SAN ANTONIO — Mo wept.
The stoic exterior Maurice Cheeks displayed for 11 years as the Sixers’ point guard melted away as he left the practice floor Wednesday. Mo wears an Apple Watch to Oklahoma City Thunder practices, so he recognized the number from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame when his watch buzzed. He doesn’t know anyone else from the Springfield, Mass., area code, but he grew to recognize it. He’d been a finalist seven other times.
Cheeks, a Thunder assistant coach, ignored the call. The 2018 class was stacked with point guard finalists such as Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, so Cheeks figured the call wasn’t urgent.
“This is my third time. I recognized the 413 area code,” Cheeks said. “I just waited until practice was over to check my phone.”
He listened to the message as he walked across the gym floor to talk to Thunder head coach Billy Donovan and general manager Sam Presti, but as Cheeks listened, he stopped thinking about the upcoming game. He just stopped, period.
“I made it!” Cheeks shouted.
“I just kind of broke out crying,” Cheeks said.
Mo Cheeks doesn’t shout. Mo Cheeks doesn’t cry.
But then, Mo Cheeks isn’t elected into the Hall of Fame every day, either.
Cheeks, 61, joined Kidd, Nash, Ray Allen and Grant Hill, along with eight others, as part of the 2018 class. He said that Julius Erving, his Sixers teammate on the 1983 championship team, and Billy Cunningham, his Sixers coach, are his early candidates to introduce him.
Kidd, 45, is honored to join him.
“Mo Cheeks is who we all wanted to be,” Kidd said.
Kidd learned to play basketball when point guards were groomed to set up teammates and control the game. Today, in an era of long-range volume-shooters, Kidd’s presence on the ballot and his likelihood of being elected probably improved Cheeks’ candidacy. In his prime years from 1995-2011, Kidd averaged 13.2 points, 9.1 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals.
“Those are far better than my numbers, so I thought it would be tough for me,” Cheeks said.
Cheeks’ numbers aren’t as pedestrian as he portrays them. From 1979-91, Cheeks’ prime, he averaged 12.0 points, 7.2 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 2.2 steals. Cheeks also shot 52.6 percent from the field, an astounding number for a 6-foot-1 player, and his 52.3 career percent is second for NBA players under 6-5, according to NBA.com.
When he retired in 1993, after 15 seasons, his 2,310 steals were more than any player in NBA history (he’s now fifth) and his 7,392 assists ranked fifth (he’s now 12th).
Those numbers helped send him to four NBA all-star games, where his humility often diminished his presence. In 1986, when Celtics coach K.C. Jones coached the Eastern Conference team, Jones asked Cheeks how many minutes he wanted to play. Cheeks replied: “Just run me out there, let my name be called, then take me out.”
He needed no spotlight.
“Other players had more flash to their game. My game was not tailored to all-star games,” Cheeks said. “I think this [Hall of Fame selection] is kind of the same thing.”
Cheeks’ game was tailored to putting great scorers such as Erving, Moses Malone and Andrew Toney in position to score.
“Andrew Toney used to talk all the time about me being a ‘safe’ player,” Cheeks said. “I was trying to get the trust of the coach. I wasn’t going to screw it up by trying to do something I wasn’t capable of doing.”
Cheeks, of course, could have done more. He offered a glimpse of his athleticism at the end of the 1983 NBA Finals, when he punctuated the series sweep of the Lakers with an open-court dunk … with Erving, the league’s premier dunker, flying down the left wing with his hand raised, calling for a pass.
“I didn’t even see Doc,” Cheeks said.
That was 35 years ago, and it’s been 25 years since Cheeks last played, but it’s been only 15 years since his most poignant Hall of Fame moment as a human being. In 2003, Cheeks was the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, who were hosting a playoff game. A 13-year-old girl had won a local contest to sing the national anthem before a playoff game. She froze halfway through.
Cheeks walked to the middle of the floor and helped her finish.
“Even today, when I hear the national anthem, that situation comes to mind,” Cheeks said. “I don’t know what made me go out there. I had seen people struggle with the national anthem before. When she messed up the words, I just reacted. I certainly didn’t think I would have to sing it.”
That was Cheeks’ first stint as a head coach, after six years as an assistant with the Sixers. He returned to Philadelphia as the head coach from 2005-08, then went to the Thunder as an assistant for four years, which helped him become a head coach again in Detroit for the 2013-14 season. He’s been in Oklahoma City since. He has been connected to the NBA for 31 years, ever since the Sixers drafted him in the second round out of West Texas A&M in 1978. He understands the magnitude of enshrinement, and he never chafed.
“I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t get in,” Cheeks said. “The Hall of Fame has these great, great players in there.”
Now, it has one more.
He has received an avalanche of congratulations from all over the country, especially from his Sixers brethren: Erving, Cunningham, Toney, Bobby Jones, and others.
They are delighted that, in his 20th year of eligibility, Cheeks will receive the plaque recognition they believe he deserves … even if he isn’t convinced he deserves it.
A few hours after Cheeks found out he’d made it, the Thunder traveled to San Antonio. He awoke in a the team hotel Thursday at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. He walked to the window and looked out over the city. He said to himself:
“Is this real?”