Mo-Town: Part II

Cheeks showed his mettle as a rookie starter on Dr. J’s blossoming 76ers

Maurice Cheeks
Mo Cheeks got his NBA start with the 76ers.
Dick Raphael (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: Second of a four-part story that looks at the life and basketball career of new Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks. A version of this story appears in the current edition of Courtside Quarterly.)

Pat Williams is an NBA lifer who was with Mo Cheeks’ 76ers during their ’80s glory days and later was instrumental in the launching of the Orlando Magic. He remembers well the Maurice Cheeks who showed up as a rookie in October 1978, a second-round draft pick, and almost immediately won Billy Cunningham’s confidence and the starting point guard position.

Cheeks – on a team with Julius Erving, Doug Collins, Bobby Jones, Henry Bibby and a guy named Joe Bryant, who would later have a son named Kobe – was third on the team in minutes played and first in assists. The 76ers won 47 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

Williams remembers how the 76ers became intrigued by Cheeks. They’d scouted him at West Texas and liked him. But scouting back then was a lot tougher than it is today. Getting to Canyon, Texas, was a challenge, and in the days before ESPN and the proliferation of cable channels with their voracious appetite for sports content, players who didn’t suit up for UCLA, Indiana, North Carolina or the other handful of national powers were only rarely seen. The NBA might have been technically a major league, but teams often ran on shoestring budgets in the ’70s.

The 76ers employed one of the game’s legendary personnel men, Jack McMahon, who would die of a heart attack with his boots on in 1989, scouting at what evolved into the Chicago draft combine. McMahon was the guy who brought Darryl Dawkins out of high school to the 76ers and drafted Toney from Southwestern Louisiana. It was said there wasn’t a gym in America he hadn’t visited. In a 1986 interview, McMahon said this: “The best thing about this job is when you make a decision on a player like Cheeks and he goes on and becomes a great player.”

Williams and anyone else who mattered with the 76ers went to Cincinnati a few weeks before the draft at the invitation of Ron Grinker, a lawyer turned agent who for several years held his own scouting event there. Through Grinker, the 76ers arranged for a more secretive workout with Cheeks.

“In those days nobody saw much of anybody,” Williams laughs. “Jack McMahon had seen Maurice early and liked him very much. We were very pleased he was under the radar at West Texas. We brought in Mo for a very private workout and that was an eye-opener. We were very pleased that he was there on the second round.”

The 76ers, indeed, picked Cheeks late in the second round. There were 22 teams then and Cheeks was the 36th pick, taken seven spots after then-Pistons coach Dick Vitale chose John Long, who – along with Terry Tyler, Long’s University of Detroit teammate under Vitale and the 23rd pick – would go on to his own very productive career with the Pistons. But it can be strongly argued that Cheeks had the best career of anyone from a ’78 draft that produced no Hall of Famers and only four who would play in an All-Star game: Micheal Ray Richardson, Reggie Theus, Mike Mitchell and Cheeks.

The 76ers, to be accurate, never quite expected they were getting that much.

“We liked him a lot, but to say he was going to come in and take over your team as a rookie, that might have been a little bit of a reach,” Williams said. “But we were very pleased to take him; it was not an accidental pick. Today, with all the examination, he probably would have been a lottery pick. But back in the day, we were able to steal some guys like that.”

With established stars – there was no bigger personality in the game in 1978 than Julius Erving, widely credited with forcing the NBA to merge with the ABA for the star power he radiated – and flamboyant personalities like Dawkins in the lineup, it took amazing conviction by Cunningham to hand the ball to a second-round rookie no one knew a thing about besides the most dedicated scouts.

“He was very quiet, understated,” Williams said. “But he stepped right into our lineup as a rookie, took the ball and ran the club for a decade. He just got the job done and treated people well. He got along with everybody. Billy Cunningham had great faith in him and turned the team over to Mo in many ways.”

Cheeks was well-established as a rising NBA star when Earl Cureton joined the 76ers as a rookie in 1980, another Detroiter from the Vitale-era U of D heyday. He was still around three years later when the 76ers won the NBA title with Cheeks running the show.

“Billy had a lot of confidence in Mo,” Cureton said. “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.”

Coming Thursday: After his playing days, Maurice Cheeks launches his coaching career.