Moses Malone—the legendary basketball center who died in his sleep at age 60 this past weekend—is best known for his three MVP seasons and 1983 championship. His glory years were with the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. But when he was traded before the 1986 season, the man aptly named Moses, whose scoring and rebounding heroics garnered biblical reverence from fans, ended up elsewhere.
“I left the promised land in Philly, now I got to open the red sea again and put it back in Washington,” he said in an interview.
For two seasons, from 1986 to 1988 the Petersburg, Virginia, native graced the District as a Bullet. And according to a December 1986 issue of Washingtonian, he had the highest salary in the area. His $2,145,000 salary (worth about $4,670,00 today) put him one spot ahead of stockbroker Ron Needelman, and six ahead of then-Washington Post owner Katharine Graham.
Malone’s professional salary came earlier in his hoops career than any player before him. In 1974, Malone reneged on his commitment to play college basketball at the University of Maryland in pursuit of greener pastures with the Utah Stars, an ABA team. This was the first time a basketball player skipped college and went straight to the pros, a precedent followed by some of the NBA’s premier talent until 2005, when eligibility rules were amended to prohibit anyone younger than 19 to play professionally. Malone opted to forgo college in part to provide for his mother, who supported Malone without help from the father on a $100-a-week supermarket salary.
Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell was livid about Malone’s choice to turn pro. But by the time Malone ended up in Washington, the two seemed to have buried the hatchet. In the summer of 1987, after his first Bullets season, Malone showed up at Driesell’s youth basketball camp at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House, where he gave rebounding tips to aspiring players.
Skipping college to earn money panned out well for Malone. While he was among the richest people in Washington, he never took his wealth for granted.
“I love to win, because you got the owner paying you big bucks, and you got the fans paying for great seats, just to come see a show,” he said. “If I can’t put a show in by working hard, then they don’t need me to be in the game.”
During Malone’s Bullets tenure, he averaged 22.2 points per game and made it to two All Star games. He also maintained his rebounding prowess, finishing top ten in the league in boards both seasons—at 11.2 per game over that span.
The Bullets also made the playoffs both years but lost to the Pistons in the first round each time. In 1988, when Bullets management refused to offer Malone a three-year deal, he left DC for Atlanta. Over the next 16 seasons, the Bullets/Wizards made the playoffs only once.
In context of Malone’s 19-season career, his Bullets stint was short and unassuming. But he left an enduring impact on the franchise with his grit, and for a time, the laconic Virginian without a college diploma was one of the richest people in a wealthy city.