Hey, big money," the boys in the bleachers yell after Moses Malone misses a basket in the cavernous chill of the Spectrum. "You're playing like small change."
This cracks them up, and they repeat it several times, so it seems to echo in the empty arena. Malone doesn't hear them. He's just standing there in his black warmup suit, singing to himself occasionally, passing the time in the slow rhythm of the shooting.
Watching him there, ambling down the court, a man with a slightly bored expression and a basketball in his hand, it's hard to comprehend, so say it slowly to see how it sounds:
Two million dollars a year.
The money is invested in stocks and bonds, in low-income housing, in shopping centers. The money, he says, is no big deal. "I been making a million for a long time," says Moses Malone. "You get more things. You're more secure. You can be rich, you can be poor. Things happen bad, they happen good. I never put myself too high. I was a poor black kid in the ghetto but my mama raised me right. I just work hard, I just do my work."
Last summer, Mrs. Malone's son Moses signed a contract that makes him the highest-paid team sports athlete in the world. He will get $13.2 million over the next six seasons to play center for the 76ers and help them try to win the NBA championship, which for the last six years has been tantalizingly just out of their reach.
Malone is a 6-foot-10, 255-pound man who plays a bruising game of basketball, averages more than 22 points and 15 rebounds a game, was twice voted the most valuable player while he played for the Houston Rockets, and is a three-time NBA offensive rebounding champion.
But two million dollars a year?
Malone shrugs when asked if he thinks he is worth all this money. "Anyone who wants to pay a ballplayer that much money must know what he's doing," says Malone. "Owner thinks it's cool, it's cool."
After the 76ers beat the Detroit Pistons, 120-103, recently and after the obligatory locker room interviews, Malone headed down the hall toward his car waiting for him in the parking lot. He is a big man, big enough to make even many of his teammates look almost gnomelike by comparison, and he walks with an awkward gait, shoulders slightly hunched, arms legs and head all moving at slightly different paces, as if they were trying, but not too hard, to keep up with each other. He is quiet, hardly thrilled at the idea of yet another interview and he looks as if he wants to disappear inside himself.
"He feels like he's been besieged by the press," says Malone's long-time attorney and investment adviser, Lee Fentress. "He feels like he's living in a fishbowl."
At 27, Malone seems both younger and older than his age. It's as if the leap from high school basketball player to millionaire pro player when he was 18 left him in an odd sort of limbo, giving him all the money and attention in the world but very little time in which to stumble privately through the growing up process, making the usual mistakes, learning the usual lessons.
From the beginning, he was treated like a phenomenon. A poor black high school kid from Petersburg, Va., whose mother scraped together a living behind a cash register at the local Safeway, he was the focus of one of the most intense recruiting drives in the history of the sport. The college coaches swarmed his doorstep, promising him the world and more if only he'd come and play ball for them.
He flirted with them for a while, even promised, for a brief dizzying moment in the life of Lefty Driesell, to play basketball for the University of Maryland. In the end, however, he went directly to the pros, signing a million-dollar contract with the American Basketball Association's Utah Stars.
His decision prompted an uproar of cries and lamentations. Dozens of self-appointed critics bewailed the exploitation of Malone, shocked that he would forego an education, convinced that he would short-circuit his athletic development, throw away his potential. High school boy! yelled the fans when he came on the court. As if there was something downright subversive about his decision to deal the colleges out of his life.
When the Stars dissolved, he was sold to St. Louis and also played for Portland and Buffalo before being traded to Houston in 1976. There he came into his own; the Rockets were his team and their game was fashioned around him. To get him last summer, Philadelphia traded center Caldwell Jones and gave up a chance at the first pick (from Cleveland) in the 1983 draft.
"It was a hard decision," says Pat Williams, the team's general manager. "But when the opportunity comes, you have to grab it. If we didn't take Moses, there was still a 50-50 chance we'd lose the coin toss. It was too risky. You take the sure thing. You take Moses."
