In the summer of 2020 I had a conversation with 2-time NBA All-Star, member of the 1983-84 NBA All-Rookie Team, former player of Bullets, Jazz, 76ers, and the Heat, who scored over 17,000 career points – Jeff Malone.
Playing for the Bullets
You were drafted with the 10th overall pick by the Washington Bullets, team fighting for the playoffs. Were you happy that you are on a quite successful team, or were you sad that you did not have much playing time?
When I started out playing as a rookie, I was coming off the bench. We had a pretty decent team when I first got there. So, I learned a lot from the veteran guys. It was a pretty exciting situation; I was really excited to be a part of the NBA.
For three seasons you played for coach Gene Shue, who earlier led his teams to two NBA Finals. Did you think that this man can lead the Bullets that far in the playoffs?
I have a lot of respect for Gene, he taught me a lot. At that time, we were trying to build something, and I think that we needed one or two more pieces probably to get to the next level. I don’t think we had enough time to compete for a championship. The East coast was very competitive for a couple of years. I think we needed a little bit more time to try to go all the way.
In your second season you became a starter, and in third season you became an All-Star. Did you set yourself one goal at a time or did you just wanted to play and see what happens?
I would go year by year. When I first got there, Bernie Bickerstaff was crucial to my development. He taught me a lot, off the court what to work on, bring something new back every year and I think that is how I got better every year. I worked on my ball-handling, on my defense, my shooting, free-throws, and things like that. I always did one year at a time – I would set goals and tried to come back with something new, something better.
Becoming an All-Star
In 1986 and 1987 you were selected to the All-Star Game. Was it a dream coming true for you to play in a single game with guys like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson?
I remember being in the locker room during my third year, when I made it to the All-Star Game, and I did it back-to-back, third and fourth year. Being in the locker room with Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Michael Jordan, people like that, it was a great experience. I was a young guy and just to be at that time, one of the TOP24 players in the world, that was a pretty good achievement. I really enjoyed that part of my career.
In 1986 the Bullets traded for Moses Malone. What did you think about this trade? Did you think that you will become much more successful team?
Yes, I did. Then we got Bernard King; I knew he was coming off an injury, but we had also Gus Williams, so we had great veterans I able to learn from. I watched those guys when I was younger. When I watched the NBA, when I was in the college, Moses, Bernard, Gus, I used to watch them. Playing for Wes Unseld – I used to watch him play with Elvin Hayes and winning the championship. It was a dream coming true for me. Those are legends, great people off the court, so I enjoyed that.
In the following season you had a chance to play with both Muggsy Bogues and Manute Bol. How strange was that for you – to play with the smallest and the tallest players ever?
Yes, we had the tallest and the shortest guy in the league – two great guys. Manute – bless his soul, and Muggsy – I got the chance to know him and he is a great guy. We used to walk through the airport and people loved seeing us, they loved to see us coming with those guys.
In 1987 Bernard King signed with the Bullets. How impressive was it for you that King was able to play at such high level after severe injury?
Oh, very impressive. But if you knew Bernard, and his work ethic, and the way he takes care of himself, you would not be surprised with that. He was just a true professional and he was one of the guys whose work and discipline had a lot to do with it. I am sure when he was coming back and trying to go through the process, it was probably tough, but if anybody can get through that, it is Bernard King.
In the Eastern Conf. First Round of 1988 against the Pistons you were trailing 0-2, tied the series 2-2, but lost Game 5. Do you think that this game was the most disappointing moment of your career?
We played well. They were a great team and they did what they had to do in Game 5. They were the better team. You play as well as you can, but the better team just came up and beat us. We did not feel really bad because we thought that as an organization, we were going to make a turn that day and get better.
In 1988 you were eliminated in the first round for the 5th straight year. Was it like a nightmare for you? That no matter what you did, you would still loose in the first round.
Yeah, that is right. We competed, we had great guys on the team, but we just did not have enough to beat the Celtics, the Pistons, Philadelphia. It was just too tough for us. We had a great group of guys, we played hard, we competed, but we just did not have that punch to get to the next level.
Trade to Utah
In 1990 you were traded to the Utah Jazz. Was it difficult for you to leave Washington? What were your expectation when you joined the Jazz? Fighting for a championship?
I spent seven years in Washington; I missed it. Going to Utah, that was a time they really got to the playoffs every year, so that was exciting. And to play with two Hall of Famers, John Stockton, and Karl Malone, that was great. And it was a different atmosphere out there, it was more like a college atmosphere. They loved the team, we had packed house every night. That was a great 3-4 year run, I really enjoyed playing out there.
You had a chance to play for coach Jerry Sloan, and few years earlier for coach Wes Unseld. Unfortunately, they both left us earlier this year. How would you describe playing for them and what differed them as coaches?
Wes was great. I had a great relationship with Wes, he taught me a lot. Jerry was straightforward guy; he would tell you what he wanted, and I really enjoyed being around both of them. Two great guys, great Hall of Famers, and two of my favorite coaches when I was in the NBA – two of my favorite coaches I played for.
The ’92 Jazz. Did you feel that this was “the year”, the best moment for you to win the NBA championship?
Yes. This was the best chance we had. We were 2-2 with those guys. And then we came back home, they knocked us out I think in Game 6, but we were right there. I think this was our best chance, right there. It was a really good team, but we just did not get over the hump.
Joining the 76ers
In 1994 you were traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Did you feel that this is the beginning of the end of your career?
Well, I did not really feel that. When you leave Utah and you go to a team that is not winning, it makes it a little bit tough, and then I got hurt when I got there, so I did not think it was the end, but I knew that the injury will slow me down a lot when I come back.
In 1994 you also re-united with Moses Malone, who was 39-years old at that time. Was the time you spent together in Washington useful in Philadelphia? You were both much more experienced than vast majority of the team.
Yeah, we had a lot of young guys around, and we were just leaders on the team. I think both of us was coming to the end. We tried to do the best we could, but we just did not have enough talent in that situation.
Was it difficult for you to do your best in every single game, knowing that you fight to not be the worst team in the league?
You cannot worry about that. Only one team is going to win every year. You want to win as much as you can because that is what it is all about. You get to the playoffs and you do the best you can do, but in sports, the most talented teams are going to end up there. There is nothing you can do about it, just like the Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Clippers right now. Those teams have chance to be there. Such teams as Brooklyn, Washington, or Portland – I do not care how well you play; it is going to be hard to get through those teams. You cannot control that, but you always want to go out there and compete. As long as you compete, and give your best, that is all you can do.
After 25 games played for the Sixers and 7 played for the Heat, you retired in 1996. Was there any doubt in your mind about this decision?
No, when I had a foot injury, and I sat out the whole year, everything changed. I just felt like it was time. When you get older, they do not run sets for you when you are on the team. I knew then it was time, so I just let it go and moved on.
Throughout the 13 seasons you played in the NBA, you made only 86 3-point shots. Do you like the way the game is played nowadays?
I do not mind the 3-point shot, but I still think there is a place for the mid-range game and things like that. But now it is like high pick and roll and everybody standing behind the line. I could have made that adjustment, I would work on my 3-point shooting every summer to become a better shooter, but I still think that there is a place for mid-range game. High pick and roll and everybody standing behind the line is not fun to watch sometimes.