I used to know where Maurice Cheeks lived. I knew because he lived in the same Philadelphia apartment building as my parents. Once, my mother claims, she got in the elevator with grocery bags, and Cheeks helped carry them.
“Mo is such a sweet man,” she always said after that. “And so down-to-earth!”
I laughed. Suddenly it was “Mo.” But then, first-name affection was common in Philadelphia, at least for Cheeks. He was special, a shy hero, the kind of guy who looked at his feet when you paid him a compliment. He came out of a small Texas college and played 11 terrific years for the 76ers. The old announcer at the Spectrum, Dave Zinkoff, used to squeal his name after every basket — “CHEEEEEEKS!’ — as if someone had just pinched him with pliers. Fans used to bring Cheeks chocolate chip cookies, his favorite junk food. Once, he met a kid shooting hoops who reminded him of himself. Cheeks gave the kid his phone number and they talked throughout the season.
Maurice Cheeks became a favorite son. He accomplished this the right way, with sweat, with effort, with kindness, and with things he did not do. He did not brag. He did not seek the spotlight. He was a point guard, a true point guard, in an age where many players blurred that role to include more flash. Not Cheeks. He raced the ball up. He moved it around. When there was no other recourse, he shot it, and he made the big ones. He stole more dribbles than anyone, ever. Like Joe Dumars, he was a defensive ace, and was a four-time All-Star.
Most people assumed Cheeks would retire in a Philly uniform. After all, he had helped bring the 76ers a championship, back with Julius Erving and Moses Malone in 1983. Erving called him “the glue that keeps our team together.” But last August, in a classless move by a classless owner, the 76ers traded Cheeks to San Antonio “while he was still worth something.” This is how he found out: he drove to his house, and a TV reporter was there.
“They traded you,’ the reporter said.
Cheeks looked at him. It was the longest look of his life. His head dropped to his chest. Then, without a word, he drove away.
Thanks for nothing
Now Cheeks is standing inside the Palace, putting on his sneakers. His long, strange trip has taken another turn. On Feb. 21, the Knicks acquired him from the Spurs in exchange for guard Rod Strickland. After more than a decade with one team, he is suddenly a journeyman. His task today: Lead a group of relative strangers, the New York Knicks, against the defending champion Detroit Pistons in Round 2 of the playoffs. He ties his shoes. He accepts.
“You still have your place in Philly?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says, surprised that I know that. “That’s still my home. I’m living in a hotel in New York. And I lived in a hotel the whole time in San Antonio. This has been a long year, and I guess I’ll be glad when it’s over.”
He quickly corrects himself. “I mean, after we go as far as we can.”
“Didn’t you figure you’d retire with Philly?”
“I guess we all want that.” He bites his lip. The answer is yes.
“What do you think of Dumars? Does he remind you of yourself?”
“Nah,” he says. “He’s better than me.”
You have to like Cheeks. Everybody does. His teammates. His coaches. The media. He should be proof that if you keep your perspective and do your job well, good things will come to you.
And yet, he has not always been appreciated. When Cheeks went back to Philadelphia this season, the team gave him no special welcome. Just introduced him like any other opponent.
In San Antonio, Cheeks considered retiring. The coach, Larry Brown, talked him out of it — then traded him to the Knicks.
When Cheeks got to New York, someone broke into his car. Stole his radio.
Thanks for everything
Now he is 33. He is slower. The darting hands that made him the NBA’s all-time steals leader are still quick, but no longer catlike. The Knicks acquired him for his experience, yet they are playing him like he’s fresh from the factory, 40 minutes a night.
He does not complain. He just goes to work. I see him in the New York jersey, and I feel like I felt when I saw Pete Rose as a Montreal Expo, or Joe Namath as an LA Ram. There ought to be a statute of limitations in sports: you give a certain amount, so much time, so much sweat, and you get automatic retirement with the club. No ignoble trades. No cheap slaps in your 30s. When Cheeks was informed why the 76ers dealt him, he said to a reporter: “Gee. Why not just treat me like a horse and shoot me?”
He deserved better. He still does. You will see him tonight, guarding Isiah Thomas, and he may appear to you as just another Knick. But know this: You’re looking at one of the top five point guards of the ’80s. And one of the more admirable men in the NBA. Philly tossed him aside before a certain woman with groceries got to tell him thanks. Let me do that here. On behalf of a lot of people.