It may have seemed like an unlikely friendship – Moses Malone, the first high-school basketball player to skip college and go pro; and Lefty Driesell, the University of Maryland coach left jilted in 1974 by Malone, the country’s top-rated recruit.
But Driesell says – and friends corroborate – that he had developed a close relationship with Malone, 60, the three-time NBA MVP who died Sunday in Norfolk, Va., of cardiovascular disease.
In fact, Malone was to meet Driesell, 83, and another friend for dinner on the day the Hall of Fame player died.
Malone “called me last week and said, ‘I’m going to be in town,’ “ Driesell said Tuesday. “He was a great guy and he stayed in touch with me all these years. We were going to pick up Moses and go to dinner. The friend we were having dinner with discovered him dead in his hotel.”
The friend, Kevin Vergara, 51, said Tuesday that he and Malone were in Norfolk to play in a charity golf tournament.
Vergara and Malone were staying at the same hotel and were planning to meet for breakfast before the Sunday golf event. Then, the two planned to connect with Driesell, who lives in a Virginia Beach condo overlooking Chesapeake Bay, for an early dinner.
“Moses was due at the golf course Sunday morning – we were going to meet first in the hotel restaurant for breakfast at 6,” Vergara said. “Time went by and by, so I went to his room. I knocked and didn’t get an answer. I went down and got a key from the front desk and went up and put the key in, but the door was locked on the inside with the bar up.”
Vergara knew then that something was wrong. A hotel staff member was dispatched to get a tool to open the door.
When it opened, Malone “was just laying in bed,” Vergara said. The detectives later showed him that Malone was wearing a heart monitor, a device he said resembled a pager.
Vergara said he hadn’t known of Malone’s health issues. “He was in great shape. He worked out every day and ate healthy. If we’re at a club, he’s drinking cranberry juice.”
Malone, from Petersburg, Va., signed a letter of intent to play for Driesell’s Terps. But he then signed in 1974 with the Utah Stars of the old American Basketball Association as a 19-year-old. He later moved to the NBA and was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history at a league press event in 1996.
Driesell, Maryland's coach for 17 seasons, said “I was disappointed, sure” at Malone’s decision. But he said he understood how poor Malone’s mother was and how that influenced the player’s decision.
“His mother was making like $25 a week,” Driesell said. “Moses once said, ‘Coach, I’ve got to tell you a story.’ He said, ‘I wrote in my Bible that I wanted to be the best high school player in the country by my junior year. And I put in the Bible my next goal was to be the first high-school player in the country to go pro.’ ”
The Virginia medical examiner’s office said Malone, a rugged player who was one of the NBA’s career best rebounders, died of a heart ailment.
Malone was known for having speech problems – he could seem to mumble – and that caused people to question his intelligence.
Driesell said Malone mumbled because the player was shy and may have been ashamed at having teeth that weren’t properly cared for.
As they grew older, Driesell became a defender of Malone in the same way he still defends Len Bias, the star player whose cocaine-induced death in 1986 led to Driesell’s being forced out at Maryland. Driesell said he remains convinced that the cocaine that killed Bias represented the player's only drug transgression.
Malone “was just an introvert,” Driesell said. “He once said, ‘I can’t stand these players that argue with officials all the time. You ever see an official change his call?’ ”
According to Driesell, when Malone thought an official erred, the player would say: ‘Hey, you missed a call. You owe me one.’ That’s how smart he was about basketball.”
Vergara said Malone “thought the world of Lefty. Moses’ mom thought the world of Lefty. Lefty is the one that got Moses hooked up with his agent. When Lefty was coaching at [James Madison] I brought Moses’ kids to camp there. They definitely were very close.”