Following both the first week of the NFL regular season and a historic US Open tennis finals, it’s understandable why one would not want to read a column about death. But it is difficult to think of little else after the sudden passing of NBA legend Moses Malone, whose end at the age of 60 comes just two weeks after fellow center and Philadelphia 76ers alumnus Darryl Dawkins died at 58. One of Dawkins’s most famous maxims–and the man known as “Chocolate Thunder” had many–was, “When everything is said and done, there is nothing left to do or say.” With all due respect, I disagree. When it comes to the linked legacy of Dawkins and Malone, there is still a great deal to say.
These two men had little in common on the court. Dawkins is best known for highlights of breaking backboards while Moses was a three-time NBA most valuable player and first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Dawkins was one of the most quotable players in history while Moses defined the strength of silence (although Moses could be hilarious when inspired. He once said, “I never thought I’d lead the NBA in rebounding, but I got a lot of help from my teammates–they did a lot of missing”).
But they shared an ability to connect with those around them, spurring a particularly raw outpouring of grief, rare in the world of sports.
In a statement released upon hearing of Moses Malone’s death, Charles Barkley said, “The man I called ‘Dad’ passed today. Words can’t explain my sadness. I will never know why a Hall of Famer took a fat, lazy kid from Auburn and treated him like a son and got him in shape and made him a player. Every time I saw him I called him ‘Dad.’ I hope he knew how much I appreciated and loved him.”
When Darryl Dawkins died, 19-year-old number-one draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns attended the funeral and told the press, “He’s family. He’s like my uncle…. All I know is ‘Uncle Darryl.’”
These were men who changed the people around them. They took teammates, family members, and especially kids aside when the cameras weren’t on, and imparted indelible memories as casually as some of us send tweets. They took to mentoring not as a burden but as a blessing, feeling the need to be kind for the sake of being kind. In our transactional culture, where it often seems nobody does anything unless something is in it for them, I’m not sure how many people like Moses Malone or Darryl Dawkins we can afford to lose.
But Malone and Dawkins of course share something else besides their uncommon abilities to connect with others. They are also the two original prophets of justice about the sham amateurism of NCAA basketball. Long before the rest of us had figured it out, long before it was of a fashion to point aghast at college sports, long before coaches made multimillion-dollar salaries, long before the NCAA signed multibillion-dollar contracts with cable networks—hell, long before there was such a thing as cable—these two men saw the worth and value of their own labor and they refused to be exploited.