It was late September, a short time after the Washington Bullets' second practice of the day. The place was a nearly deserted gym at Fort Meade, the site of the team's preseason training camp. As he took jump shot after jump shot at the conclusion of the workout, Jeff Malone was in the process of transporting himself to an altogether different time and space.
"This is how it's gonna be," he said, firing the ball through the hoop. "Nice pass, Isiah." Another shot, another basket. "Nice pass, Jordan," this time adding emphasis by pointing his finger at an imaginary teammate. Once more ball and basket were wedded, courtesy of the guard's strong and accurate right arm and wrist. For a moment, Malone stopped to admire his handiwork.
"Look at that," he said, a brief smile on his lips. "That's an all-star's form. That's how I'll be doing it in Dallas."
How many youngsters take to the playgrounds, ball in hand, projecting themselves as the superstar in the big game?
Sunday afternoon in Dallas before 17,000 fans and a national television audience, Jeff Malone will have that opportunity, participating in the NBA All-Star Game as a member of the Eastern Conference team. It would be easy to say that Malone is one of the lucky ones but -- and Malone would be one of the first to tell you -- it's taken far more than luck to put him in the position he's in today.
Since that day in training camp, Malone has emerged as one of the most accurate and feared shooters in the league, scoring 21 points a game this season, mostly from long range. In just his third NBA season, he is the league's highest-scoring guard behind Cleveland's World B. Free, who averages 23 points.
Reputation accounts for a large part of why Malone is an all-star this season and Free is not. Free is regarded strictly as a shooter. Besides his picture-perfect jumper, Malone also has drawn notice for his defense and a willingness to work on other facets of the game.
And it is that last point that also brings the man who will represent the Bullets in the all-star game full circle with the boy who started dreaming down at Southwest High School in Macon, Ga.
"I'd go to the gym alone and work out one, two hours a day, every day," Malone said. "I'd get a ball and stand right in front of the basket and just shoot, practicing form. You don't realize how long an hour can be until you do that for a while."
With his shooting form perfected, it was a different kind of repetition that Malone engaged in last summer. Told by Bullets Coach Gene Shue at the end of the 1984-85 season that he needed to work on his rebounding and ball handling, Malone concentrated on both with much better results this season.
"He knew he was a good player, but I had to stay on him, push him," said Don Richardson, his high school coach. "That was typical of young guys, but Jeff always had that bit of ham in him. He was an actor, too."
Today, most of Malone's prodding is self-induced, comforted by the knowledge of what he's done so far but spurred by what may still await him tomorrow.
"If you have the potential to do something, I don't know why you wouldn't try to take advantage of it," he said. "I want to be a great player. I want other guards to walk into their locker room when they play us thinking, 'Damn, I have to play Malone tonight. He can go to his left, he can go to his right, he can shoot, he can drive, he does this, he does that.' When you get to that point, then you're an all-star every year."
Some who have espied the random quote from Malone after a particularly good shooting night, or seen him backpedal nonchalantly to the defensive end of the floor after a basket, his arm extended and wrist dangling, have gotten the impression that he's more than a little cocky, even egotistical.
The thought is reinforced by the additional sight of Malone leaving Capital Centre dressed fancily and driving away in his Mercedes Benz 500 SEL. But those close to him present a far different picture. Richardson said that he's responsible for the hanging wrist, a by-product of his drills in which he taught his players to overemphasize all of the mechanics that go into shooting a basketball.
Sharon Lawson, a longtime friend of the Malone family who lives in the Washington area, said that what others mistake as putting on airs is almost entirely the opposite.
"People think he tries to act cool, but that's just a slow pace. He's really a country boy," she said. "I've known him for 14 years and he's always been the same. I know he drives a Mercedes now, but what should he pull up in, a Pinto? Come on, he's earned at least that much."
"I'll never go around saying that I'm going to do a 360-degree dunk or get 12 assists a game," Malone said. "I do know that I can put the ball in the basket, though, and if someone asks, I'll talk about that. I've had some great games against great players. That's proven; it's fact. I don't think that's being cocky."
If Malone did have such an inkling, it quickly would be squashed by his teammates on the Bullets. His nickname is "Malug," or just plain "Lug," which is a derivative of "Lughead." Since being named to the all-star team 10 days ago, the 24-year-old has been ribbed unmercifully by his teammates about his inability to get a shot off without a pick.
Malone laughs right along with everyone else at the joke, which actually touches close to a very sore point and just the thing that he so very much wants to avoid: that he's a one-dimensional player entirely dependent on his teammates.
One Eastern Conference coach, who did not vote for Malone, said, "When I list the great shooters in the league, I pick people who just knock down shots no matter what, who don't need picks to score. Malone isn't on that list."
Malone doesn't care.
"To each his own," he said with a shrug. "How does he think I get 21 points a game just coming off picks? That can't be done. Besides, a lot of our offense is geared for picking. I pick for people and they pick for me. The name of the game is teamwork.
"That coach is right about one thing, though. There are more things that I want to improve on, things like being able to go one-on-one. Just wait until next year. I'm going to come back with something new that will make me even better."