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

BY DARNELL MAYBERRY, Staff Writer, Modified: April 13, 2010 at 4:11 pm •  Published: November 1, 2009
“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.”