Stirring Memories

Cheeks’ return to Philly underscores similar path Pistons took during ’80s

When Mo Cheeks walks out on the court for Friday night’s game between the Pistons and 76ers, I won’t be able to help myself from thinking about his great days as a point guard for one of the most talented teams of all-time. That 76ers group only won one championship but was in the NBA Finals three times in his first five years.

The two losses were to the team they also beat to win it all in 1983, the amped-up Lakers, one of the greatest teams of all-time. They were battling in the East with the Boston Celtics, another of the all-time great teams.

It should remind all of us how good the NBA was in the ’80s. I’ve talked about this before, but the major sports to me have all had one decade that just jumps out at everybody and it would be hard to ignore the ’80s if you’re an NBA fan.

The Pistons rank right up there – the Bad Boys were another among the greatest of all-time – and so do the Sixers, so do the Lakers and so do the Celtics. There were any number of teams with Hall of Fame players during the ’80s, so it was hard to win during that decade. My hat’s off to Mo and the 76ers with their headliner, Dr. J, because they did their share of winning in the ’80s.

It was easy to cheer for that team. Anybody who was a Dr. J fan – and who wasn’t? – wanted Doc to win a ring. And if you look at his teammates – with the great Moses Malone in the middle and a great glue guy and excellent defender in Bobby Jones at the other forward spot, a super scorer in Andrew Toney and the orchestrator of it all, Mo Cheeks, in the backcourt – you could see how good that team really and truly was.

Mo gave that team exactly what it needed. You don’t win a championship if your point guard doesn’t give you exactly what you need. He could run with anybody, but he was not a “mistake” point guard. He was a conservative point guard in many ways despite the fact they would get out on the break and get easy baskets.

Playing at West Texas State for Ron Ekker, who was a take-care-of-the-basketball, don’t-mess-up-if-you’re-the-point-guard kind of coach, Mo came to the league valuing the basketball and valuing every possession. You could see it on the floor. There aren’t too many point guards that had his kind of speed and quickness, who had his burst, who were as conscious of taking care of the basketball as he was. He was a pure point guard. Although he could have scored more, that was never high on his agenda.

What was high on his list of priorities was getting everybody involved, taking care of the basketball and, at the end of the night, getting a W. And the Sixers got more than their share. They, and even the Pistons to a degree later in the decade when they won back-to-back titles and went to three straight NBA Finals, don’t get their due because of the way the Celtics and the Lakers played throughout the ’80s. But the Sixers and the Pistons were also two great, great basketballs teams during that era.

What’s interesting is that the all-time greatest Pistons coach, Hall of Famer Chuck Daly, was at Philly working with Billy Cunningham, one of his dearest friends, as an assistant when Mo Cheeks became a Sixer. Eventually Chuck got the opportunity to coach Cleveland, later went back to Philly as a TV analyst and was working in that capacity when the great Jack McCloskey hired him for his great run with the Pistons.

I’m sure Chuck had more than just a little to do with the path that Sixers team was on. And then at the end of Mo’s career, he was in New Jersey when Chuck was coaching for the Nets. I don’t know if point guards naturally think about coaching because they’re always a coach on the floor, but clearly Chuck Daly had something to do with Mo Cheeks as both a point guard and a coach.

There was a rite of passage in the NBA during Mo’s playing days and that made for some heated rivalries. The Sixers had to figure out how to get past Boston and then, when they got to the Finals, all three times they had to go up against the great Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The same challenge faced the Pistons later in the decade – they had to get past those same Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Celtics and then tangle with the Lakers to win their first championship in 1989.

Despite some heated words between the Pistons and Celtics, there was a great deal of respect coming from the Pistons for the Celtics and coming back the other way. Later on, the Chicago Bulls had to get by the Pistons and that was certainly heated as well. You almost had to be there to understand how difficult that rite of passage was for all the teams that had to experience it.

So I’ll be thinking about all of that, and about how great both Mo Cheeks’ 76ers were and the Bad Boys who had to travel the same difficult road just a few years later, when the Pistons and 76ers meet up in Philly on Friday night.