When NBA coaches lose their jobs, it isn’t quite as shocking or gut-wrenching as when Republic Windows suddenly shuts down or AT&T lays off thousands of ordinary folks. Even so, when I heard yesterday that Philadelphia 76ers head coach Maurice Cheeks had been fired, I felt a twinge of sadness. Don’t misunderstand me; I’ve never been a big fan of the 76ers or any of the basketball teams Cheeks has coached or played for. (I’m a hopelessly devoted Bulls fan.) But Maurice Cheeks has always struck me as a humble and genuinely good man.
My respect for Maurice Cheeks increased back in 2003 when he was coaching the Portland Trailblazers. A 13-year-old girl had won the honor of singing the National Anthem before a big playoff game, but she forgot the words about halfway through. (I have to confess, I’ve never been able to successfully retain all the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” in my head either.) As the young girl stands there with the microphone shaking in her hand, clearly humiliated but not knowing how to regroup, Cheeks suddenly swoops in beside her, feeds her the lyrics, and stands there with her until she completes the song. It was a powerful moment that spoke volumes about what it means to be an American—and what it means to love your neighbor.
I’ll never forget Cheeks’s bold act of compassion and grace. I can only hope that I will have the same presence of mind to help someone in need, in the daily opportunities that I’m given to do so, the way Maurice Cheeks reached out to that young lady five years ago.