One by one, Oklahoma City Thunder players cleared off the practice court. Rookie two-way guard P.J. Dozier finished a round of free throws; Paul George disappeared through a door after shooting about a hundred corner 3-pointers; and head coach Billy Donovan and Steven Adams walked toward the corner corridor after talking pick-and-roll positioning at midcourt.
Underneath a basket across the court, Russell Westbrook sat on a basketball leaned up against the stanchion. Next to him sat Maurice Cheeks, reclined up against the padding next to Westbrook.
With 2Pac’s “I Get Around” popping through the speakers, they sat alone together in the spacious practice facility, talking. It wasn’t an unusual sight; Westbrook and Cheeks are almost always together after practice.
They routinely compete in free-throw contests against each other — Cheeks wins a lot of them, by the way — and are always connected in conversation.
Knowing what was likely happening in this Westbrook-Cheeks meeting, a couple of staffers couldn’t resist wandering over to join in. Eventually, somehow, a bet was made for Cheeks to race strength trainer Kevin Hyde.
Ready, set, and before “go,” Cheeks took off — a savvy veteran move — and won in a “sprint” from baseline to half-court as Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step” played.
Westbrook, almost assuredly having a hunch, had placed his bet on Cheeks. He roared with pride at his pick.
“Give me my f—ing money!” Westbrook yelled.
The synergy between Westbrook and Cheeks started basically from Day 1, when Cheeks was brought in as a top assistant under Scott Brooks in 2009 with a pretty straightforward job description: Russ.
Westbrook was coming off a rocky rookie season that featured ample criticism, too many turnovers and an outsider belief that he wasn’t actually the team’s point guard of the future. Critics said Westbrook, while he could create moments of brilliance, was too wild to run a team.
Cheeks went to work quickly, building a unique bond that has remained strong for more than a decade. He became the unofficial Westbrook Whisperer.
Even after Cheeks left the Thunder to become head coach of the Detroit Pistons in 2013, he returned to OKC the next season after being fired early in 2014. As a player, Cheeks was known less for flash and more for simple, traditional accolades: poise, demeanor, pass-first, efficient, conservative.
In a lot of ways, he was the anti-Westbrook. He fit the floor general mold and was no stranger to playing alongside big talent and big personalities such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Charles Barkley.
Last December, when Cheeks wasn’t yet named a Hall of Famer, Westbrook made an unprompted pitch for his assistant coach, but not necessarily because of his on-court achievements.
“That’s just the stigma,” Westbrook said of the complicated nature of legacy. “If you won, oh, three championships, then [you’re worthy]. Like, in my opinion, Coach Cheeks — I tell him all the time he should be [in the Hall of Fame] because of the different things he’s done, not just for the game of basketball, but in everything. Like for me, just talking to him.”
Cheeks will be enshrined after being eligible for nearly two decades. While Friday’s ceremony will officially make Cheeks a Hall of Famer, he has been existing in the NBA as a legend for some time. His impact casts a deep, wide shadow, from his mentorship of an MVP and future Hall of Famer in Westbrook, to a viral moment before there were viral moments in 2003, when he graciously spared a young girl from public embarrassment singing the national anthem.
“Just extremely, extremely happy for him,” Westbrook said. “He’s somebody I look up to as a mentor, somebody that’s guided me since I’ve been in the league. He was with me since Day 1 and left and came back [to Oklahoma City].
“Just the unbelievable knowledge he has for the game and the things he did for the game of basketball, playing and coaching, I’m just extremely blessed and honored to be coached by him, and obviously it’s a great honor to be in the Hall of Fame. He’s so deserving of it because he’s done so much for the game.”
Cheeks’ career numbers don’t really pop. He spent 15 years in the NBA, mostly with the Sixers, winning a championship and registering high on all-time steals and assists lists. But he has career averages of 11.1 points and 6.7 assists per game, atypical numbers in terms of Hall of Fame merit.
“I don’t think I’m in here for my numbers,” Cheeks said. “But the reason why I played the game was for my teammates, trying to win, and hopefully people can recognize that.”
There’s a case to be made that Cheeks is as much a Hall of Famer because of his impact on the game of basketball on a larger scale, both as a noble ambassador, but also as a mentor. Back in April, he was answering questions about making the Hall, and coaching Westbrook was referenced.
“Oh, man, I don’t know about that,” Cheeks interrupted with a megawatt smile. “A whole different story there.”
It was all Thabo Sefolosha‘s fault, apparently.
