- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lefty Driesell, the colorful basketball coach who took Maryland and three other schools to the NCAA tournament during his 41-year career, was invited to reminisce about Aug. 28, 1974.

“A very bad day in my life,” the old Lefthander said, and no Maryland fan of that era would disagree.

Thirty-four years ago this week (can it possibly have been that long ago?) Maryland lost Moses Malone to the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association before he had attended a class.

Malone, sought by more than 300 schools as the nation’s bluest blue-chip recruit before Maryland signed him, was supposed to bring a national championship with him to College Park. Instead, he opted to take a $1 million offer from the Stars, thus beginning a 21-year pro career that ranked him among the NBA’s 50 best players of all time.

Maryland never did achieve Lefty’s Holy Grail of a national title, though the Terrapins ironically came close during what would have been Malone’s freshman season.

Sparked by the strong play of guards John Lucas, Steve Sheppard and Brad Davis, plus the emergence of frontcourt men Tom Roy and Owen Brown, the Terps finished the regular season with a 24-5 record and came within one game of the Final Four before losing in the Midwest Region final to Louisville.

So close and yet so far.

“If we’d had Moses, I would have liked our chances,” Lefty said with a rueful chuckle.

When Driesell strode into his office at Cole Field House on June 20, 1974, after winning the intense recruiting competition for Malone, staff members and secretaries burst into applause.

“If Moses and everybody else play up to their potential, we have an excellent shot at a national title,” Driesell said then. “We still have to win it on the court, but it would not surprise me.”

Yet Malone, an unsophisticated country boy from Petersburg, Va., never appeared comfortable in his role as the Terps’ presumed savior. Playing in a summer league six weeks after signing, he draped a towel over his head on the bench when a photographer approached and later threatened to “break [his] camera.”

Three weeks later, bedlam ensued. The Stars were waving a fat contract in front of Malone, Driesell was growling and a Washington sports editor dispatched the Maryland beat writer to Malone’s shack of a home in a rundown section of Petersburg.

“Go up and bang on the door,” the editor insisted when his man arrived and called in.

“It’s 3 a.m. - you come down here and bang on the door,” the writer replied.

The next morning, pursued hotly by a pack of panting journalists, Malone boarded a plane in Richmond and flew to ABA headquarters in New York to sign with the Stars. Maryland’s dream was over, for all purposes, before it had truly begun.

More than three decades later, Driesell, retired at 76 and living in Virginia Beach, tends to laugh - sort of - at the Malone affair.

“Moses and I are good friends. I talk to him often, and he’s spoken at my basketball camp,” Lefty said. “He’s a great guy.”

Malone, now 53, has worked in recent years as an assistant coach and consultant for the Philadelphia 76ers, one of nine pro teams for which he played while averaging 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds for his career.

He was the NBA’s MVP in 1979, 1982 and 1983. A publicly taciturn man, Malone uttered his most famous quote when asked in 1983 how many games the Sixers would require to win each of three playoff series.

“Fo’, fo’ and fo’,” Moses replied in his down-home Virginia drawl, and he didn’t miss by much. The 76ers dispatched Boston in four games, Milwaukee in five and the Los Angeles Lakers in four en route to their only NBA championship.

Malone is one of only three players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds a season with three teams (Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain are the others).

He did not foul out in his final 1,212 games, a record, despite his punishing style around the basket. He was named to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. And when he retired in 1995 at 40, he was the last survivor of the ABA, and its old red, white and blue ball.

Yet the most agonizing distinction for Maryland fans is that Moses Malone was the first player to jump directly from high school to the pros.

“Hey, look at the U.S. basketball team in the Olympics - Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight [Howard] never played college ball,” Driesell said. “Moses paved the way. I’m happy for him.”

That’s known as being a good loser.