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The strange and tragic case of retired Sixers big men suffering heart-related issues

Moses Malone seemed nearly invincible when he played, but he’s just one of several Sixers bigs that died from heart-related issues.

Philadelphia 76ers Moses Malone, 1983 Finals SetNumber: X28564 TK1 R4 F8

Sandra White was the first one to sense something was amiss early on the morning of Sept. 13, 2015: Where was Moses Malone?

White was working that day as an official for a charity golf tournament run by NBA referee Tony Brothers in Norfolk, Va., and one of her duties was to make sure the competitors, Malone among them, made it to the bus that would shuttle them from the Waterside Marriott to the course.

Only Moses hadn’t ventured downstairs from his room.

“That’s not his personality,” she said recently.

She had known Malone, a Hall of Fame center and the driving force behind the Sixers’ 1982-83 championship team, for over 30 years, dating back to when she attended the University of Houston and Moses was starring for the Rockets. One of her classmates, Alfreda Gill, would marry Malone in 1982, a relationship that ended in divorce 10 years later, amid allegations on Alfreda’s part of physical and emotional abuse, and adultery.

Malone issued the requisite denials at the time, and indeed White has always viewed him in a positive light. If you asked him to do something, she said, he would do it. There was never a question, never a doubt.

“Moses,” she said, “was a person of his word.”

Don Wall was also in the hotel that day, and he had known Moses even longer, back to when he was a kid knocking around the playgrounds of a hardscrabble neighborhood in Petersburg, Va. Wall lived so close to a court, in fact, that he remembers plenty of nights when Moses was out there by himself.

“You could hear: Boom, boom … ching,” Wall said – two dribbles, then the ball swishing through a metal net, again and again and again.

That morning in September 2015 Wall said he came down from his room early, and was having breakfast with Calvin Murphy, Moses’ friend and former Rockets teammate. Malone was typically up at that hour as well, Wall said, but he didn’t think anything of it when he didn’t see his friend. Maybe he was in the hotel’s exercise room, getting a workout in. No big deal.

But White shared her concerns with Wall — she was, he recalled, “really pushing it” — and finally he dialed Moses’ cell. No answer. Then he secured a master key and headed to Malone’s room, only to discover he could only open the door so far, as the security chain was in place. Wall yelled for his friend, but again there was no response.

Now there was widespread alarm. Wall returned to the room a short while later with White and another one of Moses’ friends, former NFL player Alvin Walton. Kevin Vergara, so close to Malone that they had often attended the Final Four together over the years, said he was there, too, though Wall doesn’t remember it that way, and White said Vergara might have remained in the hallway as a maintenance guy jimmied the door open.

That’s when they found Moses’ body — “still warm,” White recalled — lying on his bed. He was dead at age 60; the official cause would be listed as hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

His three friends eventually learned that Moses had been wearing a holter monitor when he died — although, curiously, neither White nor Wall recalled seeing it on his body — and Vergara told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that Malone had seen a doctor about an irregular heartbeat less than a week before his death.

“I was just numb,” Wall said recently.

“You don’t know how much I miss him,” White said.

On the court he had always seemed indestructible, if not damn near invincible. He played 21 pro seasons beginning in 1974, when he became the first player to make the prep-to-pro jump by signing with the ABA’s Utah Stars out of Petersburg High School.

Ferocity was his trademark, as he collected 17,834 rebounds in his career, an average of 12.3 a game, to go with his 20.3 points per game scoring average. And he did all that despite the fact that at 6-10, he was small for a center.

A record 7,382 of those boards came on the offensive glass, 2,566 more than the next person on the all-time NBA/ABA list, Artis Gilmore. And Malone was never better than in ‘82-83, after the Sixers acquired him in a trade with Houston. He provided his usual yeoman’s work in the paint, as well as a rallying cry for the ages, on the eve of the playoffs: “Fo’, fo’, fo’.”

In Moses-speak that meant the Sixers would sweep all three series they needed to win in order to capture the title. Never mind that there is some debate as to whether he actually said that; it nearly became a reality. The Sixers won 12 of 13 postseason games, including a sweep of the Lakers in the Finals. And “Fo’, Five, Fo’” was engraved on their championship rings.

Now he is part of a tragic roll call. In all six former Sixers big men succumbed to heart-related ailments between 2011 and 2020, none older than 64. A seventh, Harvey Catchings, underwent a heart transplant in 2019, at 67. All but one of them — Armen Gilliam, a power forward who died at age 47 during a pickup game in 2011 — played center, and all but two of them (Gilliam and Christian Welp, who died at 51 in 2015) played for the team between 1974 and 1986, when the Sixers reached the Eastern Conference Finals seven times and the NBA Finals on four occasions, including the ‘82-83 title run.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and studies have concluded that basketball players have a higher incidence of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) than athletes in other sports. Taller people also have a higher risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib) than others.

But for one team to see so many of its big men felled is “almost inexplicable,” in the estimation of Pat Williams, whose tenure as Sixers general manager coincided exactly with that ‘74-to-’86 time frame.

“It’s a very, very sad story,” Williams said. “It’s just almost impossible to explain, or try and come up with an answer.”

Williams recalled that the Sixers of that era “had good medical service” from “a team of good, loyal, longstanding physicians,” led by the late Michael Clancy and Stanley Lorber. Catchings, a Sixer from 1974-79, views things much the same way. Whatever limits there might have been on the team doctors, he said, were the result only of the technology of the day, nothing more.

Still, it is curious.

“It’s a reminder: Hey, life’s precious,” said Marc Iavaroni, a rookie forward on the ‘82-83 team.