He is, says Williams, "probably one of the four great forces in the middle ever to play the game. He has a great burning desire to excel. Maybe there are more gifted players, but there's an inner quality that you can't measure. He gives absolute maximum effort every second; that's not always true of your big centers. With Moses, you never have to guess. You know he's going to get 20 to 40 points, 12 to 20 rebounds and play 48 minutes of the game. It's just like a cookie cutter, it's really very simple."
Still, Williams gets a tone in his voice that sounds slightly incredulous when asked if it was his idea to get Malone in the first place.
"We would never come up with that idea for fear of being carried off to the funny farm. There was only one man who could commit to the riches involved," he says, invoking the name of owner Harold Katz. "It's his money. He had to pull the trigger."
"Yes, it was my idea," says Katz, the Spectrum lights glinting off his diamond pinky ring and the diamond H on his gold bracelet.
Katz is a short, stocky, self-made millionaire, with the tough confidence and the narrow-eyed appraising glance of a born street fighter who knows where to place a bet. To him it was simply a matter of arithmetic. "I'd already raised ticket prices 45 percent before Moses; the players' salaries last year already equaled the entire gate revenue and they were going up 50 percent.
"We were raising prices coming off a championship round but the season ticket sales weren't going good. We needed something to stimulate the crowds and we needed a rebounder. I did some checking into prices and I found out that Dominique Wilkins was going for $1 million.
"I figured if a rookie was worth $1 million, and here's the best player in the game, he must be worth at least twice that. I penciled it out for two days and I felt the answer was Moses Malone.
"It's no different than any other business," Katz figures. "I call sports a product. You have to deliver the best product you can. We have a very strange town when it comes to basketball -- they've never supported it so that you're likely to show a profit off of it. I'd like that to change."
So far, ticket sales are up 50 percent. So far, the television revenues have tripled. So far, Philadelphia has won 13 of its 15 games. But still, says Katz, "It's a tremendous risk. Five years from now, he won't be new any more. You have to decide if the rewards outweigh the risks. It was a very high price to pay, but I personally felt I had to pay it."
Once the news was out, the speculation began: would Malone be able to change his slow-moving style down the court to fit in with the fast-breaking game the 76ers and Julius Erving play? Would he adjust to the fact that he was no longer the only star of the show? How would he and the celebrated Dr. J get along?
"He's had a great ability to fit in with what we do as a team," says Coach Billy Cunningham. "We've never had to go out of our way to help him."
"His personality and the camaraderie he has created as been an unexpected bonus," says one of the more mythical men in basketball. Julius Erving sits on the bench and listens patiently to the questions, kind and careful.
"He's one of the guys," Erving says of his new teammate. "When you've got a guy who's a superstar, there's always a question mark: is he going to look good by firing off his teammates or is he going to make them look good? The fact that we're this successful this early is a testimony to his clicking ability."
And yet watching Erving on a court with Malone is like watching a dance between lightning and thunder. How does Erving see the differences between himself and Malone?
"I might be more of a perfectionist," he says. "Moses will keep batting at the ball until he gets it in. I'm looking for that one perfect play. It's more of a head game, a mind game, because physically I can't do all of the things I used to do. Moses plays with reckless abandon."
Does Erving think that making all that money is going to put extra pressure on Malone? He smiles. "I don't think it really affects him," he says. "After you get to $1 million, it gets repetitious."
The object of all of this attention, speculation and amazement is sitting glumly at the steering wheel of his car headed toward the penthouse condominium he moved into only a few days before.
Malone's wife Alfreda is still in Houston with their son Moses Jr., selling their old house and planning the new one; they plan to continue living there in the offseason. His wife is from Texas, they like it there.
Why then did he leave?
A chance for an NBA championship, a chance to play with the best, a chance to improve his already impressive skills, that's why, say those already on the Malone-mobile.
"It was Houston's decision," is the way Malone sees it.
