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Maurice Cheeks Biography - College Days, Little Mo, Philadelphia: Gone and Back, Became Head Coach, A Redemptive Moment

season nba game blazers

1956—

Professional basketball player and coach

Cheeks, Maurice, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos.

Maurice Cheeks played point guard in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for 15 years. During his long career, the 6-foot, 1-inch tall Cheeks was known for his speed, his ability to handle the ball, his consistent play, and his work ethic. Never one to seek out the spotlight, he was, and continues to be, admired as a person of high integrity. After spending 11 years as member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Cheeks spent the last four years of his playing career traded among numerous teams. After he retired, he coached one season in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) before returning to Philadelphia as an assistant coach. In 2001 he accepted the job as head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. His contract extends through the 2005-06 season.

College Days

Cheeks was born on September 8, 1956, in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up in the Robert Taylor housing projects on the city's South Side and attended DuSable High School. In 1974 he enrolled at West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M University), one of the few schools that offered him a basketball scholarship. The small city of Canyon, Texas, located near Amarillo, was foreign terrain to a kid from the South Side, and Cheeks became lonely for home. During his freshman year, he became intent on leaving school and returning to Chicago. However, his mother, Marjorie, was adamant. "She said, 'Maurice, you quit school and you better not come home,'" Cheeks later recounted with a smile to the New York Times. "I stayed in school. I don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't."

At West Texas State, Cheeks was a four-year starter and three-time most valuable player on the Buffaloes basketball team. During his senior year, he averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 56.8 percent from the field. Over his entire college career, he averaged 11.8 points per game and finished fourth on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,227 points. During his sophomore and junior years, the Buffaloes posted winning records of 19-7 and 18-12, but in his senior year the team slipped to an unimpressive 8-19. (Eventually, West Texas dropped to the Division II level.) Cheeks graduated in 1978.

Having played four years nestled away in a small Texas town and on a losing team, Cheeks did not have high expectations for the NBA draft. However, unbeknownst to him, he had caught the attention of Jack McMahon, a talent scout and assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers. Cheeks, who knew McMahon had been in the stands for several of his games, just assumed he was there to scout other players from the Missouri Valley Conference, such as Indiana State's Larry Bird. However, during his senior year Cheeks was invited to Cincinnati to play with other NBA hopefuls in front of scouts and management. As a result of his performance, McMahon's interest spread to others in the Philly organization, and the 76ers became intent on drafting the young point guard. Cheeks was the 14th selection in the second round, 36th overall, in the 1978 NBA draft. For the next 11 years, he wore a 76ers uniform.

Little Mo

During his rookie year of 1978-79, Cheeks averaged almost 30 minutes of playing time, with 8.4 points and 5.3 assists per game. In his second season in the NBA, he increased his averages to 11.4 points and 7 assists per game. The 76ers made it to the NBA finals in 1980 but were defeated by the Los Angeles Lakers, losing the series 4-2. Although his points-per-game average dropped slightly to 9.4 during 1980-81, Cheeks maintained nearly seven assists per game, increased his steals, and decreased his turnovers. In the 1981-82 season, Cheeks had a career-high 209 steals, and the 76ers returned to the NBA finals, but once again fell to the Lakers in the series final, 4-2.

By the 1982-83 season, with the help of legendary players Julius "Dr. J" Irving and Moses Malone, the 76ers were nearly unstoppable. Cheeks became known as "Little Mo" to parallel Malone's title of "Big Mo." They won 50 of their first 57 games, finished the season with a league-best 65-17 record, and went on to win the 1983 NBA championship, this time sweeping the Lakers in four games. That year Cheeks earned his first of four trips to the NBA All-Star Game.

Throughout the 1980s, Cheeks was a solid performer for the 76ers. During the 1985-86 season he averaged 15.4 points and a career-high 9.2 assists per game and had 207 steals. The following year, he posted a career-best 15.6 points per game, with 7.9 assists per game and 180 steals. He played in almost all the 76ers' games, averaging over 38 minutes per game from 1985 to 1988. During the 1988-89 season Cheeks appeared in a career-low 71 games and averaged 11.6 points per game, his lowest since the 1981-82 season. He continued to average nearly eight assists per game.

