Cureton: ‘The Right Guy’

Ex-76ers teammate sees Cheeks nurturing young Pistons talent

Maurice Cheeks
Maurice Cheeks
Doug Pensinger (NBAE/Getty)
Earl Cureton arrived in the NBA in 1980 to a loaded Philadelphia 76ers roster filled with big names and powerful personalities. Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins and Andrew Toney were headline-grabbing stars, but the 76ers also had Doug Collins, Lionel Hollins and Bobby Jones dotting the lineup of a team that won 62 games. By the time they were ready to win a championship two years later, smack in the middle of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era, the Sixers had added another gargantuan talent and outsized personality, Moses Malone.

But it didn’t take the Detroit native long to find out whom another legendary name with a powerful personality, Billy Cunningham, trusted to run his team: Mo Cheeks, a second-round pick out of West Texas State by way of Chicago who was in his third NBA season when Cureton arrived.

“Billy had a lot of confidence in Mo,” Cureton told me Monday from Phoenix, where he serves as an assistant coach with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. “He ran the team. He came from a small college, but we had some high-profile players on that team. To be able to come in there and be able to control the egos and manage the team the way he did, he did a great job of keeping people happy. I think that translates into becoming an NBA coach. He’s really good with players. You never see Mo being too riled up.”

Cureton, who played three seasons with the Pistons after his time in Philly, was a teammate of Joe Dumars’ during the latter’s rookie season. He and the members of the 1983 NBA championship 76ers remain close, he said, with a 30th reunion planned for late July in Las Vegas. He talks frequently to Cheeks and knew of his interest in the Pistons job.

“He thought he was going to be an assistant for a while, but after a couple of years in OKC I think he’s ready to get back at it again,” he said. “Being a head coach gets in your blood. I think this will be a great opportunity for him. I want to see the Pistons come back and have a quality team and I think he’ll be the perfect coach at the right time to do it.”

Though the Pistons will have the cap space to make significant off-season additions via trade or free agency, with young players like Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond they will remain in need of a nurturing presence who can safeguard their development. Cureton thinks Joe Dumars found the ideal candidate in that regard.

“I think it’s going to really help those young players,” he said. “They can look back at his career. With Google and everything else, these guys can look him up and see how many great years Maurice had. They know he played the game. They know he’s been in a position that they’re in now. I think they’ll have a great deal of respect for that and for him. He’ll be able to handle players a lot better. When you’ve played in the league and you’ve done it, players respect that.”

He thinks there’s something to the thought that Cheeks can be especially helpful in molding Knight, helping him see the game from a different perspective.

“He can be a great deal of help to Brandon,” Cureton said. “He can translate to him what a true point guard is. I think Brandon’s kind of caught between being a one-slash-two. I think Maurice can really help him with his point guard skills to become a complete player, learn how to get players involved, teach him the game. I think he has a real impact on Brandon.

“He’s been through everything as a player. He’s an All-Star player who went to every round of the playoffs. He’s been through every situation. He’ll call players over during the game, he’s seen that situation over and over and over again. That’s why I think he’s going to be a great coach for the Pistons.”

Cureton, who works with the Pistons community relations department when he’s not tied up with his WNBA duties, laughs at the perception that Cheeks’ 284-286 career record defines him as a mediocre coach.

“I don’t think there’s a coach out there that can be successful without great players,” he said. “I’ve never seen the Phil Jacksons or Pat Rileys have subpar players. If you have great players, you can be a great coach. I have no question, if Maurice has the right players, he can lead them in the right direction. He’s been a great player, he’s been part of some great teams in Oklahoma City, and I have no doubt that once we get all the right pieces there he’s the right guy to lead the Pistons back.”