted: "I don't like Moses Malone." But Annarilli added, "I think it was a good move for the Bullets. He is an aggressive center. He does rebound well and the Bullets haven't had that since Wes Unseld."
Annarilli's partner, Rob Gipe, a Bullets season ticket holder, called the draft pick "a daring move. But it shows the Bullets are willing to take risks to win," he said. "If all the players in the trade play up to their potential, then I think Washington picked up something it needed."
In the trade the Bullets also received forward Terry Catledge and two first-round draft choices and sent center/forward Jeff Ruland and forward Cliff Robinson to the 76ers.
Under the trees just outside Turkey Thicket, a group of men sitting on soda crates thought a lot less of the trade.
"Fire Bob Ferry!" one man yelled. "It was a bad trade. There are a lot of kids right here from this town who could play better than Moses. He cost too much for a man with a bad eye."
Malone, whose contract requires the Bullets to pay Malone his current salary of $2.1 million a year through the 1987-88 season, suffered a broken orbital bone beneath his right eye near the end of the recently ended basketball season.
"It's too much money!" intoned Festes Betts. "The risk is too high!" But on the nearby tennis courts, Walt Jones disagreed. "It's the best move Washington has ever made," said Jones. "Philly will be weaker and Washington will be stronger. He's old, but there are only five good centers in the league, and he happens to be one of them."
Even people who didn't have an opinion had an opinion yesterday. The coming of Moses Malone just couldn't be ignored.
"I've only gone to one Bullets game, and that was because my father made me go," said Evelyn Lazarowitz, who had dropped by Jasper's to fill out an application for bartender.
"But if anything helps the Bullets," she added, "then I'm all for it."