Philadelphia: Gone and Back

In August 1989, as Cheeks pulled out of his driveway in suburban Philadelphia, a television crew with cameras and microphones descended on him to get his reaction to the fact that the 76ers had traded him to San Antonio. It was the first Cheeks had heard of the trade. Stunned, he rolled up his window and drove away. After the 11 years—the entirety of his adult life—Cheeks left Philadelphia. Along with teammates Christian Welp and David Wingate, he was went to the San Antonio Spurs for Johnny Dawkins and Jay Vincent. On February 21, 1990, the Spurs made a midseason change, trading Cheeks straight-up for the New York Knicks' Rod Strickland. After finishing the 1990-91 season, he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks for Tim McCormick. After one season with the Hawks, Cheeks was sent to the New Jersey Nets, where he finished out his last year in a player in the NBA.

Overall, during the 15 years of his NBA playing career, Cheeks averaged 11.1 points and 6.7 assists per game. He played in 1,101 games, scored a total of 12,195 points, and had 7,392 assists. He retired as the NBA's all-time leader in steals (since surpassed) with 2,310. One of seven 76ers who have had their number retired, his number 10 hangs from the rafters of the Wachovia Center.

At a Glance …

Born on September 8, 1956, in Chicago, IL; married; two children. Education: Attended West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M University), 1974-78.

Career: Philadelphia 76ers, professional basketball player, 1978-89; San Antonio Spurs, professional basketball player, 1990; New York Knicks, professional basketball player, 1990-91; Atlanta Hawks, professional basketball player, 1991-93; New Jersey Nets, professional basketball player, 1993. Quad City Thunder, CBA, assistant coach, 1993-94; Philadelphia 76ers, NBA, assistant coach, 1994-2001; Portland Trail Blazers, NBA, head coach, 2001–.

Selected Awards: NBA All-Star Team Selection, 1983, 1986-88.

Addresses: Office—c/o Portland Trail Blazers, One Center Court, Suite 200, Portland, OR 97227.

After his retirement as a player, Cheeks landed his first coaching job as an assistant coach for the CBA's Quad City Thunder in Rock Island, Illinois. Cheeks spent the 1993-94 season with the Thunder, who won the CBA championship at the end of the season. In 1994 the 76ers offered Cheeks a place on the bench as an assistant coach, which he gladly accepted. Always a fan favorite, Cheeks was welcomed back to Philadelphia with enthusiasm. He spent the next seven years as an assistant with the 76ers and is credited with being a calm and soothing influence in the volatile relationship that developed between head coach Larry Brown and star point guard Allen Iverson.

Became Head Coach

In 2001 the Portland Trail Blazers took a chance on Cheeks, hiring him as their head coach after finishing the previous season with a slide into fourth place in the division and suffering a humiliating first-round playoff defeat at the hands of the Lakers. By all accounts, Cheeks inherited a highly talented (and highly paid) but underachieving and dysfunctional team. Hot topics in the Portland press were the litany of charges filed against Portland's players, including marijuana possession, driving without licenses or insurance, domestic abuse, rape, assault, and general misconduct both on and off the basketball court. Star forward Rasheed Wallace had led the league in technical fouls the prior year. Whether Cheeks could salvage the team was a question open for debate. Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated noted prior to the beginning of the 2001 season: "Maurice Cheeks was a quiet guy who wasn't considered head coach material, but he's paid his dues, and maybe he's the guy to turn this team around. It won't be surprising if they went in the tank again, though."

The Blazers started off the 2001-02 season on shaky legs, going just 11-11, and both fans and players began to grumble. Yet, once again, Cheeks proved that one does not need to shout to be heard. Technical fouls went down, performance went up, and the Blazers finished the season a respectable 49-33. However, they were again knocked out by the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs in three games. In his second season the Blazers won 50 games and faced the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. After going down three games to none (in what was now a seven-game series), the Blazers battled back to win the next three to tie the series. However, the Mavericks, who had home court advantage, took the final game 107-95.

