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Thursday, May 26, 2005

A Tale of Two Point Guards

One guy never had the limelight, or, if he did, it was because of the skills of blending that he brought to his tradecraft. Need a seventeen-foot jumper -- he hit it. Get the ball chest high to the shooting guard -- he put it right on the money. Thread the bounce pass to the small forward breaking toward the hoop for the wing -- he did it. Help the low post center go hard to the hole -- he got the ball there. In one magical year, his team won the title. A long time ago.

The other fellow was born to the limelight and had it at a very young age. Tenacious and lightning fast, he could blow by anybody who was guarding him (still pretty much can) and takes on all comers. He became a better passer this past season, but for the most part he's a shoot-first PG whose team's fortunes ride and fall on his streaky play. Still, because of his own magnitude and the fans' and sportwriters' love for watching him carry his epic battle of the little guard against the world, he makes first- or second-team all-league year-in and year-out. Those of us who look at the boxscores on a nightly basis see many more 8-23 shooting nights than the admirers would like to admit. During his nine-year career with his team, he hasn't helped make anyone else an all-star, and his team hasn't won an NBA title.

The first guy is Maurice Cheeks, the Philadelphia 76ers PG on a team that featured Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Andrew Toney and Julius Erving (yes, sports fans, Marc Iavaroni started at the PF, but Jones replaced him in the game rather quickly). This team did have a lot of talent, but it beat heralded the heralded Celtics and Lakers because it played as a team. Its floor general, Cheeks, had a great knack for distributing the ball, finding the open man, hitting the open shot to keep opposing defenses honest, and making his team better. More than that, he was beloved in Philadelphia because he was a man of few words, an unselfish player, but one who always conducted himself with class and dignity. It's a great, abiding love, an admiring love, a thankful love, both for the acts of Cheeks on the court and the forebearance on it -- where he blended in to be part of something bigger.

The second guy is Allen Iverson, current 76ers PG and a guy who has never been able to play on an NBA team that developed a meaningful second violin to his concertmaster's role. On the one hand, he's never played on a team that had the type of talent that Mo Cheeks' did, but on the other hand he hasn't help lead his team to greater heights by being more unselfish with the ball. Translated, that means he hasn't helped develop much, if any, of the young talent that has tried to play Scottie Pippen to his Michael Jordan. True, perhaps none of those guys was (or is) a Pippen to begin with, but it's not like they're guys who'd have trouble being starters on a their CYO team. The 76ers fans have an awkward relationship with Iverson. Many like him and are in awe of his play, others want to like him but feel that he puts up a wall that prevents them from getting a sense of what he's really like, others want to like him but won't until he helps elevate his team more, and, finally, many dislike him because while he has great individual skills, he plays selfishly. For all of the awe-inspiring moves they see, they remember 9-29 shooting nights and a 10-point loss at home to an evenly matched team. Those fans see .500 records, or worse.

So now the first PG is coaching the second PG, and this is a league, of course, where coaches get fired with greater frequency than the average American gets an oil change. It was only two seasons ago when the 76ers hired a new coach to replace the nomadic Larry Brown, and what has proceeded since that time has made the 76ers' job nomadic. They hired Brown's assistant, Randy Ayers, didn't even let him change the furniture in his office, so to speak, fired him, and then hired career NBA journeyman coach Chris Ford to coach the team for at least the remainder of that season. The players didn't seem to listen to Ayers, who had a very tough act to follow, and Iverson and Ford clashed. Enter Jim O'Brien, whose coaching pedigree seemed pretty good -- Jack Ramsay's son-in-law and a former Rick Pitino assistant who succeeded in Boston after Pitino failed but who fell out of favor with the Celtics' head of basketball operations, Danny Ainge.

O'Brien had a reputation as a players' coach, but his coaching style puzzled people. Sam Dalembert is a talent, yet he would bury the young center at times. Ditto for guard Willie Green. There never seemed to be a good wavelength between him and the teflon GM, Billy King, and risking losing the young talent as free agents in a year or so, and found the guy who they orginally wanted to replace Brown in the first place, a hometown favorite, Mo Cheeks, to help steady the ship.

The same Mo Cheeks who played with Dr. J and Moses Malone (although unlike those two, he did not get immortalized on Kurtis Blow's "Basketball") and who got national attention two seasons ago when, on the first night of the playoffs, he did an amazing thing that had nothing to do with coaching basketball but everything to do with heart, leadership and generosity. A young teenaged girl was slated to sing the national anthem, and in front of about 18,000 people and a televised audience she forgot the words and froze. For a moment, she looked like she might melt. Calmly strolling over toward her, right before coaching his first playoff game, was Mo Cheeks, who proceeded to put his arm around her and guide her through the song. I saw a video clip of this, and it was an amazing, and, yes, moving moment. Here's a guy coaching the ConAir of NBA team's on the eve of the first playoff game of the post-season, and he totally saved the day for this young girl, who my guess is might have been somewhat scarred had he not stepped in (she has since gone on to sing the national anthem -- unaided -- at at least one professional sporting event if not others). You don't find better examples of character than

The same Mo Cheeks of whom Larry Brown, the primus inter pares of NBA coaches, thinks very highly of.

