Mo Cheeks: quiet catalyst of the 76ers

By the time this year's National Basketball Association championship playoffs are over, center Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers may be better known than the President of the United States, if he isn't already!

But another Philadelphia player who deserves almost as much recognition, although he seldom gets it, is guard Maurice (Mo)Cheeks, who is usually overshadowed not only by Malone but by Julius Erving and Andrew Toney as well.

These three got the headlines again Wednesday night (Malone 28 points, 17 rebounds; Toney 30 points; and Dr. J. 24) as the 76ers defeated Milwaukee 115- 103 to clinch the Eastern Conference title and earn their fourth trip to the championship finals in the last seven years. But as always Cheeks was just as valuable in his own less noticeable way, scoring 11 points, dishing off eight assists, and playing his usual steady floor game.

Basically, Maurice orchestrates Philadelphia's offense, choreographs its defense, and provides the kind of leadership on court that never shows in the box score. While 20 points a game are not beyond his capabilities, that's not what the 76ers need from him to win consistently.

When you've got three scorers out there like Malone, Erving, and Toney, you'd better have someone who can bring the ball upcourt, make the plays, and control the pace of the game. In Cheeks, the 76ers have someone who doesn't need a week to think about these things. He does them instinctively.

If you're still wondering how valuable Maurice's talents are to Philadelphia, consider how often he handles the ball on the break. In practice, he likes to see every play run to its conclusion, the same way a coach would. And he doesn't miss planes, commit a lot of senseless fouls, or complain about management.

Even though the 76ers, with a power center like Malone going for them, don't need a lot of set plays, they do need a lot of options. Cheeks is the floor leader who decides what those options will be. He is also great at getting the ball to the player best able to do something with it. In fact, his 543 assists this year were 176 more than his closest teammate had.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that Cheeks was only the 36th player taken in the NBA's 1978 college draft, behind such names as Harry Davis, Greg Bunch, and Tom Green, all of whom became famous for their anonymity. But actually, after talking to assistant coach Jack McMahon, you realize Maurice might have gone undiscovered in an earlier era.

''Years ago, when NBA teams didn't blanket-scout schools the way they do now, a kid like Cheeks might have been missed,'' McMahon explained. ''The first time I watched Maurice play for West Texas State, all he showed me was quickness, plus he knew how to pass the ball.Even if the jump shot was there, he'd ignore it and try to get the ball inside to one of his teammates.

''After the game, when I asked a reporter if he knew why Cheeks didn't shoot more, he told me that the coach didn't consider shooting part of Maurice's job, '' Jack continued. ''Actually this coach had a rule that no one on his team could take a jumper if he was more than 15 feet from the basket. It wasn't until I saw Cheeks in a post-season, all-star game that we decided to make him our second-round draft pick.''

As far as playing time was concerned, the 6 ft. 1 in. Cheeks was never really a rookie with the 76ers. His first year in the league (1978-79) he played in all 82 games; shot 51 percent from the floor; and gradually began handling the ball more and more in clutch situations.

Cheeks's continued improvement was the chief reason Philadelphia decided to trade guard World B. Free to the San Diego Clippers for a future draft choice. Although Free, now with Cleveland, remains one of the league's top scorers and showmen, Maurice fits the team concept of pro basketball so much better than the flashy World that the 76ers have never regretted the move.

Basically there are two kinds of passers in the NBA: those who throw for show , and those whose passes lead to a fast break or a quick basket underneath. Cheeks, of course, belongs with the second group.

Probably the most appealing thing about Maurice to Philadelphia head coach Billy Cunningham is his steadiness. He's the same every night.

Besides getting everyone involved in the offense and playing the tough defense, he's what pro basketball experts call an adjuster. That is, if Toney is having an off night as a shooter, Maurice will increase his offense to take up the slack. And if the hour is late, and the game is on the line, and the only way to score is to get the ball inside to Malone, Cheeks has the finesse and the patience to do it.

Of course the world may not know this, but all of Maurice's Philadelphia teammates will gladly testify to his importance to a club that played .793 basketball this season, has rolled through its first two playoff tests in easy fashion, sweeping the New York Knicks 4-0 and routing the Bucks 4-1, and will now meet the winner of the Western Conference finals (Los Angeles leads San Antonio 3-2 with Game 6 tonight in San Antonio) in the championship series beginning next week.

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