Moses Malone's timing always has been almost as extraordinary as his spectacular talent.
He was so brilliant so early in high school that by his senior year he was considered a legend with his own 10 commandments of basketball skills.
He was in a position to skip college and become one of the few players ever to sign with the pros straight out of high school just when the American Basketball Association needed special publicity and unique attractions to stay alive.
And now the Houston Rockets' main man is on the verge of being the next dominant force in the National Basketball Association just when his contract is nearly expired, a situation that could make him pro sports' first salaried $1-million-a-year player.
One of the teams that may eventually benefit from Malone's timing is the Bullets, who would love to send out a front line of Malone, Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard and see if the rest of the league could handle it.
Malone told several Bullets during their last trip to Houston that he would relish playing in Washington, the nearest league franchise to his home in Petersburg, Va. He also would enjoy being on a fast-break team. The Rockets play a more deliberate style.
But Malone will not come cheap for Bullet owner Abe Pollin when the big center's contract expires after the 1979-80 season. With the possible exception of Darryl Dawkins, there are no other centers of Malone's imposing abilities in sight, either playing in the league now or in college.
Surround Malone with the proper players (quick guards and one good rebounding big forward are the requirements) and not even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could prevent him from hoarding titles the way he presently collects rebounds and points.
To have a talent like Malone available as a free agent is an opportunity league owners should greet with open checkbooks. A bidding battle is expected that will make baseball's just-concluded war of the Rose seem tame in comparison.
Unless snow forces cancellation of the game, Washington fans will have a chance tonight to see why Malone is the talk of the league when the Rockets meet the Bullets in an 8:05 game at Capital Centre. But Malone says he doesn't know why everyone is getting excited about his skills.
"I've always been a player," he said in a recent interview. "People just talk about my rebounding, but I don't buy that, no way.I'm a player, I'm a scorer. Why don't they talk about my scoring too?
"I can do it all, rebound, score the points.I can do whatever I have to. But all anyone sees is my rebounding.
Followers of Malone since his early days at Petersburg High hardly are surprised by his progression to greatness. He was something special even then, a phenomenon that occurs only rarely in basketball, a fact that some echoed quickly across the recruiters' hotline.
That's what rankles Malone now. Because he never played college basketball, which denied him the opportunity to prove his abilities to a national audience, his growing accomplishments this season are considered surprising. But all he is doing, he believes, is fulfilling his first commandment: Thou Shalt Be a Team Franchise.
And the best is yet to come. Malone has not yet reached the promised land of basketball maturity. At 24 he has only reached "60 percent of his potential," according to Houston Coach Tom Nissalke. "He is getting better every season. I don't know how good he can be."
Even a partially mature Malone can be something to behold. During one 11-game stretch a month ago he averaged 19.8 rebounds and 26 points while shooting 59 percent. That's the kind of heavenly statistics that lead to millionaire contracts.
Malone is a coach's dream -- a big man (6-10, 235 pounds) who works as deligently every minute he is on the court as some pesky 5-11 guard.
How many times have coaches said, "If only my center would hustle?" Malone must have heard those pleas. He digs and scratches each night as if those same coaches were filming him as an example for their players to follow.
Even five years as a pro have not diluted Malone's approach.He has refused to adopt the prevailing NBA attitude -- getting by with as little exertion as possible. He has remained a glowing treasure unspoiled by fame, money or peer pressure.
His relentlessness is most apparent in rebounding. He has explained at length his theories on the flight of the ball and shooter styles. But the major reason he leads the league is his desire to pick off every missed shot in a game.
"When you play against Moses," said Bullet Mitch Kupchak, "you have to be looking for him every second. He probably is the hardest guy for me to play. He'll go after everything, which means you never relax. You have to keep boxing him out, making sure he doesn't sneak along the baseline."
His determination is complemented by another necessary ingredient: quickness. Although Malone has increased in strength while maturing as a pro, he never will push around Wes Unseld or Artis Gilmore. But he can beat either to a spot or slither around them just when they think he's under control.
He also has an uncanny ability to keep his eye on the basketball, despite the shoving and bumping under the boards. His hands are small for a man his size, but once near a rebound "they are like flypaper, like a frog's tongue nailing an insect," said teammate Mike Newlin.
And if he can't get full possession, Malone doesn't consider it a weakness of character to tap the ball into the air, keeping it alive around the offensive boards. His teammates, realizing this trait, are on the alert for second opportunities.
Because Malone is the only Rocket who truly enjoys rebounding, the Bullets are convinced he connot go to the boards at a consistently ferocious pace all season without wearing down, especially when asked to play as many as 48 minutes a game. Malone says he paces himself, pointing out how strong his fourth-quarter efforts usually are.
There is no controversy about Malone's results. He is averaging 17 rebounds a game, four more than his nearest competitor in the league, and he will establish a new standard for offensive rebounding excellence this year, smashing the record he set two years ago. He already has pulled down 39 rebounds in one game this season.
No one else in the NBA has been so lethal around the offensive boards because no big man has driven himself so hard. And in time, Malone seems destined to become the league's best rebounder at either end, even though rule changes have reduced the number of shots in games.
Only this year, when his offensive abilities have finally emerged from the shadow of his rebounding prowess, his rebounding has been looked upon as the next great big man.
"Naw, I could always score," said Malone about his improved average (up from 19 to 23 a game). "But you can't put it in unless you get it. If they want to go to me (in the low post) I'll score them some points. You just got to know what I can do and where I need the ball to put it in."
He is less reluctant now to go to the basket with the ball. He has a nice turnaround jumper, which he can bank off the boards, and he knows he will always be able to supplement his point production with those ever-present offensive rebounds.
Opponents show their respect for Malone by guarding him closely all the time instead of backing off, as some did in the past. Once the ball goes down low Malone is not thinking "assist" anymore.
To those who knew Malone in his high school days, the fact he now is willing to talk about his abilities may be the most telling sign of his maturity.
Once he refused to speak to reporters, partly out of shyness and partly out of mistrust. Now, though he hardly is a chatterbox like teammate Calvin Murphy, Malone's street jive, staccato explanations flow far more freely than before.
He remains an introvert who prefers privacy and listening to music to the glare of the spotlight. But he makes up for his lack of sophistication with an inborn survival instinct.
"You can't knock what he does just because he doesn't audition to be a television commentator every day," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "You can win with him. That's the bottom line.
"He knows his limitations and his strengths. He has got everything reduced to its proper terms as far as his game goes. The scary part is his age. No one can envision yet his limits."
Golden State guard John Lucas, a former Malone teammate at Houston and the unofficial president of the Moses fan club, says Malone's future is a matter of spelling.
"Moses," said Lucas, "is just a 'T' away from being 'GREAT.' And when he gets that final letter everybody just better watch out."