Chris Heck doesn’t sugarcoat the story.
In 2013, shortly after becoming president of the Philadelphia 76ers, Heck called Moses Malone, a key player on the franchise’s last championship team in 1983. He had some good news for the Hall of Fame center.
“We’d love to retire your number, bring you back into the fold,” recalled Heck. “The first conversation was ‘thanks, but no thanks.’”
Heck was surprised, but he also understood. Malone left the Sixers for the second and final time in 1994. The following year, he left the NBA for good. Not hearing from the team for nearly 20 years … that’s a lot of radio silence.
“Moses probably felt that distance was really great at that point, so he takes it personally,” said Heck.
But not so personally that he wasn’t willing to give the Sixers’ front office the chance to change his mind.
At halftime during Friday’s home game, the team will unveil a 10- by 15-foot banner retiring Malone’s No. 2 jersey — the fruit of a yearlong conversation and one unusual request before Malone died from heart disease in 2015.
Most retirement banners — virtually all of them — simply feature the player’s name and number because, well, it’s an individual honor.
Malone had a different idea. He insisted that every of one of his Sixer teammates be included in the design. Nearly 50 names ring the red, white and blue banner made by the Metropolitan Flag and Banner Company, based in Southwest Philly.
“I don’t think I’ve heard anyone ever do it ever — in any sport,” said Heck.
It was classic Malone — a bona-fide superstar who had little desire for the limelight. The rare combination endeared him to fans in a city that’s always championed blue-collar values.
“He was hardworking, he was selfless. All he wanted to do was punch that clock, go out there and do his job and go home,” said Aaron McKie, who played with the Sixers for nearly a decade and was part of the team that went to the NBA finals in 2001.
Malone only spent five seasons with the Sixers, mostly in the 1980s playing alongside fellow Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones, but they were memorable seasons.
Before Malone was traded from the Houston Rockets, the Sixers were a talented squad, reaching the finals in 1982 before losing to Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers.
With Malone, the Sixers were considered an elite team poised to win that elusive championship.
“It was a unifying thing to have Moses on the team to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got no excuses. You wanted a better player, and you’ve got one.’ It was motivation,” said Jones, who played forward on the team.
The Sixers finished the regular season 65-17, then ripped through the playoffs, sweeping the Lakers in the finals.
The post-season unfolded almost exactly the way Malone predicted, coming incredibly close to perfection.
“They asked him if he thought it’d be tougher to win the playoffs than the regular season. Moses said, ‘No it’ll be easier. It’s gonna be fo’, fo’, fo’ … meaning they’re going to sweep every series in four games,” said sports columnist Mark Whicker, who covered the Sixers that year.
The team ended up losing one game to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, so the championship rings from that year are engraved with the phrase “Fo’, Fi, Fo’” instead.
Malone provided two things: rebounds and points following those rebounds.
“He was like the tide. When the tide is coming in, you just can’t stop the tide. And that’s what he was like on the basketball court. When he wanted to score, they weren’t going to stop him. They may foul him, but he would shoot free throws, so it didn’t matter. We were going to get points,” said Jones.
Malone won his third MVP trophy in 1983.
Malone, who became a pro straight out of high school, retired in 1995 after 19 seasons in the NBA. No one has grabbed more offensive rebounds.
Heck, the Sixers president, said he hopes this year’s team thinks of Malone’s accomplishments when they see his banner hanging above them.
“Everything happens for a reason, and I think the time of us honoring Moses may be more appropriate than ever with the current team that we have on this court,” Heck said. “Maybe this is just the little piece of extra motivation that helps bond the team together to grow and be a champion one day.”