It was late in the third quarter of a game in January 2013 against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Thunder led by 25 at the time.
In a possession that featured zero passes, Westbrook had the ball on the block isolated against a smaller defender. He held the ball. Then he held it some more.
Finally, he put it on the floor, and the dribbles began. Sefolosha made a cut, bringing another defender over to Westbrook’s space. Westbrook hesitated, dribbled some more and was whistled for a five-second violation.
Westbrook slammed the ball into the floor, and like a pot of boiling water left unattended, it was all about to spill over. Westbrook raged in a huddle during a timeout, and Cheeks tried to calm him. Westbrook stomped to the end of the bench; Cheeks followed.
Hunched over his knees, sweat pouring off his brow as his head shook back and forth as Cheeks leaned in, Westbrook popped off the bench, pushed his chair aside, flipped a towel off the back of it and stormed to the tunnel. Cheeks followed.
There aren’t many people who exist on this planet who can wade into the eye of a Westbrook storm and not only live to tell the tale, but calm it.
A few minutes later, Westbrook was back, and (somewhat) under control. It was one of the most public tantrums for Westbrook, happening on national TV with the Inside the NBA crew dissecting it in full detail after.
But it was far from an isolated event. There was one against the Dallas Mavericks in a playoff game in 2011, where Westbrook argued with assistant coach Mark Bryant. Cheeks stepped in to cool the jets. Westbrook is nothing if not emotional and invested, both in games and, quite legendarily, on the practice floor.
For Westbrook, it has always been about controlled chaos, like Pecos Bill trying to rope the cyclone. Cheeks is often the lasso, the intermediary between the method and the madness.
Teammates who have known Westbrook for years rave about his growth as a leader. He has gone through a public evolution, with his mistakes amplified on the biggest stages and under playoff spotlights. But as he has aged, he’s learned to wrangle his outbursts and channel them into positivity.
“He used to get frustrated and go sideways,” Nick Collison said of Westbrook a couple of seasons ago. “But he’s able to now sit down, snap out of it, come back, say something to build some confidence and help the team.”
And without question, Cheeks’ mentorship and measured advice has been part of that process.
“He’s somebody I look up to as a mentor, somebody that’s guided me since I’ve been in the league. He was with me since Day 1.”
Russell Westbrook, on Mo Cheeks’ guidance
Make no mistake, Russell Westbrook deserves the most credit for the development of Russell Westbrook. He’s a tireless worker, still first to the practice gym and routinely one of the last to leave. He has shaped his body and game into those of a superstar through attrition.
But the mental evolution from immature hothead to a leader undoubtedly features the mentorship of Cheeks. Westbrook works with a lot of coaches, and as Cheeks has aged, he doesn’t really do physical drills with him anymore. But Westbrook will routinely interrupt a coach’s meeting to pull Cheeks out to discuss a coverage or strike up a conversation.
“He’s just down-to-earth,” Westbrook said. “We always keep it 100 with each other. He’s always straightforward, always telling me what he sees throughout the game to help me become a better point guard, because he’s obviously one of the greats.
“I always listen and sit down and get all the knowledge I can from him anytime I can. Keep that relationship going, because it’s a great bond that we have, and I cherish it.”
Before every game, Westbrook holds court with a shooting bet, taking a shot from the deep corner out of bounds, rainbow-ing it over the corner of the backboard. There are a lot of staffers involved in the bets to guess how many it’ll take, but the trash talk is almost always between Cheeks and Westbrook.
Westbrook loves to mimic Cheeks’ walking style, and Cheeks has no problem prodding Westbrook for a reckless decision. Thunder staffers often draw proverbial straws to wind Westbrook up before the game, to tweak him in some way that sets off his alarm and gets his motor running hot.
Westbrook is a perfectionist and demands it from everyone around him. He’s a clean freak, so sometimes it’s an equipment manager leaving some clothes on the floor around his chair. Sometimes it’s a staffer showing up just a little late for a pregame workout.
But Cheeks is the master, because as anyone who knows Westbrook says, you have to be able to get punched, and punch back.
When Cheeks was recognized for his Hall of Fame induction before a game against the Warriors last season, he stepped up near midcourt. Westbrook walked behind as Cheeks waved to a standing ovation and made sure to penetrate Cheeks’ line of sight.
“Old ass,” he said.
Cheeks rolled his face into a grin and turned his back to the crowd to say something back. Whatever it was, it stopped Westbrook, now bursting with laughter, in his tracks.
The way only Mo Cheeks can.