So what will happen in Philadelphia? Can Mo Cheeks coach Allen Iverson? Can Iverson change? Does he have enough of a sense of history and a wish to create a legacy that he might alter his game a bit to help give more looks to his teammates and make everyone really better? Will Cheeks prove to be Mary Poppins, or just another one on the long list of nannies who failed to improve the performance of a modern-day NBA version of the Banks' children?j

Can they get along?

The stakes are much higher now. Before, if there was a clash between a coach and a player, Iverson won. Larry Brown hated conflict, team "owner" Pat Croce meddled, and Iverson usually got his way (the team did get to the NBA Finals in Brown's second-to-last year in Philadelphia). As a result, if Iverson couldn't really listen to the coaching of an icon, there was no way Randy Ayers or Chris Ford had a chance. Ford and Iverson clashed big-time, and the result was that Ford did not have the "interim" tag removed two seasons ago. He was gone. Then there came O'Brien, a Philly native but one who was a more anonymous one, than, say, either Jimmy Lynam, Matt Guokas or his father-in-law, Jack Ramsay. It didn't seem that Iverson reallly listened to him, either, although in fairness to A.I. he did show flexibility by agreeing to play the PG position and by passing the ball more (he also shot and missed too much too often). None of these coaches -- including Brown -- had the true fealty of the Philadelphia hoop fans. It's hard to explain, but it's a city where loyalties run deep in the sports world if you showed a certain type of grit -- the type that Mo Cheeks displayed.

Mo Cheeks is a low-key guy, but he has one trump card that his recent predecessors -- including Larry Brown -- did not have. That trump card is the undying fealty of a fan base that not only respects him because he was a key member on the 76ers' last title team (and the last championship that any pro sports team in Philadelphia has won) but also because of the way he went about his business -- with hard work, with class, and with dignity. The Philadelphia 76ers' fans, then, have Mo Cheeks' back the way they have not had anyone else's.

What's the significance of the trump card? A.I. had better play ball with Mo Cheeks, listen to him and, in the twilight of his career, grow up and help make everyone better. No one doubts A.I.'s toughness, his hard work while on the court and his determination. What they doubt is his vision -- on the court and off -- as to how to get a team to the highest level possible. Mo Cheeks has been there, and he can help show A.I. the way. But if A.I. reverts to his traditional A.I. mode, there could be a showdown that may not be of either the key player's or the head coach's making.

A painful showdown, one where, if the behavior of A.I. harms the career or aims of Mo Cheeks, could finally have everyone in Philadelphia siding with the coach.

And perhaps could have A.I. sent to hoops Siberia, playing for the Clippers or Warriors.

Rock beats scissors, star players beat head coaches.

Unless that head coach is such an icon in his city that the franchise could risk serious implosion if any harm comes his way.


Blogger Corey said...

Remember AI signed off on this deal because he and Cheeks developed a great chemistry when Cheeks was Brown's assistant (during Iverson's MVP season no less).

He is probably very, very happy with this move and he seems far more willing to play with his new running buddies -- Korver and Iguodala -- than his new disgrunted teammate (Chris Webber).

11:55 AM  
Blogger Charlottesvillain said...

Great post. It brings back special memories of that 1983 Sixers team. I'll never forget Malone's prediction of 'fo, fo, fo' when asked how many games the next three series would be. It was a prediction that nearly came true. As you say, the highlight films from that year feature Julius, Moses, and maybe some long range bombs from Andrew Toney, but Cheeks brought it all together.

Iverson will never be one of those players. He has great heart, plays hurt, and is capable of tremendous scoring outbursts, and sometimes that has been enough to get to the finals. But to my knowledge there has yet to be a player of above average NBA talent with which he has had anything approaching chemistry.

3:42 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks to both of you for your posts. I'm hopeful that the inking of Cheeks creates a harmonic convergence in Philadelphia that brings another championship to the city. It's hard to say what makes Iverson happy, and it's difficult to understand whether he's thought about the legacy that he'll be leaving. If he has thought about that (as Tiny Archibald did when he got to Boston years ago), then there's hope for the Sixers. That said, AI's track record of getting along with pro coaches isn't a cause for optimism.

6:02 PM  

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