Besides Malone the fallen Sixers include Darryl Dawkins, who signed with the team out of high school, one year after Malone leaped to the Stars.

Dawkins, 58 when he died in an Allentown hospital on Aug. 27, 2015 – i.e., roughly two weeks before Moses’ death – emerged as one of basketball’s most flamboyant personalities while playing 14 years in the NBA and five more overseas. He claimed to hail from the planet Lovetron and called himself “Chocolate Thunder.” He also nicknamed his dunks, including the two that obliterated backboards early in the 1979-80 season, leading the NBA to make collapsible rims mandatory in every arena.

Not quite a year before Dawkins’ passing, on Sept. 27, 2014, Caldwell Jones, 64, succumbed on a driving range near his Georgia home. He had often played alongside Dawkins in a twin-towers lineup for the Sixers, and like Malone had broken into pro basketball in the old ABA. Revered for his good nature and selfless play, he was traded to Houston for Malone in September 1982, and missed by his old team to such a degree that then-coach Billy Cunningham offered him his championship ring early in the 1983-84 season.

Jones and Dawkins also overlapped in Philadelphia with the defensive-minded Catchings, who played 11 NBA seasons in all and is the father of retired WNBA star Tamika Catchings, a recent Hall of Fame inductee.

Then there was Mark McNamara, the Sixers’ first-round pick in 1982 and the last man on the bench for the championship team. He fashioned an eight-year NBA career but suffered from various health issues, including heart-valve problems that left him concerned for his longevity. It is why he split time between his native California and Alaska, a state he had visited and loved, after his playing career was over.

As he put it in a March 2019 interview, “It was like, ‘OK, I better get up here before it’s too late.’”

Thirteen months later he collapsed outside a museum in Ely, Nev., having been stuck in town when his truck broke down. A passerby observed McNamara, 60, “having a cardiac event,” according to the sheriff’s report, and he died later at a local hospital.

“Basically, his heart just burst,” his sister, Lauren McNamara, said in a recent phone interview.

Joe Rogowski, the NBA Players Association’s Director of Sports Medicine and Research, ticked off the various risk factors impacting retired players, starting with the sheer size of many of them.

“Unfortunately a lot of them aren’t as active as when they played,” he said in a phone interview. “They’re obese, overweight, African-American, (and have) high blood pressure, high cholesterol.”

Moreover, Rogowski added, many are faced with orthopedic issues that lead to them becoming more sedentary. Or their diets are poor. Another variable, he said, is the geographic area in which ex-players choose to settle, as that too can affect how active they are.

“If it’s zero degrees out and freezing and snow, you can’t go out and walk,” he said.

Pat Croce is also of the opinion that the Sixers’ seeming epidemic is nothing more than a horrible coincidence. Croce, who served as the team’s strength and conditioning coach from 1984-93 (and who later became team president), likewise mentioned things like diet, exercise, race and genetics being factors.

Besides the former Sixers, such retired frontcourt players as Sean Rooks, Jerome Kersey, Jack Haley and Anthony Mason, none of them older than 52, have died from cardiac ailments in recent years. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar underwent quadruple-bypass surgery in 2015, and fellow Hall of Famer Tiny Archibald underwent a heart transplant in 2018. (Unlike the others, Archibald was a point guard, standing 6-1.)

“I tell my wife all the time, ‘You don’t see many 7-footers walking around at the age of 75,’” Larry Bird, then 59, told in 2016.

One year earlier, Rogowski and the NBAPA began partnering with the NBA to provide regular health screenings for retirees at arenas throughout the league. Those screenings, interrupted for 21 months by the pandemic, resumed in November 2021.

“Just knowing all those guys and what they’ve done for the league, it’s like man, this is the least we can do for them,” Rogowski said. “It’s like our version of the NFL concussion (protocol).”

Certainly one can never be too careful. The 67-year-old Croce, a long-time fitness enthusiast, was reminded of that when his heart went into arrhythmia after he pushed himself during a 2021 stress test, though he didn’t immediately realize there might be an issue. Only after doctors examined his results did they understand that he had been in danger of suffering SCD.

“So you’re telling me that I’m killing myself to work out?” Croce recalls asking them.

Croce was advised to scale back his workouts a bit, further proof that hearts are sensitive, complicated organs, and that even the fittest of the fit can have issues. As an example, consider another player in another sport — 29-year-old Danish soccer star Christian Eriksen — who was revived after going into cardiac arrest during a 2021 match.

“No matter how much science and data we accumulate, you just never know,” Croce said.

What can be said with certainty is that self-care is critical. Iavaroni, now 65 and retired after a seven-year NBA playing career and two decades in coaching, said he too has had heart problems, but didn’t wish to get into specifics. All he would say is that he is mindful of his cardiac health.

“You get to be my age, you need to be smart,” he said. “I can’t control my genetics, but I can control my environment. That’s all I can say.”

Moses Malone lives on in other ways. Brothers’ tournament was renamed in Malone’s honor, and Vergara dedicated a scholarship to his friend at Moses’ old high school.

Certainly the memories of him remain vivid as well. John Nash, the Sixers’ assistant general manager in the ‘80s, served as a scout for the team from 2008-11, and overlapped briefly with Malone, then an assistant coach. One day he asked Moses, who by that point was in his 50s, if he thought he could play five minutes a half in a league game.

“Five minutes?” Malone said, by Nash’s recollection. “Big Mo can give you at least 15 each half.”

Always willing. Always believing the clock could be turned back, and he could again be damn near invincible.

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