Standing in Capital Centre yesterday before a group of Washington Bullets officials assembled to praise him, Moses Malone used the opportunity to bury the Philadelphia 76ers, in particular owner Harold Katz.
Malone was making his first appearance in Washington since last week's trade that brought the three-time NBA most valuable player to town along with forward Terry Catledge and two first-round draft choices. Malone said he was glad the deal was made because "I don't have to deal with Harold anymore. I'm looking forward to shutting his mouth up on North I-95."
Presented with a Bullets jersey bearing No. 2, Malone said: "I had this number in Philly; it's a 76ers number. I think I'll change to No. 4. I don't want Harold to get any ideas."
From Washington's perspective, the ideal scenario would be to have the season begin as quickly as possible with a number of games scheduled against the 76ers.
Listening to Malone, 31, rail against his former team, Bullets owner Abe Pollin said: "I guess he'll be ready to play against the 76ers, won't he?"
Malone, a 6-foot-10, 255-pound center and 10-year NBA veteran, missed Philadelphia's final seven regular-season games and all the playoffs because of a broken orbital bone beneath his right eye. He said yesterday that he's ready to play, period. The sunglasses he wore to the news conference served as a reminder of the injury, which has already led to one concession: When he does return to the court, he will wear goggles.
He has been limited to bicycle riding and some basket shooting since his injury in late March. Yesterday he said he expected to be cleared to resume full-scale play early next month, at which time he will eagerly go about conducting business as usual.
For Malone that means "going to the rack," a euphemism for a brutish, oft-dominating style of play that has garnered him six NBA rebounding titles, including five straight between 1981 and 1985. After a 1982 offseason trade between Houston and the 76ers, he averaged 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds in leading Philadelphia to a 12-1 playoff record and the league title.
At that time, Katz said Malone was worth every penny of the six-year, $13 million contract that was part of the package that brought the center to Philadelphia. That wasn't the case during the 1983-84 season, however, a disruption-filled year that culminated with the 76ers being eliminated by the New Jersey Nets in the opening round of the playoffs.
On March 1 of that season, the 76ers lost a 112-100 game to the Phoenix Suns, the team's fifth loss in six games. Malone, playing on a tender ankle and knee that had caused him to miss that season's All-Star Game, was nevertheless castigated by Katz, who was traveling with the team. From that point, things rapidly deteriorated between the two men, according to Malone.
"He knew I was hurt and I play hurt, but he still talked about me," said Malone. "He put in the papers how bad I was playing, but when he apologized he took me aside and did it to me alone. I didn't think that was right. He should've done it the same way for everybody to see. I wanted him to treat me like a man, not like a kid."
The animosity between the two grew to the point that, when the trade with Washington was completed, Katz dismissed Malone as an "old" 31, "three years removed from being an MVP." Malone believes those words will be enough to spur him to an outstanding year with the Bullets.
"I don't know why Harold Katz wants to talk about me like that now," he said. "When I was there, I was great. Why can't he admit that now?" He says I'm old because I been in the league a long time; I've been playing on playgrounds since I was 9, so I must really be 48 by now.
"He's very cocky. He traded me here because he wants a point to prove. Well, it's very good he's done that, because now he'll get to see me six times."
If nothing else, Katz should have known better than to sting Malone's considerable pride. One of three men to make the jump from high school directly into the pros, Malone has never been considered a gifted athlete. Instead, he first survived, then excelled in the league through an intense desire.
In the 1980-81 season, he led a nondescript Houston team to the league championship series, where it lost to the Boston Celtics in six games. Before that series, Malone had boasted that he and four guys from his home town of Petersburg, Va., could beat the star-studded team.
"I think that people never thought I'd be in this position, being an all-star and making good money," he said. "They thought I'd last two or three years because I didn't know the game. That's what I'm proudest of. I'm not a guy on an ego trip, not trying to take control of no team. I just work hard and try to win all the time."
Perhaps one of his most unrecognized qualities is his ability as a teacher of younger players. He helped develop Houston all-star Akeem Olajuwon, and he helped Catledge and former teammate Charles Barkley. In Washington, his new apprentice will be 7-7 center Manute Bol, who Malone said used to intimidate the 76ers.
"I used to have to take three or four shots just to get one off to the basket ," he said. "I've never played with anyone that big before; when you got someone that big, you have to go with him."