They are going at each other with scowling faces, blood in their eyes and welts over much of their large bodies. Oh, what a lovely war this Mitch and Mo show has become.
Seven months ago Mitch Kupchak of the Bullets and Moses Malone of the Rockets began their first seasons in the National Basketball Association. The notion that both would become dominant figures in a playoff series would have been scoffed at by purists.
"I don't think anybody expected these rookies to play this well, especially in the playoffs," said Bullet assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "There's supposed to be all this pressure, all this money and the kids aren't supposed to do this.
"But the kids coming into the league are a different breed. They're brash. They're arrogant. They're not in awe of anybody. It's like the gunslingers against the cowboys. These kids are waiting in the weeds to knock these guys off. You have to prove it to them every night."
After three playoff games between the Rockets and Bullets, Kupchak and Malone are proving to be dominating basketball players.
"Those two are going to have some amazing battles over the next 10 years," said Rocket coach Tom Nissalke. "We're seeing one now, but they're both going to get better and better.
"now, I'd say Moses is playing at about 60 per cent of what he will be once he gets a little more experience. During the season, he only averaged about 30 minutes a game. If he played 40, he'd average 20 rebounds a game. He's the best rebounder in basketball."
Kupchak also is no slouch. "He's a rar breed," said Bullet general manager Bob Ferry, the first to admit "I never thought he'd be this good; I don't think anyone in basketball did."
"The only two like him I know are Dave Cowens and Jerry Sloan. He's got the same kind of drive, a totally intense, hustling all-out player who gives you everything there is to give, and a little more."
Malone, who signed a four-year, $1 million dollar contact in 1973, is leading the Rockets in scoring (20.3 points) and rebounding (17 per game) in the season. Kupchak, who will earn approximately $500,000 in a multiyear pact with the Bullets, shares the Bullet scoring leadership with Phil Chenier at 25.3 points, and has averaged 10 rebounds.
When the season started, Kupchak and Malone were hardly considered vital performers.
"I really thought that I would come in, learn the ropes and not play very much," Kupchak said yesterday after a practice session at Bowie State. Elvin (Hayes) and Wes (Unseld) were All-Stars. Truck Robinson had the other forward spot nailed down and I know I'm not a guard.
"But then they made a couple of trades and I started giving Wes a break, Elvin a rest. I think I'm fortunate to play as much as I do. I'm not under any pressure, they don't depend on me to do a lot of things. Anything I can do is a plus. I really believe that.
"I'm learning all the time. I've always considered myself a center, so I'm learning the forward position almost from scratch. I was never in awe of these players. I'd played against pros before. I knew how good they were and how good I was.
"I love what's happening. I'm playing and we're winning, and the season has gone by fast. When I think we started all this last October, I know it's been a long time to be playing basketball. But I never get sick of it. I love to play."
And, apparently, so does Malone, since he found a home with the Rockets, and a friend in coach Nissalke.
"I think Tom is the key. I can't say enough about him," said Washington attorney Lee Fentress, Malone's agent. "Nissalke works with him and takes an interest in him. Not just as a player, but as a person, too. Moses and John Lucas are great friends, they live in the same apartment. It's a great plus."
Nissalke coached Malone his rookie year with the Utah Sartsz, and when he took over as the Rockets' coach this season, he wanted the big man.
"When I first came to Utah, it was Moses' rookie year." Nissalke recalled. "The franchise had lost Jimmy Jones, Zelmo Beatty and Willie Wise, and they tried to make Moses into somthing he never was.
"They had billboards all over the city, 'Moses I Coming,' things like that. He was right out of high school, a young kid from a predominately black, small-town environment, and it was a complete circus atmosphere.
"I tried to get to know him, and I also tried to make him play within the confines of his game. He didn't play too well during the regular season, but we had a six-game playoff series against Denver, and Moses was awesome, devastating. I saw greatness in him."
Few other NBA types saw the same trait after Portland secured his rights in the ABA dispersal draft last spring.
"Portland bought him to bargain with, it was that simple," said Fentress. "I don't think they thought he could play with (Bill) Walton and (Maurice) Lucas. I actually set up a deal with Houston then, but Housten was having financial problems and by the time it could be arranged, Portland made the trade with Buffalo."
Malone stayed with the Braves for three games and sparse playing time. According to Fentress, his trade to the Rockets was a 10-to-1 shot, and only occurred because of some rather unusual circumstances.
"They had played a game in which four of their people, (Adrian) Dantley, (John) Shumate, (Tom) McMillen and (Bob) McAdoo did well. Moses didn't play. I got a call from him the next day and he asked, 'Why did they trade for me if they're not going to play me?'"
Fentress called Paul Snyder, who owned 50 per cent of the Buffalo team, and proposed a new trade with Houston. Snyder had been ambivalent about Malone from the start and was not at all pleased about his whopping salary. His partner, John Y. Brown, wanted Malone, and hang the price.
But Brown was in Puerto Rico and the deal between the Braves and Rockets was consummated. "If Brown had been there, the trade never would have happened," said Fentress.
The Rockets made the trade based solely on Nissalke's recommendation. General manager Ray Patterson had seen Malone play several times, and was not enthusiastic.
"Ray said, 'If you're that impressed with him, we'll roll the dice,'" recalled Nissalke. "But I didn't think of it as a gamble. We gave them two No. 1s. I told Ray give 'em all our choices if they want 'em I'd have given up No. 1s forever."
Certainly Nissalke's faith in Malone has paid off. Malone was gradually inserted into the Rockets lineup, Nissalke redesigned the offense to take advantage of Malone's special skills, and Houston was off and running to the Central Division championship.
"Moses has been misread by so many people," Nissalke said. "They thought he was dumb, because he never said much. Well, he's not. He's not a candidate for Hollywood Squares, but he's not dumb. He's just shy.
"Some people interpret that as him having a bad attitude. It's not true. He's a good kid who works hard. I tell you this, if Maryland had him, they would not have lost any games.
"He's a bread and butter player, a meat and potatoes man. So's Kupchak. They won't be fancy guys, they'll just get the job done.
'They're both tough kids, physical players. They don't need to do much with their games except to refine them. This summer we'd like Moses to work on his hook shot. We'd like to have him drive a little more.
"I think Mitch is a better outside shooter, but Moses is probably a little quicker. Defensively, all they have to do is learn the players around the league a little better. You only get that from playing."
Kupchak, insists he enjoys playing against Malone, despite the bumps and bruises.
"I like him because he doesn't say anything out there. He just plays his heart out. He doesn't talk to you, he doesn't mess with your head. he just goes out there and battles. I like a player who does that. I hope poeple say the same thing about me."
They do, and that's why the Mitch and Mo show is such a lovely war.