Mo Cheeks and Natalie Gilbert

Randy Leonard

Natalie_gilbert_1One of the big jokes around my house is how “Sports Dumb” I am.

A typical exchange between me and my two twenty something sons, as they are watching a televised football game, goes something like this;

“What inning is it?”

“They don’t have innings in football, Pops. They are called quarters.”

“I want to get a DNA test done on you two. You can’t be related to me.”

But my ignorance of sports notwithstanding, I have grown to deeply respect and admire Mo Cheeks, fired from his job yesterday as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.

If you have ever raised a teenaged daughter, and I have, you know that there are no more volatile organisms on this planet. One learns to choose words carefully when a 13 year old girl lives under the same roof. At 13, a girl begins experiencing the alluring but garish reality of womanhood that draws her away from the security of the family cocoon created by more cautious and experienced protectors. Comfort and familiarity begin clashing with dreams and desires of what could be.

Mo Cheeks, in a moment that epitomizes grace, presence of mind, kindness and chivalry rescued one of these multi conflicted 13 year girls from potentially one of the most humiliating experiences of her young life. And in so doing, Mo earned the heartfelt gratitude of adult protectors everywhere.

As the brave, young Natalie Gilbert stood before a televised crowd at a Blazer game in 2003, she began to sing the national anthem.

But a living nightmare descended from the rafters of the Rose Garden that night and suffocated into silence the hours of practice that Natalie had endured to prepare for her televised performance in front of 20,000 Blazer fans.

She forgot the words.

In how many venues, in how many places and in how many countries would everyone just stare and feel sorry for her?

But not this night in Portland, Oregon.

Out of the silent sea of humanity that stared down at Natalie strode Mo Cheeks. Purposefully, yet gently, he approached the young girl who by now had buried her humiliated face into the microphone. Undoubtedly dying a thousand deaths, she looked up to see the tall, kind man put his arm around her shoulder. With a smile and a comforting arm to support her, