Mo-Town: Part I

(Editor’s note: First 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.)

It stands to reason Maurice Cheeks’ mind might have been a little preoccupied around 7:30 p.m. Pacific time on April 25, 2003. Tipoff of Game 3 of the first-round playoff series between Portland and Dallas was minutes away. Cheeks’ Trail Blazers, after dropping the first two games in Dallas, desperately needed a win.

A fan base long known as one of the NBA’s most rabid had the Rose Garden thrumming with the electric charge of postseason basketball, coming to order suddenly to hear a sweet local girl who’d won a competition to sing the national anthem for the city’s only major professional sports team. But a few lines in, a terribly awkward unease froze the crowd when Natalie Gilbert, 13, stumbled over the words, groping to pull them from her memory bank.

The YouTube video of what happened next had been viewed nearly 600,000 times when Joe Dumars named Cheeks as Pistons coach in early June. If you haven’t yet seen it, go look it up. Take a box of tissues with you.

“That’s who he is,” said Bernard Smith, who a generation ago was Natalie Gilbert, coached through the anthem by Cheeks. There were no national TV cameras capturing the moment for Smith and Cheeks in Philadelphia, no cell phones to document it, but it was every bit the act of life-changing kindness that the Pistons’ new coach prefers to perform removed from the spotlight.

Like the time the Blazers were holding an open practice for fans to introduce their team.

“Tickets were cheap. Anyone could come,” Smith said. “Mo was going into the building and there were kids standing outside that weren’t coming in. He started talking to them and learned they didn’t have the money to buy tickets. He not only bought tickets for the whole group, he led them into the building, got them seats in a great section – center court, 12 or 14 rows up – bought them popcorn and drinks and sat talking with them through the whole practice.

“Our secretary in basketball operations, Carolyn, pulled me over to the side and told me the story and said, ‘Look at him – he’s unbelievable.’ I said, ‘Carolyn, that was me right there. You don’t have to tell me. That’s the kind of stuff he does.”

Bernard Smith grew up in Philadelphia’s tough south end, about 10 minutes from the old Spectrum where Cheeks played point guard for a loaded 76ers team that included Julius Erving and Andrew Toney and later added Moses Malone to threaten the bicoastal domination of the Celtics and Lakers.

Smith was in high school at the time and a huge 76ers fan. So was his grandmother, so if the Sixers were on TV, the Smith living room was the place to be. Smith and his best friend would watch games with Grandma, but with two minutes left in the fourth quarter – no matter how close the score – they’d hop the subway and get to the Spectrum in time to see the players file out to the parking lot.

“We’d collect autographs, shoes, all that stuff,” Smith remembers. “Players were so much more approachable then without the security that’s around today. They would even stop to talk to us. I would talk to Maurice all the time, ask him questions about the game. He got used to seeing my face – I was coming down every single night. He asked my name, where did I live, did I play basketball.”

Finally, Cheeks asked the teenager, 14 or 15 at the time, where he sat to watch games.

“I was kind of embarrassed,” Smith said. “I couldn’t afford to go to the games. He gave me his phone number and said, ‘If you ever want tickets, let me know. I’ll make sure I leave some tickets for you.’ ”

But the kid didn’t want to press his luck, so he didn’t make the call. A few weeks later, Cheeks gently admonished him. “I thought I told you to call me!” So he did. Next game: “Can you leave two tickets for me and my buddy?”

“And from that point on, I never had to pay for another ticket to go to another game. He always left me tickets, every night. It was unbelievable. And it went further than that. After the games, when he realized where I lived, he had to drive past my neighborhood on his way home, so he started giving me rides home. Here was this NBA All-Star, now he’s driving through my neighborhood – which was the hood – and guys would be saying, ‘Oh my God – wasn’t that Maurice Cheeks?’ ”

The hood was no stranger to Maurice Cheeks. Ron Ekker remembers the first time he saw him at DuSable High School along Wabash Avenue on the city’s hardscrabble south side. It was the mid-’70s and racial tensions were running high.

“I’m sure everybody there thought I was a vice cop,” Ekker laughs today. “That was a tough, tough area.”

Ekker, the coach at West Texas State in Canyon, located near the dusty panhandle not far from Amarillo, frequently recruited Detroit and Chicago, where there were more good players than the Big Ten schools could herd, many of them flying well under the radar in an era long before the Internet and scouting services took a strip-mining approach to even the most far-flung talent.

One player flying above the radar back then was William Dice, Cheeks’ teammate at DuSable. North Carolina pursued him among many national powers. Ekker wanted him badly for West Texas, then a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, where players like Oscar Robertson, Wes Unseld and Larry Bird cut their teeth. Dice wanted to take a friend along on his recruiting trip: Cheeks. Ekker didn’t allow that.

