Star-spangled save: What Maurice Cheeks did for anthem singer in Portland is still remembered

BY DARNELL MAYBERRY, Staff Writer, dmayberry@opubco.com Modified: April 13, 2010 at 4:11 pm •  Published: November 1, 2009
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If you're looking to read a sports story you won't find it in this space.

This is a story about humanity. A tale of how one man, in less than two minutes, inspired millions.

His name is Maurice Cheeks. He just happens to coach basketball. He was hired last summer to serve as an assistant under Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks.

What he did on the night of April 25, 2003, is now remembered simply as the “Maurice Cheeks moment.” It's documented on YouTube, keeping alive the impromptu impact the man had on one teenage girl and countless others throughout the country.

The setting was the Rose Garden, home of the Portland Trail Blazers, who face the Thunder tonight inside the Ford Center. Cheeks was head coach of the Blazers, moments away from the biggest game of his coaching career: a virtual must-win playoff game against a Dallas team that already owned a 2-0 lead in the seven-game series.

A 13-year-old eighth-grade winner of a promotion walked out to center court to perform the National Anthem. She woke up with the flu that day, though, and felt awful as she stood before 20,000 amped fans.

But the aspiring Broadway performer knew the show had to go on.

“O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,” she started.

“What so proudly we hailed, at the starlight's...star...”

Natalie Gilbert nervously chuckled. She tossed her head from side to side, trying to shake it off. Still holding the mic, she raised her right hand and covered her face as embarrassment set in.

The crowd cheered for her to continue, but the little girl was speechless. Out of ideas, she looked to her right, then behind her in search for her father Vince.

“I was turning around looking for anybody to help me,” Gilbert said. “No one did anything.”

She was alone, humiliated. Until Cheeks walked over. The coach put his arm around her, assured her, “It's all right.” He raised the mic to her mouth and helped her remember the words.

Gilbert's confidence slowly returned. The crowd joined in.

“O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming,” sang 20,000 strong, players and coaches included.

All together, they finished with a bang.

“It was like a guardian angel had come and put his arm around my shoulder and helped me get through one of the most difficult experiences I've ever had,” said Gilbert.

Cheeks had no idea the impact his actions would have. But the then 46-year-old coach had a daughter, Maura, just two years older than Gilbert. And Cheeks' heart skipped more than a few beats at the sight of what the little girl was going through.


→When: 6 tonight

→Where: Ford Center

→TV: FSOK (Cox 37)

→Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM; WWLS 640-AM

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