He was a great player for a great team, the Dr. J Sixers of the early '80s, a squad that arguably set the stage for the NBA's dramatic burst in popularity. He played point guard, the position that demands the most understanding of the game's theory and practice. Unlike some former players handed head coaching assignments on gilded platters--Isiah Thomas, come on down!--Cheeks sweated his way to top. He pulled apprenticeship duty in the CBA, then spent seven years as an assistant with his old club in Philly. Current Sixers coach Larry Brown, who has hired a few assistants in his time, sings Cheeks' praises to the sky. So far in Portland, the newly minted coach has said the right things, promising to bring sanity and discipline to a team that lost both in the Great Collapse of 2001.
This much you know. The accounts of Cheeks' arrival in Portland have largely been celebratory, as fans and reporters welcome the true end of the tortured Mike Dunleavy era. There's another facet of the situation, however, around which everyone treads lightly: Cheeks is the Blazers' first black head coach. As if the team itself weren't enough of a challenge, Cheeks faces an additional set of obstacles--mostly unspoken (though not unwhispered) prejudices, assumptions and expectations that go along with this not-incidental fact.
Throughout the Blazers' long-running quest to replace Dunleavy, reports hinted that some players were campaigning behind the scenes for an African-American boss. No one has seen fit to dam this undercurrent to the coaching story, and, if true, it raises a host of interesting issues. Would it be OK for white players to agitate for a white coach? What are the backroom politics of the Sacramento Kings, what with their Serbian voting bloc?
Regardless of the players' wishes, however, the muted public and media response to the issue is a separate matter, more instructive on the charged subject of race in the NBA. Reporters talk in code about the need for a coach who can "relate to today's player," but no one questions the central premise that many of those players have become so different that only a coach who shares their skin color can reach them. On a large scale, this assumption says a lot about the abiding predicament of the NBA, a league in which 70 percent of the players are black and, according to a 1997 Washington University study, 85 percent of arena crowds are white. On a more intimate level, it says a lot about the public expectations for Cheeks, who must try to pull the fractious Blazers onto the same page.
It is fashionable for moralizing sports writers to exalt the virtues of past players at the expense of the NBA's current Hip-Hop Nation workforce. There is a mass of older fans and writers, black and white, for whom Allen Iverson's neck tattoos and questionable taste in rap music will always be too freaky--Ralph Ellison could have written a third book about the reaction to a Sports Illustrated cover shot of a shirtless Iverson this year.
The fact is, however, that the practice of treating professional athletes as a dubious Other, simultaneously admired and shunned, goes back to the dawn of modern pro sports. Basketball, the inner-city game, has proven especially fertile soil for stereotypes.
As Portland writer Jon Entine pointed out in a recent article for Salon, when Jewish players dominated basketball in the '20s and '30s, sportswriters cited their "Oriental background" and "trickiness" to explain their prowess. As recently as the late '70s and early '80s--Cheeks' playing days, coincidentally--the NBA lingered in the shadows, its Afroed players way too black for Middle American consumption.
Such history notwithstanding, it is a shame that color has to color Cheeks' palpable credentials for the Blazers job. Here's hoping that the team will give a performance worthy of its debutant coach, and compile a record that kicks all the sideways talk about "communicating with today's player" (including that backchannel chatter from the bench) to the curb.
Cheeks, incidentally, was unavailable for comment.
According to the 1998 Report Card on Racial and Gender Equity by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, the NBA has the best track record for minority hiring among major U.S. sports leagues.
You can download the report at www.sportinsociety.org . The 2000 report is due soon.
Jon Entine authored the controversial book Taboo, an examination of the genetics of sports.