Mo-Town: Part III

After his playing days, Cheeks made an easy transition to the bench

(Editor’s note: Third 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.)

At the height of the Bad Boys’ success in Detroit, the summer between the first two titles won in franchise history, Maurice Cheeks had a homecoming of sorts. Not to Chicago, but back to Texas. After 11 years in Philly, the rebuilding 76ers in August 1989 shipped him to San Antonio, where a coach famous for the demands he puts on point guards, Larry Brown, was returning to the NBA after college stints at UCLA and Kansas.

“I’ve been blessed with all the point guards I’ve been involved with, but Mo, …” Brown’s voice trails off for a moment, remembering their time together in San Antonio. “I have a value system I learned from playing for coach (Frank) McGuire and coach (Dean) Smith and Mr. (Hank) Iba and John McClendon, and all the things I was taught to value, Mo exemplifies that. He’s the ultimate team guy. He made other players better.”

By the time Brown’s winding career path led him to Philadelphia eight years later, Cheeks’ playing days were done – his last season, 1992-93, was spent with New Jersey, coached by Chuck Daly – and his coaching career already launched. He sat on Philly’s bench under both John Lucas and Johnny Davis before Brown arrived.

A few years before Cheeks eventually took his first head coaching job in Portland, Brown urged him to pursue other opportunities. But Cheeks turned down a chance to go to Washington, Brown said

“I just think he was comfortable in what he was doing. I thought he was ready (to be a head coach) the day he finished playing. Nobody played the game like he did and not be prepared to be a head coach, in my mind. But he was a little reluctant to do it.”

There are many chapters to Brown’s coaching legacy, but the Detroit chapter – the one that includes the 2004 NBA title – would center on Brown’s role in shaping one of those many point guards he counts as his blessings, Chauncey Billups. Perhaps no point guard Brown has coached was more in rhythmic alignment with him than Cheeks, but Brown’s ability to translate his vision to a language his point guards can digest has elevated him to a rarefied coaching strata.

Cheeks, Brown believes, has the same gift within him.

“You’re getting a star,” Brown says of the Pistons hiring of Cheeks. “He’s a great person. He’ll relate to the players. … He commands respect immediately when he comes into a locker room because of what he’s accomplished and what a great teammate he was. But that can end in five minutes. Kids will know if you can coach in five minutes and they’ll also know if you care about them and Mo, pretty quickly, will let them know he does care about them and he can coach.”

Brown, now back in college coaching at Southern Methodist, scoffs at the notion that Cheeks’ coaching stints in Portland and Philadelphia were less than successful. Yet he believes coaches dedicated to their craft always evolve and says Cheeks will be better now after spending time as an Oklahoma City assistant to Scott Brooks.

“To be with Scott and to learn a new perspective is great,” he said. “It probably opened his eyes and prepared him to be better at what he does. You always do that. I’m a better coach than I was 25 years ago, I think, because of the people I’ve learned from and surrounded myself with.”

What Brown knows about Cheeks is this: Don’t let the calm demeanor or measured timbre of his voice lull you into thinking Maurice Cheeks isn’t as tough as the mean streets of Chicago’s south side that forged him.

“He’s calm, yet he has a toughness about him that I don’t think people see very often,” he said. “But I saw it. If he needs to be tough, he’ll be tough. But at the end of the day, I think the biggest thing about being successful in the league is 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.”

Nobody knows Maurice Cheeks’ coaching style better than John Loyer or Bernard Smith, who’ve been with him at both of his stops, Portland and Philadelphia. But when you ask them to delve into what makes Cheeks the coach tick, they independently turn the conversation to Cheeks the man.

Good reason for that: They’re inseparable. He isn’t one of those guys who changes into a suit 30 minutes before tipoff and simultaneously undergoes a personality makeover. He’s not an actor with one persona when the spotlights are on but a 180-degree alter ego when they’re off. What you see is what you get.

And in that genuine, unalterable consistency of character, the many who know Cheeks insist, is the key to his coaching style, the ingredient Joe Dumars felt would strike just the right cord with a young Pistons core that includes Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond and, now, Brandon Jennings, a 23-year-old point guard with four years of NBA experience but only two years older than Cheeks when he arrived in the NBA after four years at West Texas 35 years ago.

“I’ve worked with and played for a lot of different head coaches and I’d probably say the one thing that differentiates him from a lot of people is his communication skills,” Loyer said. “He’s not a holler-screamer guy, but he’s an unbelievable communicator.”

Loyer watched the way Cheeks worked with young players in Portland and Philadelphia and marveled at the unique way he had of bolstering self-confidence.

“He gave me a saying: ‘You’re only as good as your head coach thinks you are.’ I saw the confidence he pulled out of them, the little tidbits every single day he gave them, the room he gave them to grow,” Loyer said of young 76ers like Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams. He saw Cheeks clearly define roles without pigeon-holing players into believing they couldn’t be more than a limited player or a specialist.

“Guys can really relate to it. He’s unbelievable with guards in general because that’s the position he played, but I’ve seen the effects on all kinds of players – guys maybe at the tail end of their careers or just starting their careers, he’s really helped them out.”

“That’s one of his biggest strengths,” Smith said. “He gives players confidence. He makes them believe in themselves. He’ll tell you, ‘Hey, this is not a perfect world, it’s not a perfect game and we’re not perfect people. Go out and do the best you can and that’s all I ask.’ That’s like giving a guy a green light.”

One of the Pistons crossed paths with Smith during the recent Orlando Summer League while grabbing a quick bite after less than a week with Cheeks on the job to tell him how much he appreciated the new coach’s style.

“I know we’ve only had three or four practices and one game,” Smith said, “but he was telling me how those guys really loved coach Cheeks. I can tell he’s already placed his hands on those guys and he’s made an imprint on them already.”

Because Cheeks played point guard, because he has been widely credited with helping Russell Westbrook’s quick ascension to All-Star point guard in Oklahoma City, it’s Jennings who might be expected to benefit most from Cheeks’ influence.

When Cheeks was fired by Philadelphia during the 2008-09 season and Scott Brooks looked at Westbrook, coming off a promising rookie season but raw in the ways of an NBA point guard, he saw an ideal mentor and a man he respected greatly available to add as his top assistant.

“I was his rookie,” Brooks grins. “My rookie year with the Sixers, I backed him up. We had a connection. I had to prove myself every day in practice because I was guarding one of the best players and learning from one of the best players ever at the position. It helped me play over a decade in the NBA because I learned valuable lessons in my rookie year of how to play the position.”

As a kid growing up in California, the 76ers were somehow Brooks’ favorite team and, as a point guard, he was naturally drawn to Cheeks. Cheeks won’t fill the heads of his players, Jennings or anyone, with an overload of information. But what he tells them will be relevant and easy to absorb, Brooks believes.

“With anything, it takes patience,” Brooks said of the impact he expected Cheeks to have on Knight before the trade, and, presumably, on Jennings in its aftermath. “Maurice will work him every day and show the patience that every player needs. You don’t get better overnight. He’s going to help him be a better player, make better decisions. There’s so many layers of that position that a lot of people don’t talk about. He understands those little intricacies it takes to be a successful point guard in this league.”

Brooks takes it another step. It won’t only be Pistons point guards, who benefit from Cheeks’ accumulated wisdom and instinctive feel.

“He’s a coach. He understands all positions,” he said. “When you play point guard, you have to understand every role, every position on the floor. He understood that as well as anybody I’ve ever been around.”

Coming Friday: Why Maurice Cheeks looks like the right coach at the right time for the Pistons.