Cheeks Returns to Philly: Are Happy Days Here Again?

By Steve McGill
Updated: October 20, 2005

Cheeks during his point guard days with the Sixers

PHILADELPHIA,PA—Nothing against Jim O’Brien, but when I heard this past summer that Maurice Cheeks would be returning to Philadelphia as head coach of the 76ers, I felt a mixture of excitement, relief, and plain old joy, like everything in Philly had finally come back around to how it should be. Cheeks, the starting point guard on the Sixers’ 1983 NBA championship team – the last professional Philly team to win a championship – would be “coming home” to lead the Sixers once again. To me, and to all the diehard Philly fans I know, the mere fact that Cheeks has come back is cause for celebration in and of itself; if he can find a way to lead us to another title, well wouldn’t that be sweet.

Maurice Cheeks is one of those rare individuals whom everybody likes, appreciates, and respects. With the exception, I guess, of Darius Miles, but he doesn’t really count. I have many memories of Cheeks’ playing with the 76ers, spanning from 1978 to 1989, but the most poignant memory comes from 1986 – the year that marked the end of the Dr. J era in Philly, and the beginning of the Charles Barkley era. The stars who had played key roles in the Sixers’ ’83 championship run were in varying states of decline. Center Moses Malone – he of the famous “fo’ fo’ fo’” prediction in ’83 – had to sit out the entire playoffs after having been inadvertently poked in the eye during a game late in the regular season; Erving and sixth man Bobby Jones were both nearing the end of their careers; and shooting guard Andrew Toney, who had been in the process of establishing himself as a superstar in the league, was shelved by chronic foot problems that would eventually compel him to retire. Cheeks was still in his prime, and Barkley, in only his second year in the NBA, was forced to bear the scoring load and to serve as the emotional leader of an obviously aging team throughout its playoff run.

In the second round of the playoffs, the Sixers took on the Milwaukee Bucks, who were led by Terry Cummings, Sidney Moncrief, and Ricky Pierce. The Sixers, weary and undermanned, but fueled by Cheeks’ steadiness and Barkley’s passion, battled the Bucks to a 3-3 split of the first six games of the series. In the seventh game, held at the Bucks’ old Mecca Arena, the Bucks took an early lead that they were able to hold onto throughout the first two quarters. Barkley wasn’t performing up to his usual standards, but back-up center Clemon Johnson, filling in for the injured Malone, offset Barkley’s lack of productivity by scoring a very surprising and uplifting 18 first-half points. Throughout the second half, the Sixers fought hard and kept the score close, but they were not able to overtake the determined Bucks. On the game’s final possession, the Sixers had the ball, down by one. Dr. J took the last shot – an open 15-footer that he had knocked down hundreds of times throughout his career, but this one caromed off the rim, and the Sixers lost.

While the rest of his teammates walked dejectedly off the court and to the locker room, Charles Barkley, seemingly unwilling to accept that the Sixers’ season was over, sat alone on the bench as Buck fans heckled and jeered. The distant, forlorn expression on his face did not change. As the television camera focused on Barkley sitting there by himself, Mo Cheeks suddenly appeared on the screen. Cheeks grabbed Barkley by the arm, said something to him, probably to the effect of, “Come on, Charles, you’ll have plenty of chances to get this far again,” and then the two of them walked off the court together.

Cheeks assists Natalie Gilbert in singing the 
National Anthem

Cheeks assists Natalie Gilbert in singing the National Anthem

Cheek’s simple gesture made a lasting impression on me. It spoke volumes as to the kind of teammate he was. How many athletes do any of us know of who, when facing the disappointment and finality of losing the game that puts an end to a season, would have the awareness and sensibility that Cheeks had shown at that moment? Also, the fact that Barkley did get up, did walk with Cheeks back to the locker room, says all we need to know about the amount of respect he had for Cheeks.

For me personally, that singular moment marked a change on my whole outlook toward sports in general, and specifically toward my devotion to my favorite team. Throughout the Dr. J era of the late-70’s to the mid-80’s, the Sixers had come close many times to winning a championship, but had achieved that goal only once. I had always taken on the attitude, in the close-but-not-quite-good-enough years, that the Sixers had failed in some way. They hadn’t won everything, so they had failed. Only in ’83 had they fulfilled their destiny. Only in ’83 had they proven their superiority over the rest of the league, including Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers. I knew that for the rest of my life, whenever I heard people talking about the greatest teams of all time, I could point to my team, the ’83 Sixers. Doc and Moses and Andrew and Maurice. And BJ off the bench. But something changed when I saw Maurice going back to get Charles. Forgetting his own fatigue and disappointment to go back to get his teammate and give him a few words of encouragement. That was the moment when I realized that greatness isn’t just about winning, isn’t just about championship rings, but is about character.

