Larry Brown: Cheeks ‘A Star'

Coach of ’04 NBA champs says Joe D made the right choice for Pistons

Maurice Cheeks
Larry Brown believes the Pistons made the right choice in hiring Maurice Cheeks as head coach.
Fernando Medina (Getty Images)
The last living coach to guide the Pistons to an NBA title couldn’t be more certain that Joe Dumars hired the right guy to put them on a path to the next championship.

“You’re getting a star,” Larry Brown told me this week about Maurice Cheeks. “He’s great.”

I’ve talked to a handful of people about Cheeks over the past week since he was introduced as Lawrence Frank’s successor and a consistent picture is emerging of the type of coach he’ll be. He’s a teacher, foremost. He’s flexible, someone who dissects a game quickly after the ball goes up and is willing to go away from the scouting report. More than anything, those who’ve known him say, he connects to players very quickly and very deeply and has the ability to infuse them with confidence.

“He commands respect immediately when he comes in the dressing room, because of what he accomplished and what a great teammate he was,” Brown said. “But that can end in five minutes. Kids will know if you can coach in five minutes and they’ll know if you care about them and Mo pretty quickly will let them know he does care about them and he can coach.

“It’s just his personality. He’s calm, yet there’s a toughness about him that I don’t think people see very often, but I saw. If he needs to be tough, he’ll be tough, but the biggest thing about being successful in the league at the end of the day is if they know you care about them. If they know you care about them, they’ll play hard for you, and he’ll have that ability.”

Brown coached Cheeks toward the end of his career in San Antonio and was sad to see the Spurs ship him to New York for Rod Strickland at the trade deadline in 1990. Red McCombs, Spurs owner then, told Brown he couldn’t turn down the chance to get the 23-year-old Strickland for Cheeks, 33 at the time.

“I’ve been blessed with all the point guards I’ve been involved with,” Brown said, ticking off a list that included Chauncey Billups, Mark Jackson and Doc Rivers. “But with Mo – I have a value system that I learned playing for coach (Frank) McGuire, coach (Dean) Smith, Mr. (Hank) Iba and John McClendon, and all the things I was taught to value, Mo exemplifies. He’s the ultimate team guy. He made players better. He had the respect of his teammates.”

Later, Brown hired Cheeks to be on his staff in Philadelphia. After a few years, he urged him to pursue an opening in Washington. Cheeks refused.

“I thought he was ready the day he finished playing,” Brown said. “But he was comfortable in what he was doing. He was a little reluctant. But he went for an interview when the Portland job came open and it was a terrific hire on their part.”

Brown says he retains an affinity for the Pistons and rapidly ticked off the young players who’ll constitute the core of the team under Cheeks. He spent many days around the Kentucky program two years ago and admires Brandon Knight and agrees with the notion that Cheeks, over time, will help Knight see the game from a different perspective.

He said “I love Greg Monroe.” He was a big fan of Jonas Jerebko and confirmed the Bobcats were eager to draft him with the 40th pick in 2009, when he was their coach, before the Pistons took him at 39. He’s seen lots of Kyle Singler and thinks he’s a winner. And he raved about Andre Drummond. “How many true centers are there in the NBA? You can’t find that. What a tremendous pick by Joe. He has a chance to be special.”

“Those are high-character kids who can play more than one position,” he said. “They have a core of young kids that have a chance to be really, really good. You’ve got a guy in Mo that I think is a terrific teacher. He’s got such a good personality to deal with young people. He’s exactly what they need.”

Brown said he’s talked to Cheeks since the Pistons hired him and shared his optimism for the team’s future with him. He said Cheeks will put together a quality staff and is the type of coach who invites countering opinions and debate.

“He can coach,” Brown said. “Working with Joe and George (David, assistant general manager) and people like that, the Pistons deserve to be back. I think it’s a really neat thing for him.

“They’re going to get another good player in the draft. Their nucleus and core of young kids, I think, is going to be pretty darn good. I’m happy for him. I really am. I don’t think Mo would have gone just anywhere. When I was reading all the names of young coaches being talked about for jobs, it blew me away that I didn’t read his name. You heard about Brian Shaw and (Steve) Clifford – not to say they’re not great; I’m happy they have a chance – but I looked at Mo. Everybody loved playing for him. And nobody doesn’t love Mo personally. I think he’s going to be great for the Pistons.”