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.
“This girl was young,” Cheeks said. “She was 13. That could have ruined her.”
Instead it encouraged her. Taught her to fight.
Gilbert, now 20, is a student at the American Musical Theater Workshop in Glendale, Calif. She wants to begin auditioning for Broadway shows in another year.
“Just to give her another opportunity is big for me,” Cheeks said.
The gesture gained national attention. Cheeks and Gilbert appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and were interviewed by CNN. Gilbert also did interviews with Good Morning America and ESPN.
To this day, Cheeks and Gilbert are still asked about it. A 40-something man approached Cheeks in the team's Memphis hotel in early October before the Thunder played a preseason game against the Grizzlies and told him he always will remember what he did for Gilbert.
“It was more than just an event. It was a touching event,” said former NBA coach Del Harris, an assistant with the Mavericks that season who walked into Cheeks' office teary-eyed after the game. “Anybody that has any feelings at all had to have an emotional reaction.”
Ask anyone who runs in NBA circles about the moment and they'll tell you it characterizes Cheeks, the former point guard who was the calming force on a star-studded Philadelphia 76ers team that won the 1983 NBA championship.
In Oklahoma City, Cheeks represents the type of people the Thunder organization targets and the kind the league alludes to with its “NBA Cares” campaign.
“No question that was a special moment. But that's who he is,” said Brooks, who's known Cheeks since 1987. “He's a guy that has high character. I'm lucky that I have him.”
Harris, who retired this past summer after 50 years of coaching, remembered Cheeks going out of his way to get his cell phone number from former teammate Moses Malone just so he could pay his respects.
Cheeks, a modest man who deflects credit, points to his parents for molding him into who he is today.
“I was brought up the right way by my mother and my father,” Cheeks said. “We didn't have the best life. But they instilled in us to treat people the right way. That's all that is. It's no secret. It's no recipe to it. It's just treating people correctly, and if you do it correctly it'll come back to you.”