Moses Malone is a man. To many in basketball, he has seemed the eternal prodigy, the only player perhaps destined to dribble directly from high school to the pros, the only prospect gifted enough to force the colleges to bring a touch of sanity to the often farcical business of recruiting without playing an instant for a college.

As a seven-year pro at age 27, he still had not totally overcome the image of an eager kid battling older and wiser toughs. Until about a week ago. Until he offered as fine a demonstration of big-man dominance as anyone could imagine, until he demanded triple-teaming from the defending NBA champion Lakers at times -- and still forced their elimination from the playoffs.

The Malone on display during these playoffs has a mature game and a body to match, a jump shot and at least 30 more pounds than when he kept Lefty Driesell from becoming a genius by deciding to bypass Maryland after enduring the last bizarre recruiting spasm in his sport. Yet that child-like enthusiasm almost every instant of every game has carried over to manhood. To fully appreciate the man who is arguably the most valuable player in the NBA, we must examine his basketball roots.

"One of those eerie moments," Dave Pritchett said of his first experience with Malone. There was no more intent recruiter in basketball than Pritchett at Maryland, no one who had traveled so many miles to see so many overrated hotshots and no one more excited to -- at last -- stumble upon a genuine gem.

"I can remember the game," said Pritchett, "but I can't remember the other team scoring a point. It was on an outdoor court, this awesome 6-10 eraser against a bunch of 5-10s, Moses going 94 feet to reject shots and then sticking it in at the other end.

"You must understand that just about every kid you see at that level is 40 percent overrated -- Phil Ford, John Lucas, Tom McMillen. You go see 50 kids who aren't as good as everybody says they are, and then there's one kid, like Moses, who is.

"And it wasn't like he was just standing under the basket waiting for everybody. He'd move out, 15 feet or so, and when somebody would drive from the strong side, he'd move over and swipe the shot away. I'd never seen such intensity.

"I went back to the office and quietly shut the door. Recruiting is sort of like having an affair; you don't want some things to leave the room. And I told coach: 'There's a God in heaven and he's been great to us. One hour and 15 minutes down the road (in Petersburg, Va.) is the greatest player I've seen in 12 years.'"

After his junior year in high school, Malone attended a summer camp operated by Howie Landa and Dave Bing, then one of the high-magnitude stars of the NBA. Somehow, Bing and Malone got paired in a one-on-one half-court game to 20 points; the matchup seemed ludicrous.

Bing was coming off a season in which he averaged 22.4 points for the Pistons and played in the NBA All-Star Game. Two summers later, he still would be regarded as a savior-like acquisition by the Bullets. So at not very far on the downside of his rich career, Bing was going to show the young highrise some realities of basketball.

Moses won.

There was another game. Bing's pride had been pricked. Malone was not in awe, as he sould have been in such a presence, and it took most of the pro tricks Bing could muster to win that second game, by a point over a youngster going into his senior year in high school.

"He was as intense during a two-on-two game outdoors as he is in the NBA now," Pritchett said. "You wonder how guys in small towns get that way. You can understand it in a big-city kid, like Steve Sheppard, because your team either wins those playground games or you don't play for hours.

"But Moses had to practically beg kids to play with him."

Anybody who can force the Lakers, with as much talent as any team in the NBA, to drastically alter their style has become a force. Malone was second among NBA scorers and first in rebounding but could not carry Houston to a .500 record during the regular season.

In a short series, one wonderful giant playing exceptionally can fuel marginally built Rockets past the strongest barriers. And the Lakers also are unusually versatile, capable of being large or quick -- or both -- depending on whether Magic Johnson plays forward or guard.

Imagine a team with two of the best half-dozen players in the NBA having three defeners assigned to keep one rebounder from doing what he does better than anyone in the game. Almost alone, Malone stopped the Lakers from running and cost them at least $3 million in potential playoff revenue.

In the seventh game tonight in San Antonio, he has a chance to haul Houston into the Western Conference finals.

Malone helps bring several immediate issues into clearer focus. We look at him and understand why Georgians will try every Olympian con to keep Herschel Walker from running to the Canadian Football League. We cannot fathom how the NFL and the colleges have managed to coexist in such cozy fashion for so long, why a Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell or Walker has not dashed into court for the right to become a Saint or a Redskin before his class graduates.

We can speculate about how Driesell would be seen if there had been a hands-off-for-years conspiracy between the colleges and the NBA. The only unknown is not whether, with Malone for four years, Maryland would have won an NCAA title, but how many.

"From two to four," Pritchett insists. "With Brad Davis, Mo Howard and John Lucas, Moses would have made our break the best in national basketball." Without Moses, Maryland made it to the Midwest Region final, losing to a Louisville team that was a free throw away from beating UCLA and in the NCAA title game.

Pritchett is familiar with the latest wonderchild, Pat Ewing, and admits he is special, but adds: "There's only been two Moses: one in the Bible and the other in the NBA."