By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
USTA.com’s celebration of Black History Month extends beyond the baseline and onto the basketball court, as we caught up with four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Maurice Cheeks about both his hoops career and his other sports obsession: Professional tennis. A hardcore fan for many years, Cheeks attends the US Open annually in New York City, plays recreationally and tunes in to tennis coverage as much as possible while criss-crossing the country during the NBA season. Growing up in the Chicago projects, Cheeks lists tennis icon Arthur Ashe as one of his inspirations to go forth and succeed as an athlete.
The 55-year-old Cheeks was one of the NBA’s most dynamic point guards in the 1980’s, running the offense for the 1983 world champion Philadelphia 76ers alongside hall-of-famers Julius Erving and Moses Malone. A durable, high-energy player, Cheeks still ranks in the NBA’S top 10 in career steals (5th) and assists (10th) during his 15 seasons in the league and was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team four times.
Having spent the majority of his prime playing years with the 76ers – 11 years, with three trips to the NBA Finals – Cheeks was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. Other inductees from the tennis world include multi-time US Open champions Bill Tilden and Vic Seixas, along with Ora Washington, one of the early African-American pioneers in the sport and eight-time American Tennis Association (ATA) national women’s singles champion in the 1920’s and 30’s.
Now retired, Cheeks serves as an assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who head into the 2012 NBA All-Star weekend with a league-best 27-7 record. Previously, Cheeks served as head coach of both the Portland Trail Blazers (2001-05) and 76ers (2005-08).
USTA.com: How long have you been attending the matches in Flushing at the US Open?
Maurice Cheeks: Wow, let me think… probably about 10 years ago, maybe a little further back, was when I first started going. I find it’s easy for me to come in from Philadelphia, taking the train. Roger Federer is my favorite player and I love watching him, but I’ll stay and watch all the matches I can. I don’t discriminate. I just love going and seeing world-class tennis. I can’t wait to go back this year.
USTA.com: Do you have a favorite Open memory?
MC: I’ve been a huge Serena (Williams) and Venus (Williams) fan since they came onto the scene, so I’ve enjoyed watching them progress over the years. It’s a great sport, and a shame I’m not particularly good at it! (Laughs) There were courts outside our house and my brothers and I would play because it was good exercise, got us running around. We would learn the game by watching tournaments like the US Open on television, how to keep score. There’s a real joy we got from being active with tennis – but I talk a better game than I can play.
USTA.com: How heavy do you follow the tennis calendar?
MC: Well, I’ll always watch the (Grand) Slams, whether in person like the US Open or on television. I’ve never been to the French Open, but I’d like to. I went to the Key Biscayne event, where all the major players were playing one year in March. Went every day, saw them all. I met Richard Williams, Serena and Venus’s dad, one day and we had a chance to talk tennis a bit.
USTA.com: During your playing days, were there other basketball players like yourself who had a love for tennis?
MC: You know, I don’t think there were a lot of guys who got into it. I’d hear a few of the guys talk about the majors because they were on television, maybe. Its different now – today, like when you go to the US Open, you’ll see players walking around the grounds and getting into the matches, particularly the ones in New York.
USTA.com: Does anyone from the Thunder get into tennis?
MC: There’s a couple of people on the staff here who play and talking about playing, and now they want to take me on and see me play. Like I said, I talk a bigger game right now than I can bring!
USTA.com: With where America was when you were growing up – right in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement – to what extent did high-profile black athletes resonate in your mind?
MC: I would say Arthur Ashe, watching him play – it wasn’t like now when sports television is always readily available – his face and his name was something that had never been seen. Arthur playing meant that we, as African-Americans, were playing. When he wore the short shorts, we wore the short shorts. He provided me a vision, for sure. What he did helped tennis tremendously.
Basketball and tennis traditionally don’t go together – you have one basketball and you can play either on your own or with a group of seven or so people. With tennis, you had to go out get a racquet, buy balls, make sure you had someone else to partner up with. I know in my experience we had to wait until we were a little older to have access to those type of things, whereas basketball was always around when we were younger.
