Mo-Town: Part IV

Cheeks’ calming aura sold Joe D on him as right pick to be Pistons coach

(Editor’s note: Last 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.)

Talk to a handful of people about Maurice Cheeks and an unmistakable theme emerges. There’s an empathetic quality about him. Maybe it stems from the way he saw Chicago southsiders striving to maintain their dignity in the face of a daily struggle for survival. Maybe it was lessons learned when he was dropped into dusty West Texas among natives who looked and acted very differently than anything he’d known. Maybe it evolved as he suddenly was on the other side, walking out of the Spectrum on wintry nights in warm clothes to adoring kids fighting a familiar war.

Ask anyone to tell you about Maurice Cheeks and they light up and let it rip.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Maurice Cheeks is class and professionalism,” Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said. “In addition to being a heck of a basketball coach and someone who is certainly going to move the Pistons forward, he’s also one of the classiest people I’ve come across in the business.”

“When he walks in the building, you feel better about yourself,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who came to Philadelphia as a rookie point guard late in Cheeks’ playing career. “You feel better when he’s talking to you, because you know he wants the best for you. The Pistons players are going to love that. He expects them to play hard and he’s definitely going to demand that they play at a high level with great intensity and a great commitment to the team. … He’s one of the best guys you’ll ever meet. I look at him as a Hall of Fame player – I still can’t believe he hasn’t gotten in – but he’s as humble and as down to earth as you’ll ever meet in a former NBA player.”

“One of the most selfless people in the world,” said Bernard Smith, befriended by Cheeks 30 years ago as an underprivileged Philly kid and now his assistant coach. “The guy doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body. And one of the most honest people you’d ever want to meet. One of the most professional guys, also. He’s a very giving person, very captivating. He doesn’t say a whole lot, but when he does speak, he’s very captivating. When he speaks, you know it’s genuine.”

And on it goes. Joe Dumars didn’t hire Cheeks because he’s an annual candidate for Kiwanis Club Citizen of the Year. But those qualities that people consistently see in him, the fabric that makes up Maurice Cheeks, gave him the strong sense – in lockstep with his knowledge of the makeup of the young core, inherently earnest players like Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond – that the coach-player connection would be strong and positive.

“You have to envision how this particular coach is going to connect with those guys,” Dumars said. “That’s the most important thing – the ability to connect with those guys and get the most out of them. There’s a genuineness about him that guys are attracted to and it allows him to instruct, correct, to coach. It allows him to do that in a manner where guys are receptive to it.”

Cheeks turned Summer League practices over to his staff, a common practice. But there was a time in every one where he would call the team together, in a circle at mid-court, and speak to them in his typical low, measured pace. You could hear a pin drop in those moments.

“His mild manners do a great job of hiding his fiery competitiveness,” Brooks said. “You don’t look at him as a guy who would do whatever it takes to win because he just goes about his job and all he wants to do is his job. I think he’s going to be great for the organization.”

“He’s got a great way about him,” Presti said. “He was fantastic for us. What I’ve seen from Mo Cheeks, getting to know him as a coach and a person, is that he’s got an unbelievable sense of how to work with everybody. He was a tremendous asset for us as an organization, both on the court and off the court, and I think he’s going to do a wonderful job in Detroit.”

So does John Loyer, based on his unique perspective, having coached with Cheeks in both Portland and Philadelphia and having spent the past two years under Frank getting a sense of the players Cheeks will now lead.

“It’s a good mix,” he said. “His experience will really help him, but they also know he was a very good player. He has a presence about him and you only gain that presence by what you’ve done in the past. He has that ability to instill confidence in his guys because he has that confidence in himself. The young guys will really see that and they’ll work hard for him.”

Loyer and Smith were there the night 13-year-old Natalie Gilbert stumbled over her words as she sang the national anthem before a Portland playoff game a decade ago and watched, dumbfounded, as Cheeks – with a must-win game minutes away – walked to mid-court, put his arm around the trembling teenager, and carried her to the finish line, right to “… and the home of the brave.”

“I was standing a couple of feet down from him,” Loyer recalls, smiling. “He just does things naturally. Some guys have to plan, ‘Here’s my speech for today.’ That’s not who he was as a player and that’s not who he is as a coach. He adapts to a situation instantly. He’s such a sincere guy, such a caring guy.

“When people ask me about Mo Cheeks, I would never talk to them about the player or the coach. I talk about the guy. He’s as good a guy as you’ll ever meet, inside or outside of sports.”

“He was my guardian angel,” Gilbert told Sports Illustrated eight years after their arcs intersected. “He’s a very selfless man.”

The Pistons aren’t asking him to be their guardian angel, but everything Joe Dumars learned about him during a meticulous coaching search led him to believe that the time was right for Maurice Cheeks to figuratively put his arm around these Detroit Pistons and help them take the next sure, confident steps back toward NBA elite status.