For the eighth time in 14 years, the Detroit Pistons announced the hiring of a new coach in June 2013: Maurice “Mo” Cheeks. Will he be able to end the revolving door of coaches?
Born on Sept. 8, 1956, in Chicago, Maurice Cheeks grew up in the city’s Robert Taylor housing projects. After attending DuSable High School, Cheeks enrolled at West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M University), one of the few schools to offer him a basketball scholarship, in 1974. Life in Canyon, Texas, was quite different from the South Side of Chicago, and he found it difficult to adjust. He decided to leave school during his freshman year, but his mother, Marjorie, had other ideas. “She said, ‘Maurice, you quit school and you better not come home,’” he later told the New York Times. “I stayed in school. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t.”
Cheeks was a 4-year starter and three-time most valuable player on the West Texas State basketball team. He averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 56.8 percent from the field as a senior. Upon graduating in 1978, he was fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,227 points. Having spent 4 years playing on a losing team in a small town, his expectations for the NBA draft were low. He was unaware that Jack McMahon, a talent scout and assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, had taken notice of him. In his senior year, Cheeks was invited to Cincinnati to play with other NBA hopefuls in front of scouts and management, and his performance made others in the 76ers organization interested in drafting him. With the 14th selection in the second round of the 1978 draft (the 36th selection overall), the 76ers did just that.
As a rookie, Cheeks averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. In the 1979-80 season, his second, those averages improved to 11.4 points and 7.0 assists per game. The 76ers advanced to the 1980 Finals but lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers. He had a career-high 209 steals in the 1981-82 season and the 76ers returned to the Finals, only to once again lose to the Lakers in six games.
The 1982-83 season was a momentous one for both Cheeks and his team. He earned the first of his four All-Star Game appearances, and the 76ers won 50 of their first 57 games on their way to a league-best 65-17 record and a berth in the 1983 Finals. Their opponent once again was the Lakers, but this time the 76ers swept Los Angeles in four games to claim the title.
Cheeks continued to be a solid performer for the 76ers throughout the 1980s, averaging a career-high 9.2 assists per game during the 1985-86 season and a career-high 15.6 points per game the following year. His time in Philadelphia came to an end in August 1989 when the 76ers traded him and two teammates to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Johnny Dawkins and Ray Vincent – a trade he didn’t learn about until a television crew approached him in the driveway of his house to get his reaction.
On Feb. 21, 1990, the Spurs traded Cheeks to the New York Knicks in exchange for Rod Strickland. The Knicks traded him to the Atlanta Hawks for Tim McCormick after the 1990-91 season. He spent a season with the Hawks before being sent to the New Jersey Nets, where he played his last year in the NBA. During his 15-year career, he averaged 11.1 points and 6.7 assists per game and recorded a league record 2,310 steals (since broken). The 76ers retired Cheeks’ number 10.
Cheeks’ first coaching job was as an assistant with the Quad City Thunder in Rock Island, Ill., who won the CBA championship for the 1993-94 season. His return to Philadelphia came when he was offered an assistant coaching position with the 76ers, which he held for 7 years. His job duties came to include being a calming influence in the volatile relationship between head coach Larry Brown and star point guard Allen Iverson. That skill came in handy when the Portland Trail Blazers hired Cheeks as their head coach in 2001. Charges filed against Portland players included marijuana possession, driving without licenses or insurance, domestic abuse, assault and rape. On the court, the Trail Blazers had fallen to fourth in their division and endured an embarrassing loss to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs the year before Cheeks’ arrival.
The Trail Blazers started the 2001-02 season with an 11-11 record but were able to finish 49-33. Once again, however, they lost to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. In Cheeks’ second season, the Trail Blazers won 50 games and once again made the playoffs. They overcame a 3-0 deficit in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks to tie the series after six games, but the Mavericks defeated Portland 107-95 in Game Seven in Dallas.
When Larry Brown left the 76ers in 2003, Cheeks was rumored as the top choice to take over but the Trail Blazers refused Philadelphia’s request to discuss the job with him. The Trail Blazers finished a difficult 2003-04 season with a 41-41 record, their first non-winning record since 1988-89. It also marked the end of the team’s 21-year playoff streak.
Cheeks left Portland in 2005 and the same year finally became head coach of the 76ers. He led Philadelphia to the 2008 playoffs but was fired 23 games into the 2008-09 season. His career record at the time was 284-286. He spent the next 4 years as an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder and was credited with the development of Thunder All-Star Russell Westbrook.
There were pros and cons to the Pistons team that Cheeks inherited in 2013. Pro: a young and commanding frontline of power forward Greg Monroe and center Andre Drummond as well as other promising young players. Con: the Pistons had endured five consecutive losing seasons. Pro: team president Joe Dumars will have $20 million in cap space to remake the roster. Con: the Pistons had missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons. Pro: the confidence of not only Dumars but team owner Tom Gores. “After spending some time with Maurice, I was very impressed not only with his basketball knowledge but his communication and leadership skills," Gores said in a statement. "We are very excited to have someone of his experience and talent help take this franchise into the future.”