Former Sixers Star Comes Home

By Rick Sarlat
Updated: May 27, 2005

PHILADELPHIA.—Maurice Cheeks has come home to coach his former team and everyone in this town seems to be in love with the idea. And by all appearances, they should be.

As a player, the beloved former Philadelphia 76ers point guard was an integral part of the 1983 World Championship team which included Julius Erving and Moses Malone, as a coach, Cheeks, 48, led the Portland Trailblazers to an overall record of 162-139 (The 4th highest win total in Blazers History) and two playoff appearances in three and a half seasons. And although his tenure in Portland may have ended tumultuously–the team’s slow burn this past season ended in upheaval, dissension and ultimately his ouster– Cheeks is all the better for it.

“To come back here and be the head coach of the 76ers is really a special moment for me,” he said at a press conference announcing him as the new head coach. “I’m really excited about being here. It’s a place I’ve always loved.”

Cheeks’ dream job became a reality after a phone call from Sixers General Manager Billy King ended with him signing a three-year contract Tuesday, a day after the firing of head coach Jim O’Brien. At his side was all-star guard Allen Iverson, whose penchant for butting heads with coaches has been as much a part of Sixers basketball during his 9 seasons here as his crossover dribble. However, his respect for Cheeks, the teams fourth head coach in two years, is widely known. The two bonded when Cheeks was an assistant with the Sixers and part of Larry Brown’s staff that took the team to the NBA Finals in 2001.

“A lot of times you think things like this are too good to be true,” Iverson said about Cheeks’ hiring. “I know what kind of guy he is and I know what kind of demeanor he has. I told the guys before, if you’ve got a problem with Mo Cheeks there must be something wrong with you.”

That demeanor was never more evident than two years ago before a Western Conference playoff game when he helped a tongue-tied 13 year-old girl overcome stage fright by singing the national anthem along with her after she had forgotten the words. It was heart-warming, it was real and it made Cheeks, one of the most well-liked guys in the NBA, even more affable.

A four time all-star during his 15 seasons in the NBA, Cheeks says he plans to implement a system that will best utilize the skills of his players, with defense as its cornerstone. He concedes that a lot of work is ahead in order to bring Philadelphia the championship that has eluded the city for 22 years, but believes the framework is in place for a good go at it.

“We have athletic guys,” he said. “When you have athleticism you utilize it. I like the overall makeup of the team.”

On maintaining a good repoire with fans, a tall order in Philadelphia, Cheeks said: “The fans are passionate. They just like a winner. They like to see the product on the floor playing as hard as they can. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

One of the biggest challenges awaiting Cheeks may be the nurturing of Kyle Korver, Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert, the budding trio that could potentially make or break the team’s near future. After showing flashes of brilliance during the regular season, the three were largely absent in the playoffs, leaving Iverson to carry the load. Finding the proper role for Chris Webber, who never really found his game after a mid-season trade from Sacramento, will be equally imperative.

Cheeks has already begun assembling his staff, naming Bernard Smith, a former Sixers and Trailblazers employee, as an assistant.

As was the case with the three coaches who preceded him, Larry Brown, Randy Ayres, Chris Ford and the recently axed Jim O’Brien, Cheeks’ success will invariably be predicated on his relationship with Iverson. With a player/coach relationship already having existed between the two and mutual respect already attained, all that’s really left is X’s and O’s. And, of course, winning.

“All I want to do is win a championship,” Iverson said. “Whatever I have to do, you tell me and I’ll do it. If I have to play the five, I’ll play the five. I’m willing to do anything to win a championship. I’ll run through a wall if Mo tells me to.”

Recent history notwithstanding, Iverson may have finally found a coach whose ideologies run parallel to his and whose methods he will never question. A coach who will be able to solve the championship riddle. Now if he could just turn back time. Or at least slow it down a little.