Seldom has a piece of Washington sports news been greeted with such unanimous acclamation as the Washington Bullets' trade for Moses Malone.
"Our phones are ringing off the hook. We've sold more season tickets in one day than we would have in two months last summer," said surprised and delighted Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry yesterday. "When you trade for a Moses Malone, I guess it's just different. I don't know the answer. Maybe he relates to all kinds of people because he's such a work-ethic guy. . . . All I know is that we now have one of the greatest and most physically aggressive competitors who ever lived. We were looking for a great center and we got one."
Sometimes it's possible to get too sophisticated and miss the big picture. In the case of the Bullets, the long view is simple. In the public mind, the team has been hopelessly dull throughout the 1980s. And it wasn't going to get any better. Why? Because the Bullets didn't have the one central superstar giant around whom most great NBA teams are built.
In fact, the Bullets were so dutifully mediocre, winning 40 or so games a year, that they couldn't even get into the draft lottery and pray for the next Patrick Ewing or Akeem Olajuwon.
Look at the last 25 NBA champions and who do you see at center: Bill Russell, Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Wes Unseld, Robert Parish and Moses Malone. All except Parish have been, at one time or another, the league MVP -- the most dominant player alive.
Only two teams in the last 30 years have won without a marvelous center of such MVP quality. The Golden State Warriors with Clifford Ray and George Johnson, and the Seattle SuperSonics with Jack Sikma.
The moral, at least to the average fan, who sometimes sees things more clearly than the sophisticate, is that a contending club -- a team worth getting excited about and spending money on -- usually starts with a great center.
If you don't have an all-court genius -- such as Larry Bird, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving or Magic Johnson -- then you absolutely must begin with a dominant center or you're hopeless.
Three days ago, the Bullets had a couple of nice peripheral all-star quality players -- Jeff Ruland and Jeff Malone. They had no one even remotely resembling an MVP pivot man, nor did they have a Michael Jordan highlight-film player who could make a whole team better.
Now, the Bullets may not have a better team than they had last season. Actually, a case can be made that they have a worse team. In fact, they might even be on the verge of having an absolutely lousy team.
But they have Malone.
And that means they have a reason and a right to hope. And hope big.
Up and down the East Coast the Bullets are being hailed. "Washington has a chance to be great," says The New York Post. "The initial Philadelphia reaction is going to be emotional and passionately opposed to the trade ," says The Philadelphia Inquirer. The general belief seems to be: The 76ers got robbed until proven otherwise.
Philadelphia owner Harold Katz has been busy putting the bad-mouth on three-time MVP Malone, the 6-foot-10, 255-pounder who somehow, in the dotage of his 31 years, managed to average 23.8 points and 11.8 rebounds a game last season. "He's three years removed from being MVP . . . and he's more like 35," notes Katz, implying Moses has been beaten to a pulp by 12 years of pro combat. "The way you win in the NBA is to run."
"I don't know how age would slow Moses down," says Ferry. "He's never counted on jumping or running. He just has this knack for the ball off the rim like nobody who's ever played, and he's sudden and powerful. Seems to me that guards' skills leave them quicker. The great big men usually last longer. . . . I know one thing. We needed competitors and we needed muscle. More than anything, that's what Moses gives us. There's a real purity about him. God, he just wants to win so bad and he'll pound you to death to do it."
That, however, doesn't answer all the Malone questions. Far from it. What about that broken orbital bone? Is it all healed, as everybody swears? Will Malone wear goggles next year? Will he shoot as well? Will he flinch? What about his knees, which can get cranky? Will he lose the weight he needs to lose to save his knees? Even Ferry says gently, "Weight is very much of a factor when you pass 30."
If Malone is healthy and properly determined to show up the 76ers for trading him, '86-87 could be a 50-win Bullets year. As one top Bullets executive says, "A good rule of thumb is that every additional win adds $100,000 at the gate . If Moses gets us 10 more wins, and we think he will, then the extra $600,000 or $700,000 in salary is worth it."
It's also excellent and well-deserved public relations for owner Abe Pollin, who personally handled the last stages of negotiations with Katz.
Pollin swore two months ago that he'd spare no expense to make the Bullets better and more exciting. Now, by dipping into his deep Capitals pocket, Pollin has in effect put some of his hockey money where his basketball mouth was; Malone's salary is $2.1 million a year for the next two seasons.
The Bullets' new vice president, Garnett Slatton, who was brought in to improve the team's marketing, said, "We got here this morning and the cleaning crews were answering the phones. We've had 20 full-time sales people here all day and we've still been swamped."
Not bad for a team that sold only 450 new season tickets all of last offseason. The Malone deal may bring that many in a week.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the Malone trade is its double upside.
If first-round draft pick John Williams is the small forward of Coach Kevin Loughery's dreams; if free agent Gus Williams is re-signed; if Manute Bol gains muscle and improves; if Terry Catledge plays as well for the Bullets as he did against the Bullets in the playoffs; if Dan Roundfield remains seviceable and affordable and Frank Johnson stays healthy; and, finally, if Malone does not play like an old 31, then the Bullets can dream about being a legitimate playoff-time threat.
On the other hand, what about the worst-case scenario? After all, 11 players were chosen before John Williams in the draft, so he's no cinch star. Gus Williams may well not be re-signed. Bol may never be more than a backup center specialist. Roundfield is old and bald, for cryin' out loud.
With Jeff Ruland (19.0 ppg) and Cliff Robinson (18.7) swapped for Malone and Catledge, the Bullets could end up with the league's least potent offensive forwards. Johnson may always be injury-prone. And, with a bad team around him, Malone might feel his age. That doesn't even mention the Bullets' favorite phrase: freak injury.
What would happen then?
Why, the Bullets might lose 50 or more games.
And finally get a chance in the draft lottery.
Perhaps it should be remembered that Pollin's April promise was an ambiguous one. "We're going to consider everything," he said, "to find some way to get out of the middle."
To that end, he has swung the most daring, expensive, high-risk trade in Washington's NBA history.
As long as it makes the Bullets much better, or much worse, it will be a success.