Cheeks returns as Sixers' fixer Jim O'Brien was shown the door after a single tumultuous season.

Posted: May 24, 2005

Billy King spun the 76ers' head coach revolving door again yesterday, pushing out Jim O'Brien after just one season and bringing in Maurice Cheeks, the popular former Sixers player and assistant coach, as O'Brien's replacement.

Nearly three weeks after the Sixers ended their season, King decided to fire O'Brien, who still has two years and $8 million left on the contract he signed when he was hired by the Sixers on April 21, 2004.

Cheeks, who was fired March 2 as head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, is the fourth head coach since King took over as the team's president and general manager on May 26, 2003. That is the same date that Larry Brown resigned from the Sixers after six seasons, the last time coaching stability existed with the team.

Cheeks was a second-round draft choice of the 76ers in 1978 and played for 11 seasons with the team. He was the point guard and floor leader of the Sixers' 1983 NBA title team.

At a news conference last night at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, King said he had the support of Ed Snider, the chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, the team's owner, for his latest moves even though the Sixers will be paying ex-coaches Randy Ayers ($2 million) and O'Brien along with Cheeks next season.

"In talking with Ed, we felt the main focus was that we want to make the right decisions and not let money be the factor," King said. "We think we owe it to our fans and the city of Philadelphia to do that."

Cheeks, 48, a four-time NBA all-star while with the Sixers, was fired from the Blazers, his first head coaching job, in the middle of his fourth season. He led the team to a 162-139 record.

Two years ago, after Brown resigned, King looked to Cheeks to take over as Brown's successor. But the Trail Blazers rebuffed him three times, because Cheeks was still under contract to them. The Sixers then hired Ayers, who lasted 52 games before being replaced by Chris Ford.

King said he decided on Saturday to fire O'Brien, and then checked with Cheeks to see if he'd be interested in the job. Cheeks said he would be, and King called him again yesterday and reached a deal after notifying O'Brien of his decision. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

When King hired O'Brien, he had called him a "perfect fit" for the job. O'Brien did lead the Sixers to a 43-39 record - a 10-win improvement over the previous season - and a playoff berth and coached Allen Iverson to his fourth NBA scoring title.

But in evaluating the season, King said he didn't think the Sixers were heading in the right direction. He had a problem with the team's style of play, which included reliance on the three-point basket and a defense that protected the paint but had trouble getting out on perimeter shooters.

There was also talk that O'Brien was aloof and not communicative with his players. He did not start Samuel Dalembert, a developing young center, until the season's 19th game, and he did not play Willie Green with Iverson for much of the season's final four months because he felt that was a bad matchup defensively.

King said that in his postseason meetings with players, "not one of them said they wouldn't play for Jim . . . that they'd all come back ready to go and try to go further in the playoffs." But other things bothered him.

King said he didn't want to make a snap decision when the season ended on May 3, the day that the Detroit Pistons eliminated the Sixers from the playoffs. He talked to his management team, went on vacation for a week, then made his decision on Saturday.

"In the interview process with Jim, there were a lot of things that we talked about," King said. "But in watching the season, evaluating our young players' development and evaluating our style of play, it wasn't something I was comfortable with."

Reached by telephone yesterday, O'Brien declined to comment.

"I'm not going to have any discussion about this," he said.

King said that when he broke the news yesterday to O'Brien, "He asked why, and I told him that I just felt there were some things that took place that I don't think will change and we're going to make a change. He said, 'Thank you.' "

Snider, who attended King's news conference, said he backed King.

"I really don't question Billy at all," he said. "I know what went on in the process when he made this decision, as well as the decision to hire Jim O'Brien. I've supported his moves, and I still do."

O'Brien was excited to come back to Philadelphia because of his roots in the city. Cheeks, who is expected to speak at a press conference today, is excited to be coming back to Philadelphia because of all the success he enjoyed here as a player, followed by seven seasons as an assistant coach.

"Mo is family," King said. "Mo bleeds 76ers. He bleeds Philadelphia."

He is still the franchise's all-time leader in assists and steals. Cheeks also played with San Antonio, New York, Atlanta and New Jersey before retiring in 1993. Cheeks returned to the Sixers in 1994 as an assistant coach and stayed for seven seasons until the Trail Blazers hired him as head coach on June 27, 2001.

Under Cheeks' guidance, the Blazers made the playoffs in 2002 and 2003, but did not get out of the first round. They missed the postseason in 2004, breaking a streak of 21 consecutive years in the playoffs, and were wracked by dissension.

"I look at Mo Cheeks and I know Mo Cheeks," King said. "If players have problems with Mo Cheeks, then there's got to be something wrong with those players."

Under O'Brien, the former head coach of the Boston Celtics, Iverson moved from shooting guard to point guard and responded with an MVP-caliber season, winning his fourth NBA scoring title.

But O'Brien is gone now. Cheeks is in. And King knows he's being held accountable.

"I look in the mirror every day," King said. "I'm not somebody that's above scrutiny, but I think I try to do the best I can and make the best decisions."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.

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