BOWIE, Md. — On a recent morning, Manute Bol, the world's tallest stand-up comedian, Dinka division, interrupted his giggle-laced commentary on the state of the Washington Bullets long enough to call out a compliment across the team's practice gym here.
"That's the way to hustle, big guy," he said to a begoggled Moses Malone, whose appearance here had been delayed somewhat. He had been pulled over in his Maserati for speeding en route from the Virginia border, where he lives.
But wait a Manute. Who's calling whom big guy ? In his bare feet, which was their usual state when he was back in his native Sudan, herding cattle for his father, the 7-foot 6-inch Bol towers over the 6-10 Malone like the Washington Monument over the reflecting pool.
Yet, as Bol correctly recognized, even he exists in the shadow of Malone, who last spring was evicted from the promised land he thought he had found in Philadelphia, where he had led the 76ers to a National Basketball Assn. title in 1983.
Malone, called an "old 31" by 76er owner Harold Katz, has taken to his new assignment with the zeal of an Ollie North, and there hasn't been anything covert about it.
"He's playing like he's on a mission," said Bill Bertka, the Lakers' assistant coach. "It looks like he wants to prove some people wrong."
Need convincing? Check the box score this coming Sunday, the morning after the Bullets play the 76ers in Landover, Md. Saturday night's game will be the third meeting of the season between the teams.
"When I was there, (the 76ers) knew I was coming to play," Malone said. "And once I got traded, they knew I was coming to play. It ain't no different."
In the first game against his former team, on Christmas Day in Philly, Malone scored 28 points and pulled down 21 rebounds. In the second game, in the Capital Centre, Malone had 39 points and 17 rebounds. The Bullets won both games.
"Did you see that? They put (Charles) Barkley on me," Malone ho-ho-ho'd on Christmas. "I'm embarrassed. Barkley's only 6-4, and he's probably 6-2 now that I'm finished with him."
Malone didn't see Katz. "But I saw the smoke rising from his booth," the Bullet center said.
And although the Bullets have yet to catch fire, struggling along at a .500 level while Coach Kevin Loughery tries to find the right blend among nine new players, Malone has torched all claims that the slip was showing in his play.
He's scoring 25 points a game, more than any other NBA center, and averaging a dozen rebounds, a figure exceeded--by a fraction--only by Dallas' James Donaldson.
"People always get the crazy idea that a player over 30 can't play no more," said Malone, who later that day received a call in the dressing room, informing him that he'd been voted the starting center for the NBA East All-Stars.
"That's why I'm so happy Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) is still going," Malone said. "And he's playing great. When he got to 31, they said he didn't have it no more, either."
Malone is eight years younger than the Laker center, but only five active players--Abdul-Jabbar, 39, Julius Erving, 36, Artis Gilmore, 37, and Caldwell Jones, 36--had played in more games than Malone, who has appeared in 935 since turning pro straight out of high school in Petersburg, Va.
"It's all in your mind," Malone said. "When I came out of high school as an 18-year-old, people told me I wasn't ready. But I knew about myself. They didn't."
He didn't take it personally, he said, when Philadelphia suggested that his skills were declining, pointing out that last season he had failed to lead the league in rebounding for the first time in the last five seasons, and that his shooting percentage had declined to 45.8%, the worst in his 12-season career.
Malone has no peer as an offensive rebounder, it was generally agreed, but all those nights of relentless pounding the boards had to have taken their toll. Or at least that was the line coming out of Philadelphia on draft day last June, when the 76ers sent Malone, forward Terry Catledge and two No. 1 draft picks to the Bullets for center Jeff Ruland and forward Cliff Robinson.
Malone shrugged. "People worry about what other people say," he said, "It doesn't sting me. That's life. I don't take it as a challenge. But some people obviously don't know what they're talking about."
It was a shocking deal, one that was blasted publicly by 76er statesman Erving, among others, while it was still in the rumor stage.
So why did the 76ers do it? Abdul-Jabbar offered an idea.
"I think they were disappointed Moses wasn't able to play in the playoffs when they needed him," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I think there may have been an emotional backdrop to that whole scene."
On the eve of the playoffs last season, Malone was accidentally poked in his right eye by Randy Breuer, Milwaukee backup center, and the orbital bone around Malone's eye was broken. Without Malone, the 76ers squeezed past the Bullets in the opening round but fell in seven games to the Bucks when Erving missed a shot in the closing seconds.