Maurice Cheeks’ Biggest Assist of His Career Came During the National Anthem
After his playing days were over, Maurice Cheeks settled in nicely as a head coach in the NBA. As a point guard with a lengthy NBA career, Cheeks had dished out better than 7,000 assists. His biggest one, however, came as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers when he came to the aid of a struggling 13-year-old girl.
Maurice Cheeks the player
Mo Cheeks had himself quite a career as a player in the NBA after being selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the 1978 NBA draft. He spent 15 seasons as a point guard in the league, the first 11 of them in Philadelphia.
Although he was known as a very good defensive guard, he also showed he could score, along with being a playmaker. Cheeks averaged 11.1 points per game throughout his career, including the 1986-87 season when he averaged a career-high 15.6 points per game.
Cheeks was a four-time NBA All-Star and he was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team in five seasons. He was the floor general of a Sixers team that went to the NBA Finals three times in a four-year span. Philadelphia won the championship in 1983. When Cheeks retired from the NBA in 1993, he was the league’s all-time leader in steals and fifth overall in assists. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.
Maurice Cheeks the coach
After serving as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers beginning in 1994, Maurice Cheeks got his first head coaching job with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2001. He spent four seasons with the Blazers, making the playoffs twice. He never got Portland past the first round in the postseason and was fired after a slow start during the 2004-05 season.
In 2005, Cheeks returned home as he was named the head coach of the 76ers. Philadelphia GM Billy King decided to bring back Cheeks, who was a fan favorite during his 11 seasons as a player with the team. “Mo is family,” King said. “Mo bleeds 76ers; he bleeds Philadelphia. One thing Mo says is, ‘I’m coming back, not as Maurice Cheeks the player, but I’m coming back to do the job as a coach and not hang my hat on what I did in the past.’”
Cheeks and the Sixers failed to qualify for the postseason in his first two seasons as coach and they traded away franchise player Allen Iverson to the Denver Nuggets, leaving Cheeks with one of the youngest teams in the NBA. While most experts predicted the Sixers to finish out of the playoff mix in the 2007-08 season, the Sixers reached the playoffs. Cheeks, however, was fired in December of 2008.
Cheeks later went on to be the head coach of the Detroit Pistons for one season. His career coaching record is 305-315.
Cheeks saves the day in Portland
Thirteen-year-old Natalie Gilbert won a contest to sing the national anthem before a Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trail Blazers game back on April 25, 2003. She was recovering from the flu and she was nervous, as any 13-year-old singing before a large crowd would be.
Twenty seconds into the Star-Spangled Banner, she froze. She forgot the words. Gilbert got through 20 seconds of the song, through, “what so proudly hailed.” Then she stumbled on the words, dug her head into the microphone and began looking around as she desperately tried to remember the words.
Suddenly appearing on the court was Portland head coach Maurice Cheeks. He was there to help guide her. “Come on, come on,” he told her, putting his arm around Gilbert as he began to feed her the lines: “… twilight’s last gleaming …” Gilbert struggled to finish as Cheeks encouraged the crowd to join in. When she finished, Cheeks gave her a hug and the crowd gave Cheeks a standing ovation.
Cheeks recalled the incident back in 2018. “Once I really saw what I did, I couldn’t believe I did it, first of all,” he told Sporting News. “I had to — I heard the national anthem so many times, so I had to know the words. Didn’t know I was going to have to sing it, but I knew the words and I had to know I could go out there and help her. I just looked and I knew she was struggling. I’m a father. Everyone can understand that. Once I saw it, I did not want her to be standing in the middle of all those people and not know the words. So I just kind of reacted. I don’t even know why.”