"They said whatever offer I got, they would match it and then the offer sheet came and they didn't," he says with a slight air of injury. "I didn't want to be a free agent. It should never have got that far. But I got to respect Philadelphia for making the offer. And one thing I know is people here know more about the game than they did in Houston. And now I got ball players around me where I don't have to work myself to death."
About the money. "It's not the main concern. It's nice to have. But I don't dress for the occasion. I don't flash." His life style, he says, is simple; he likes to go out and eat, he likes to play video games, to go out to the movies. And play basketball, always playing basketball.
He also likes to buy cars. The blue Eldorado doesn't count; he bought that for his mother. But there are seven cars altogether. There is the Blazer parked in the underground garage, there are Porsches and Mercedes -- "I like to go fast," says Malone -- but there are no Rolls-Royces.
"My lawyer won't let me," says Malone. "He says it's too much prestige. He says people be worrying, what Moses be doing? A Mercedes, that's a low-profile car."
He takes the elevator to the top floor of the luxury building, turns the key. "You an interior decorator?" he asks. "They make a lot of money."
Inside, the apartment looks expensive and impersonal, inhabited by a thick pile rug, an enormous oriental vase and a fountain on a marble pedestal in front of the glass wall that faces out on the dark night and the lights of Philadelphia.
"I never decided to be a pro player," he says. "The Lord was looking down on me. Everybody was trying to give me advice -- 'Moses do this, Moses do that.' When I got drafted by Utah, I couldn't believe it."
But he doesn't want to talk about that much except to say he was homesick, out there in Mormon Utah, playing "with players old enough to be my daddy. I kept myself apart."
And no, he doesn't regret for a moment not going to college. "Playing college ball would have been too easy for me. I couldn't have played the kind of game I play in college. But you got to have the correct attitude. My attitude is still the same," he says, "still the same as it always was. If you worry about wanting to be something, it's never going to happen. I don't set goals, I never set goals. Whatever happens, happens."
What's happened is that while he was still a kid he found himself swimming in the fast-running waters of American celebrityhood, in which privacy is considered an expendable commodity.
"I don't let the pressure get to me," he says. "I don't worry about what people think about Moses. Moses is a person. Moses is a human being. Moses ain't perfect. I don't try to be a big shot. I don't try to say, 'Hey, my name is Moses, you should do this, you don't do that.' My name was Moses when I was born. My mama named me Moses. I never put myself too high."
He didn't have to. His talent, and the money it brought him, did that for him and now he is supposed to act the part. But he isn't cut out for all the publicity, he doesn't want the burden of being a charm-and-hype hero, Sugar Ray Leonard style.
"When I was young, I thought it was great. But I can't do the things I used to do. There's little kids looking at you, you can't get into trouble, they're looking at your image. But I don't think I'm famous," says Malone, as if that is all it takes to restore his anonymity. "I'm just a ballplayer."
The talk turns to his young son. "He'll do things right," Malone says with conviction. "He won't be no trouble boy, he'll be a real nice boy. I want him to believe in himself, so he won't be listening to what anyone says."
Does he want him to grow up to be a basketball player? "It's up to him. I don't want to make him, if he doesn't want to be. But if he wants to be," he says with a private smile, "I'll have to show him all my tricks. I don't want him going out there with nothing. 'Course, I won't teach him all my tricks: he might want to go one on one with me when I'm 50. But I don't want him on no ego trip. When I retire from ball, I don't want him bragging about who his daddy was."
And does he think much about retiring, about what it will be like when he is longer playing professional basketball? "I'm not going to hang around and play and just make money," he says with the confidence that comes from knowing that day is still far down the line. "I won't feel too bad. I can always watch the game on television."
Which is what he proceeds to do, tuning in the Atlanta-Seattle game. The big color screen is suddenly filled with the scene he just recently left. The players move down the court, the sound wells up from the crowd and soon Malone is completely absorbed, back into the world in which he is most at home.