No Mo' Mo? Maurice Cheeks is getting signals that the Blazers want him to leave

April 04, 2004

Will Maurice Cheeks return to the Trail Blazers? The popular
coach has done his best work this year: At week's end the surging
Blazers (37-35) were within a half-game of the Jazz for the
eighth playoff spot, despite a series of in-season trades that
have forced Cheeks to reshuffle his lineup three times. But
according to two of his friends in the NBA, Cheeks has spent the
past month wondering if the team is pushing him out the door by
encouraging him to pursue the 76ers job this summer.

The friends say that an hour before Portland's Feb. 17 loss to
the Lakers in L.A., G.M. John Nash told Cheeks that he would
probably be given permission to interview with Philadelphia as a
potential replacement for Randy Ayers, who had been fired on Feb.
10. (Chris Ford is the Sixers' interim coach, but he is not
expected to return next season.) A few weeks later Nash again
mentioned that potential move to Cheeks, a former star in Philly
who was an assistant there for seven years before coming to
Portland in 2001. In neither case had Cheeks asked for such

Rumors have swirled that Nash is interested in bringing in Jim
O'Brien, the former Celtics coach. "You can imagine how this
makes Maurice feel," says one of his friends, an Eastern
Conference official. "Here he is trying to deal with a very
difficult team, and at the same time his boss is saying, Maybe
you should be looking for another job."

Nash and Cheeks declined to talk to SI about their meetings.
Though Cheeks was disappointed that the team barred him from
interviewing with the Sixers last summer, he maintains that he
isn't eager to leave Portland, where, according to the club's
marketing surveys, he is the most popular Blazer. "I love the
area, I love the team, I love the people," says Cheeks, whose
contract runs through next season, with a team option for

Cheeks may no longer be the 76ers' top choice: After Ayers's
failure the feeling around the league is that they may prefer a
stern X's-and-O's technician like Mike Fratello. "I'm not a great
basketball coach yet," admits Cheeks. But he is a relationship
builder and a quiet leader by example, and that makes him perfect
for the Blazers, who may enter next season with six players 23 or
younger. Cheeks's calming influence will be especially crucial to
the continued development of 22-year-old power forward Zach
Randolph, who has blossomed into the favorite for the league's
Most Improved Player award. "I hope Maurice stays, and I hope the
Blazers don't let him talk to Philadelphia," says veteran point
guard Damon Stoudamire, who with Cheeks's support has
rehabilitated himself after several marijuana arrests to become a
team leader this season.

It may be that Nash, by facilitating his coach's return to the
76ers, is simply trying to do the right thing by Cheeks. If
that's the case, the two should meet to clear the air. Then owner
Paul Allen, a Cheeks supporter, should offer him a lengthy
extension to prove that the franchise is committed to a coach who
has been a tower of strength during often troubled times.

COLOR PHOTO: JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Cheeks's steady hand has worked wonders with the up-and-down Stoudamire (3). COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (STOUDAMIRE) [See caption above]