When they lost the memorable 1977 NBA finals with Portland Trail Blazers, Philadelphia 76ers led by superstar forward Julius ‘Dr.J’ Erving knew something needs to be done in order to go to the next level. On paper, they really had a great roster full of great individuals but it was evident that on-court they actually lacked leadership.
It was the 6’1’’ rookie point guard Maurice Edward Cheeks or simply Mo Cheeks who would help Philly to find that ‘little something they needed’ and, along with the addition of the man in the middle Moses Malone, provide 76ers with the right mixture of ingredients needed to win the title of the World Champions.
After losing to L.A.Lakers in 1980 and 1982 76ers finally did it with style in 1983, and thus became the only NBA team before the 1988-89 Pistons, to break into what seemed to be a decade long domination of Lakers and Celtics.
‘Little Mo’ already showed promise during his 1978-79 rookie campaign in which he averaged 8.4 points, 5.3 assists, 3.1 boards, and 2.1 steals in 29.4 minutes per contest. His most memorable performance came on April 22nd, 1979 in the Game 4 of 1979 Eastern Conference semifinals vs. San Antonio Spurs led by George Gervin, when he hit 12-19 shots for a game-high 33 points, to go along with 9 boards and 6 dimes.
During the mid-1980s, four-time All-Star became known for his hawking tireless defense on the opposing point guards what earned him four consecutive selections (1983-1986) to the NBA All-defensive team. As much as he has been known for defensive intensity and footwork, which resulted in him becoming one of the all-time NBA leaders in steals (5th with the total of 2310 steals), Cheeks’ offensive trademark was the unstoppable fastbreak cross-court drive from basket to basket.
It was on this day, August 28th, 1989, that the quiet favorite of the crowd in Spectrum surprisingly learned that he was traded to San Antonio Spurs, which was projected to be led by the rookie center David Robinson.
Sure, ‘The Admiral’s’ presence in the paint was felt from his very first NBA game vs. visiting Lakers, but it was Mo Cheeks who provided Larry Brown’s ‘kindergarten’ with some much needed experienced veteran leadership.
Savvy point guard would start all of his 50 games for the Spurs during the first part of 1989-90 becoming the key for the steady performance of the team which will make one of the greatest single-season record turnarounds in the NBA history. With Cheeks on the floor Spurs won 33 out of 50 games, turning the Hemisfair Arena into the NBA ‘fortress’ and losing only four home games during that span, two of those to contenders Lakers and Blazers.
But, on February 21st, 1990 Cheeks again got traded – this time for the creative Knicks point guard Rod Strickland, who previously had two great games vs. the Spurs as a Knick. 23-year old would pick up where Cheeks left but would commit a costly turnover while trying to make the behind the head pass, uncharacteristic for Cheeks, in the crucial moments of the Game 7 of 1990 Western Conference final series vs. Portland Trail Blazers.
So it’s no wonder that Brown’s assistant from that era, Gregg Popovich, has lately praised Cheeks, Naismith Hall-of-Fame Class of 2018 inductee, by vividly remembering the short stint they spent together with the 1989-90 Spurs.
After a year and a half in the Knicks uniform quiet Mo had a brief stint with Atlanta Hawks (1991-92) and New Jersey Nets (1992-93) where he served as a mentor to promising PGs Rumeal Robinson and Kenny Anderson.
Murray A. a.k.a. Marjan Crnogaj is a BN contributor and the co-author of the books ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon’ (‘Drazen – Godine Zmaja’) and ‘Bridging the Generations’ (‘Most Generacija’). He resides in Zagreb, Croatia, currently working on his third book which tells the untold story of the 1989 Green Card Five.