Joe Davidson

Sacramento’s Jim Eakins recalls Moses Malone as big, shy kid

Philadelphia 76ers Julius Erving, left, and Moses Malone, right, hold the NBA championship trophy May 31, 1983 after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in four games. At left is Commissioner Larry O’Brien.
Philadelphia 76ers Julius Erving, left, and Moses Malone, right, hold the NBA championship trophy May 31, 1983 after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in four games. At left is Commissioner Larry O’Brien. The Associated Press

Jim Eakins remembers Moses Malone as a shy, lanky kid who rarely spoke – and rarely missed rebounds.

Eakins, a pioneering high school basketball star from Sacramento in the 1960s, was a veteran center for the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1974 when he was paired with Malone, the first player to skip college and jump straight to pros.

Now retired from a second career as a teacher and coach in Utah, Eakins reflected on Malone’s impact on the game, trying to comprehend how the Hall of Famer could be gone so suddenly at 60 years old. Services for Malone, a three-time NBA MVP who died suddenly Sunday from cardiovascular disease, will be Saturday in Houston.

“It’s tough to hear, and it reminds you of your own mortality, your own aging,” said Eakins, 69. “It’s sad to hear the news.”

Eakins said no one gave Malone a pass with the Stars. No one wanted to lose their job to a 19-year-old, but Malone had something possessed by few others.

“He had so much talent, worked so hard, and rebounding became so natural for him,” Eakins said. “He had this desire to be the best, and he was willing to be coached. All of those things made Moses the great player he was.”

Eakins said Malone had a big adjustment after coming from central Virginia, where he was a reluctant folk hero of sorts while leading Petersburg High School to two state championships and a 50-0 record. Salt Lake City was unlike any place Malone had experienced, Eakins said, a Mormon town with few African Americans.

He had so much talent, worked so hard, and rebounding became so natural for him. He had this desire to be the best, and he was willing to be coached. All of those things made Moses the great player he was.

Encina High School graduate Jim Eakins on Hall of Famer Moses Malone

“He was adjusting to life here, a working life, one on the road, a real culture shock,” Eakins said. “This was the exact, polar opposite of his neighborhood. When you go straight from high school to the pros, the kid you are, the maturity just isn’t there yet. But to Moses’ credit, he was able to overcome that.”

Eakins said even though Malone looked like a man in 1974, he still had a lot of kid in him.

“With his first paycheck,” Eakins said, “Moses went to a toy store in Salt Lake City and bought a lot of toys for Christmas for his friends back home. When December rolled around, he’d already played with all of them, so he bought new toys and shipped them back home.”

Malone’s decision to join the Stars was a surprise. He had committed to Maryland after being courted by about 200 colleges, but Stars executives wooed him by spreading out tens of thousands of dollars on his mother’s bed. Mary Malone was a single mom, raising Moses in a run-down house with poor plumbing and holes in the wall where there should have been windows.

Malone averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 points in his only season with the Stars, who folded after the 1974-75 season. Malone then played a season for the Spirits of St. Louis before the NBA absorbed four ABA teams when the leagues merged in 1976. Malone led Houston to the NBA Finals in 1981 and Philadelphia to the championship in 1983. During his 21 seasons, Malone became known as the game’s greatest rebounder.

Utah Stars executives wooed Malone by spreading out tens of thousands of dollars on his mother’s bed.

Eakins said while he admired Malone’s ability to make the leap to the pros, “I never could have played pro ball coming out of high school because no way was I ready for that.”

Eakins, a 6-foot-11 center, led Encina High School to a two-year record of 46-2 and was named the Cal-Hi State Player of the Year in 1964. He played four seasons at BYU and was drafted three times in 1968 – by the Oakland Oaks of the ABA, the Warriors of the NBA and by Uncle Sam. Eakins reported to the Oakland Army Depot but didn’t have to go to Vietnam because he exceeded the military height limit of 6-8. Instead, he signed with the Oaks.

Eakins played 10 professional seasons, including two in the NBA, when he battled Malone a few times in the paint. Eakins averaged 10.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, won two ABA titles and became known as “Jumbo Jim.”

“I enjoyed college, loved it, and I realized that there was going to be a time after pro ball that I needed to prepare for,” Eakins said. “I went into the business world after retiring from the pros, but one day my wife, Jean, said, ‘You don’t look happy. Find something you want to do.’ 

He taught U.S. and world history and coached soccer and basketball. He still lives in Utah and is thankful that his knees and back are sound and free of pain.

“I’ve been so fortunate,” Eakins said. “All the games I played as a youth, four years of high school ball, four years in college, 10 in the pros, all the adult leagues after that, and I’m in great shape. No problems at all. The irony is my wife wasn’t an athlete, except skiing, and her knees are bad.

“It’s been a good life. It really has.”

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