Following the 2002-03 season, Larry Brown left Philadelphia and his feud with Allen Iverson behind, and rumors were rampant that Cheeks was the top choice to take his place. However, with Cheeks still bound by his contract, the Trail Blazers, who did not want to risk losing their head coach, refused Philadelphia's request to speak with Cheeks about the job. He was out of the running before he ever joined the race. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, Cheeks responded by saying, "As head coach of the Blazers, my allegiance to and focus is on this organization and our fans." Although he readily acknowledges his debt to Portland for giving him a chance to coach, Cheeks has nonetheless retained a deep emotional attachment to Philadelphia, and the feeling is mutual. "He was the glue for that championship team," Dawn Staley, a top point guard in the women's NBA who was originally from Philadelphia, told the Sunday Oregonian. "People here know he was the guy who kept everyone on that team involved and together. He's a blue-collar guy, a simple guy who likes simplicity. We have an appreciation for that, and that's why he's been so embraced."

A Redemptive Moment

If Cheeks is appreciated in Philadelphia and Portland, that feeling extended across the entire nation during the 2003 playoffs when Natalie Gilbert, a 13-year-old eighth grader who had won a contest to sing the national anthem before Game 3, lost track of the words. As she struggled along, suddenly Cheeks appeared beside her, put a fatherly arm around her shoulder, and whispered the words to her. As she recovered and began to sing once again, Cheeks joined in, lifting his other arm to encourage the 20,000 fans present to join in, which they did. The moment was replayed in the media all over the country, and the Philadelphia Inquirer said, "Rarely has the national anthem…been rendered with such heartfelt gusto. It was a glorious, redemptive moment." Cheeks later told CNN, "I just started walking. I had no idea what I was going to do, what I was going to say. But as I approached her, I just wanted to help her, and I didn't know if I even knew the words."

During the 2003-04 season the Trail Blazers struggled as management made some significant changes in the team's makeup during the year. After beginning the season with a 0-10 road trip, several trades were made, and in February 2004, Wallace and Wesley Person were traded to Atlanta for Shareef Adbur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff, and Dan Dickau. Although the new players began to gel by the close of the season, the team posted a record of 41-41, the first non-winning record for the team since 1988-89. The Trail Blazers also failed to make the playoffs, ending a 21-year playoff streak, just one short of the NBA record of 22. Despite the mediocre record, with a season of rebuilding now behind them, the Trail Blazers extended Cheeks' contract through the 2005-06 season.

Cheeks knows that his role as coach extends beyond understanding the fundamentals of basketball. He is role model, father figure, mentor, taskmaster, and leader. In 2002 he told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Maybe I won't win 55 games and a championship, but I may help someone's life in that locker room, and that may be why I'm here.… I've been through rough times, and I've always stayed my course of who I am—which is a pretty good person—and I pride myself on that." Cheeks lives in Portland with his wife; they have two children.

Sources

Periodicals

Associated Press, April 13, 2004; April 15, 2004.

Chicago Sun-Times, December 30, 2002, p. 73.

Columbian (Vancouver, WA), July 22, 2001, p. B1; December 17, 2002, p. B1; March 10, 2003, p. B6.

Jet, July 16, 2001, p. 50.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, April 30, 2003; May 30, 2003; April 21, 2004.

New York Times, May 11, 2003, p. SP2; June 4, 2003, p. D5.

San Antonio Express-News, December 10, 2003, p. C1.

Sporting News, November 5, 2001, p. 34-35.

Sports Illustrated, May 23, 1983, p. 28-31; May 14, 1990, p. 28-31; October 29, 2001, p. 166; October 28, 2002, p. 140.

Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 2004, p. C1.

USA Today, April 28, 2003, p. C3.

On-line

Blazers.com: Official Website of the Portland Trail Blazers, www.nba.com/blazers (August 17, 2004).

"Maurice Cheeks," Basketball Reference, www.basketballreference.com/players/playerpage.htm?ilkid=CHEEKMA01 (July 12, 2004).

"Vocal Support," CNN, http://cnnstudentnews.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0304/28/ltm.17.html (August 17, 2004).

—Kari Bethel

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