A few years ago, while still a coach with the Portland Trailblazers, Cheeks became somewhat famous for the “assist” he lent to the twelve-year-old girl who forgot the words to the National Anthem while half-way through the song. In a scene that was played over and over again on television, Cheeks walked up to the girl, stood beside her, and helped her through the rest of the song. He may not have a voice like Marvin Gaye, but the tenderness of the moment, and the genuine nature of it, led the nation to let out a collective “Awwww.” I must admit that the overwhelming public reaction surprised me, because Cheeks’ behavior in that incident fell in line with the behavior he had shown throughout his entire playing career. Of course, I found myself thinking back to the end of that ’86 playoff game, when he went back to get Charles. . . .

As a coach, Cheeks doesn’t have the credentials of a Phil Jackson or Larry Brown. He doesn’t have a resume filled with championships that provide him with instant credibility. In this era of guaranteed contracts and huge egos among the players, it could definitely be argued that my excitement – and the excitement of Sixer fans like me – over his return to Philly as a coach is born of mere sentimentality over the good old days, of an era that can never be recaptured. Indeed, while coaching the Blazers, Cheeks did have mild success, but there were a lot of chemistry issues on that team, although it must be acknowledged that he inherited many of those issues when he first arrived in Portland. Because of his problems in dealing with the likes of Bonzi Wells and the aforementioned Darius Miles, some experts wonder aloud how he’ll be able to manage the temperamental, mercurial Allen Iverson, as well as the usually pleasant but sometimes grumpy Chris Webber, who also needs to the ball to be effective.

Cheeks, though, was an assistant for seven years in Philadelphia before taking the Portland job, so he and Iverson already have a good relationship from back then, culminating with the 2001 season, when the over-achieving Sixers made it to the NBA finals and even won a game against the Kobe/Shaq Lakers. In addition, Iverson is no longer the angry, rebellious, anti-authority figure he was in his younger days. He is a husband and a father now; as a player, he realizes that teams, not individuals, win championships. In short, he is coachable. Not to mention the fact that there isn’t a coach alive – including Phil and Larry – who could have effectively dealt with the dysfunctional bunch of delinquents Cheeks had to deal with in his last days in Portland.

In spite of the fact that many of the players didn’t like him during his one year as the Sixers’ coach, it must be mentioned that Jim O’Brien’s Sixers in 2004-05 did win 44 regular season games and put up a decent fight against the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, which was a significant step forward from the previous year. Does the fact that Cheeks is well-liked amongst the current group of 76er players mean that he will be able to improve upon the progress O’Brien made? No, it does not guarantee anything. There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that only the long haul of an 82-game season can answer. The biggest question is whether or not Webber’s knee is able to hold up. If it cannot, then this season will be one big uh-oh from the beginning. Then there are the chemistry questions regarding Iverson’s dominance of the ball. At this point in is career, Iverson’ continual dominance of the ball is not a reflection of selfishness as much as it is a reflection of the fact that he knows no other way to play. One of the biggest challenges facing Cheeks is not to just get Iverson to pass the ball more, because Iverson does, in fact, pass the ball much more often than people give him credit for; the challenge is to get him to dribble less so that other players have more shot-clock time to be creative. Then there are a myriad of questions regarding the role players: Will Andre Iguodala begin to emerge as a legitimate all-star? Will Samuel Dalembert be the shot blocker and intimidator in the middle who will allow the lightning-quick Iverson and Iguodala to gamble on defense? Will Kyle Korver become a more multi-dimensional offensive weapon instead of just a three-point specialist? Will the bench be deep enough to provide the starters with sufficient rest? Are there enough rebounders on this team to enable the Sixers to run consistently and score easy transition baskets?

I’m not going to tell you that Maurice Cheeks is going to save the day and lead the Sixers back to the promised land. There are too many talented teams out there, many of whom improved over the summer, to assume that the Sixers could leap-frog over them and contend for a title. But I do believe that, with Cheeks leading the way, this team will play well, will play aggressively, will play as a unit, and will ultimately play to their potential.