So he asked his assistant, J.D. Barnett, who would go on to coach Tulsa in the ’80s and had scouted Dice at DuSable, his opinion of Cheeks.

“I don’t even remember him,” Barnett replied.

That explains why Ekker wasn’t terribly enthused when he got a call from his office one day as he happened to be recruiting in Detroit and was told DuSable was holding a pickup game, set up so St. Louis University could scout Cheeks.

“I was tired, trying to see as many players as I could,” Ekker recalls. “I get a call saying this kid Cheeks is playing at his high school if I could make it. I’m thinking, ‘Geez, I’m in Detroit. It’s not really that far.’ ”

So he shows up, the St. Louis U coach leaves at halftime, unimpressed, and Ekker sticks around. “I thought he could play,” he said. After the game, he arranged for Cheeks to visit. Shortly after that, he called a committed all-state guard from Pennsylvania to tell him, sorry, we no longer have a scholarship for you.

Dice left after one season on the desolate plains, homesick, to transfer back to DePaul. Cheeks – who, Ekker says, to this day is convinced he only recruited him to get Dice, which Ekker firmly denies – might have, too, if he’d had Dice’s options. The cultural adjustment was significant. And Western Texas wasn’t exactly the most enlightened place racially in the ’70s.

“It was very hard,” for West Texas’ black players – the majority of the team – Ekker said. “I don’t know how they did it. Maurice really had a rough first year because of that. He wanted out. He quit two or three times. I just got kind of tired of it, so I went and recruited a real good junior college point guard. But his mother didn’t want him to leave. We worked it out, but it was very hairy there for a while.”

Cheeks’ freshman season was inauspicious, but it didn’t take long for him to get things pointed in the right direction when he came back for the fall semester of 1975.

“He came on his sophomore year,” Ekker said. “He wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the season, but a few games into it, I changed that. He was coming off the bench and he was making our team go. We had a very good team. We were 17th in the nation. He had the remarkable ability to go fast, but he was never out of control.”

Cheeks couldn’t shoot when he got to Canyon, Ekker said, even free throws. But the summer before his junior season, he worked every day, staying in Texas instead of going back to Chicago’s south side.

“We would work with them during the summers if they were willing to stay,” Ekker said. “We had good success with a guy the year before and Maurice knew it and asked if he could work with us. It wasn’t mandatory, but the rule was he had to come to us. What we guaranteed was no matter when he came, we would do it. He had some odd hours. I was with him all summer. We went 27 straight days without missing and then we only missed because he wanted to work on a Sunday night and there was a women’s camp I’d forgotten about. Then we went another 32 days straight. He was motivated. And he became a decent shooter.”

Ekker, he admits, was tough on Cheeks. He takes no credit for the superb feel for the game Cheeks displayed in carving out what many believe was a Hall of Fame-worthy career – “I don’t think you can teach that,” he said – but others say Ekker’s discipline helped Cheeks get a grip on the game’s rhythms and how to control tempo to your team’s advantage.

“I never told him this when he played, because I thought it would screw him up,” Ekker says, “but he had the best ability to select the right guy to throw the ball to. If he’d have thought about it, I don’t think he could have done it. Instinctively, he knew who could make a driving layup at the end of the break, who could make the jump shots. He knew all of that, felt it. He always has been uncanny at that. You can’t teach what Maurice could do.”

As Cheeks grew more comfortable with rural Texas, he began to win over the locals, too.

“Maurice has got this personality … he’s lovable,” Ekker said. “He had some nice families that took care of him. They kind of liked to mother him. It was good for him. That way, he didn’t mind putting up with me so much.”

West Texas was nationally ranked Cheeks’ junior season, 1977, but lost the conference championship game – it was the first year the Valley held a postseason tournament – to Southern Illinois. Cheeks’ senior year was tougher with a less talented team, but he wasn’t an unknown to NBA scouts. After all, when Cheeks as a senior picked up his third straight All-Valley first team designation, he joined the great Oscar Robertson as the only other so honored.

Jerry West, only a few years retired from playing and by then working on what would become his equally stellar career as a Lakers executive, came for a golf outing and told Ekker, “You’ve got a guard I really like.” Ekker thought he was talking about his other guard, Melvin Jones. “Super player. I could not believe he couldn’t play in the NBA.”

West meant Cheeks. And he wasn’t the only NBA scout who liked him.

Coming Wednesday: How the Philadelphia 76ers came to land Maurice Cheeks in the 1978 draft.