Blazers name Cheeks as head coach

The Portland Trail Blazers introduced Maurice Cheeks as their new head coach, confirming what was accidentally revealed earlier Wednesday night.

Any doubt about whether Cheeks would get the job was erased when the team's first-round draft choice, Zach Randolph, let the secret out shortly after being selected.

Various media outlets reported Wednesday that Cheeks, an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers the past seven years, would be named as the successor to Mike Dunleavy.

Although the Philadelphia media was awaiting a conference call with Cheeks after the draft's conclusion, the Blazers would not confirm the hire. But Randolph, a freshman forward from Michigan State selected at No. 19, inadvertently let it slip.

Asked who he had talked to in the organization after he was selected, Randolph said general manager Bob Whitsitt and "Coach Cheeks."

To the laughter of reporters talking to Randolph on speaker phone, media relations director Sue Carpenter gently admonished Randolph. "I'm sorry!" Randolph said.

Portland is hoping Cheeks, a four-time all-star with the 76ers, can use his Philadelphia bond with Rasheed Wallace to get through to the troubled player, and at the same time turn around a woefully underachieving team.

The Blazers' search dragged on for nearly seven weeks, and was delayed when their first choice, Flip Saunders, turned down a five-year, $30 million offer and stayed with the Minnesota Timberwolves for less money.

Cheeks has no head coaching experience, but he has something that might be more valuable: the respect of Wallace, who was a boy growing up in Philly when Cheeks was the starting point guard for the Sixers.

Wallace, who last season broke his own league record with 41 technical fouls, didn't get along with Dunleavy, especially late in the season as the Blazers were losing 14 of their final 22 regular-season games.

Dunleavy suspended Wallace for one game on April 16, after Wallace threw a towel into the face of teammate Arvydas Sabonis during a dispute. After the game, Wallace argued with his coach and had to be restrained by teammates.

Dunleavy was fired May 8, nine days after Portland was swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Lakers.

Another leading candidate for the Blazers' job was John Lucas, who also had Philadelphia connections and specialized in dealing with troubled players. Lucas interviewed with Whitsitt, but when an offer wasn't forthcoming, he took the Cleveland position.

Cheeks is known as a mild-mannered coach, and Allen Iverson has praised him for helping him mature as a player and a person.

Philadelphia coach Larry Brown said he and GM Billy King gave Cheeks high marks when Portland asked to interview him.

"Billy and I told Bob Whitsitt it's the greatest decision he could make," Brown said.

The Blazers are counting on him to motivate a group of aging veterans and ego-driven former stars who failed spectacularly to reach their pre-season goal of reaching the NBA final. In addition to dealing with Wallace, Cheeks must deal with several other simmering issues:

-- Sabonis, 36, is a free agent and reportedly is deciding whether to retire, play in his native Lithuania or return for another contentious season with the Blazers.

-- Steve Smith, 32, never was happy about being demoted to backup shooting guard behind Bonzi Wells.

-- Scottie Pippen, 35, might not be ready to start over with a new coach, even one who works hard and preaches defence like Cheeks. Pippen also has been injury-prone, and last season he averaged only 11.9 points.

Cheeks had said it would be a difficult decision to leave his beloved Philadelphia.

The city feels the same way about Cheeks, who played 11 of his 15 seasons with the Sixers. He was the league's career steals leader when he retired in 1993.

He was instrumental on the great Philly teams in the early 1980s that also included Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones and Darryl Dawkins. The team won the 1983 title, sweeping the Lakers and going 12-1 in the post-season, a winning percentage that was the NBA's best until the Lakers went 15-1 this year.

By Landon Hall