By J. Coyden Palmer
Growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes on the city’s South Side, Maurice “Mo” Cheeks would spend his days playing basketball all day long, like most kids his age. Living there also taught Cheeks how to socialize with all different types of people and how to look out for others as they would look out for him. Cheeks took those early life lessons and turned them into a productive basketball career.
Drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1978, Cheeks spent 15 years as an NBA player, was an all-star selection four times and played in the NBA Finals three times, winning a championship in 1983. Now an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thun- der, Cheeks continues to make a living in the game he loves but perhaps more importantly, he has never forgotten all of those who helped him along the way.
“Being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame is something I never dreamed of,” said the 62-year-old during his induction speeh. “I’m humbled beyond belief knowing I did not get here on my own. My life has been a string of small moments that led me to major experiences beyond my wildest dreams.”
Cheeks said growing up at 5268 S. State in apartment 308 gave him the foundation he needed to have a successful life. A graduate of DuSable High School, Cheeks told the story of how he was not heavily recruited by colleges when he was at DuSable, but a teammate, William Dice was. Dice told the coach at West Texas State he would come to the school only if Cheeks could come too.
“William is here tonight, and I want to thank him and all of the others who helped me,” Cheeks said.
Many have argued that Cheeks should have been enshrined years ago. His floor leadership, outside shooting and hard-nosed defense were a staple of his game. He also played during a time that many consider the “golden years” of the NBA in the 80s and early 90s when the talent level was at its highest point. Cheeks’ induction comes after teammates Julius Erving, Charles Barkley and Moses Malone were inducted years ago.
But he is not bitter, just grateful to be seen as one of the greatest players in the game.
“Playing in Philadelphia I had some amazing teammates. Can you imagine walking into the first practice and the first person you see is Dr. J. I almost walked right out,” he said with a laugh.
“Over the years I’ve had many reasons to thank the Lord. Two of them are my kids. I also thank my brothers Moses and Mark and my late brother Marvin, who I know is watching from above and is smiling.”
Cheeks described his brothers as the “rock of the family” and said they do a great job of taking care of their elderly mother on a daily basis. Cheeks shared the moment with them. His oldest brother Marvin, who was a Chicago firefighter, was abducted, robbed and murdered in 1991 by James Munson and Darryl Clemons, with Clemons being eligible for parole in July of 2020. His brother’s callous murder shook Cheeks to the core and is something that still affects him.
Cheeks became emotional when he talked about his mother, who was able to attend his enshrinement. Cheeks said his mother always protected him and his brothers, when she would call out for them to come home when the street lights came on.
“Momma Cheeks was my first coach in life. You are amazing, and I am grateful for who you are and I am humbled because of you. Most importantly, I still have my hair because of you,” he said with a laugh. “And thank you to the committee for selecting me.”
Always regarded as one of the nicest men in the game, Cheeks has been linked with an infamous moment in NBA history when he was the head coach of the Portland Trailblazers in 2003 and young Natalie Gilbert was set to sing the national anthem. The young teen’s nerves got the best of her and she stumbled over the words as many do in such a big moment. Cheeks stepped right in and what was supposed to be a solo, turned into a duet.
“I had heard the national anthem so many times, so I had to know the words. I 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,” Cheeks told the Sporting News at the time
“I am 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.”