USTA.com: On a personal level, what does it mean to you to be considered a successful African-American athlete and now a coach?
MC: Where I come from, in terms of the way I grew up… its huge. Just for people, kids to see where I came from in Chicago and the environment that I was in and to then see where I am now gives hope to other people. The main thing is to know that our environment does not define us and all we have to do is keep striving. We can make it. I don’t know if my example is particularly uncommon or amazing - plenty of others who have overcome a bad environment- but then that’s a good thing in itself because people then have more evidence to believe that they can make it and be successful as well.
USTA.com: Who else did you identify with in sports?
MC: My main guy in basketball was Walt Frazier – I loved watching him. The things he did, the way he did them… I focused hard upon him, because he was like no other basketball star I had ever seen until that point. He was a flamboyant guy – come to think of it, he still is – off the court but on the court he was so different: Kind of quiet, but so smooth in his play.
USTA.com: Let’s jump into basketball a bit more: Your team in Oklahoma City is one of the best young squads in the NBA. As someone who has been on an NBA championship team, does this Thunder team remind you of those early Philadelphia clubs?
MC: Well if we go way back then, the dynamics are a little different. On those 76er teams, in those years, players really focused on their specialty – whether it be point guard play or centers. The teams in the NBA now, like the Thunder, have rosters full of guys who can do a little bit of everything. I probably couldn’t do some of things at anywhere near the level that (Thunder All-Star guard) Russell Westbrook does on a day-to-day basis. Even the sixth men off the bench – for our Sixer teams, it was Bobby Jones who was primarily a defender, and then compare that to James Harden here in Oklahoma City who is a major scoring threat and can really pass the ball effectively, in addition to providing defense.
I think we have a chance of winning a championship - and if we do, it’ll be totally different in the way teams did it a generation ago. Its simply a different style.
USTA.com: You mentioned that basketball and tennis don’t exactly align, but let’s get your opinion on what it takes to win. In your mind, which is harder to do: Winning an NBA Championship or a Grand Slam?
MC: That is a great question. Wow… well, obviously I have never been in that tennis realm, with the Federers, the Novak Djokovics and the Williams sisters. I do know that in tennis, having watched it and studied it enough, you’re solely responsible for your success and failure. In basketball, you rely so much on others: Someone ultimately needs to pass you the ball, someone will need to set a pick or help out defensively. Another will need you to pass it to them, and then another will have to rebound the ball. Totally different, but equally as hard, I think. Both require tremendous athleticism. I’d imagine the achievements would be equally satisfying for almost opposite reasons.
USTA.com: Anyone in the tennis game right now who could come in and maybe have a shot to make a living in professional basketball?
MC: Oh shoot… you know, off the top of my head, I know John Isner is something like 6 foot 10 inches. The way he covers a court, his size; being so tall and powerful, I’d imagine that is a big part of why he’s successful.
USTA.com: Let’s continue the unlikely basketball/tennis marriage in asking which NBA player in your mind could have a second career if he played tennis.
MC: Having watched Russell (Westbrook) for a few years now, I think with his athleticism that he could cover so much ground and get to any ball. Then, of course, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, or a Chris Paul type, definitely Derrick Rose… it’d be so hard to isolate one single guy because they’re such elite athletes. Another one: Kobe Bryant probably would practice and practice and not leave the court until he figured out how to be the absolute best.
Now having said all that, my thinking is that you could never take a novice player, or a guy off the street, and have him or her match up against a tennis pro’s serve. With basketball – and I’ve had many arguments with people in the game – I think that if you have at least some level of basketball experience, you might look overmatched but you could get in a game and play with NBA players. In tennis? That I don’t know... I wouldn’t think so.
USTA.com: Let’s play a bit of word association, giving us the first thing that comes to your mind.
MC: All right, you got it.
USTA.com: Serena Williams.
USTA.com: Venus Williams.
USTA.com: Arthur Ashe.
USTA.com: Althea Gibson.
USTA.com: James Blake.
USTA.com: Maurice Cheeks.
MC: (Laughs) You can’t do that to me! That’s like voting for your own players for the All-Star team! Ha, I don’t know… "survivor."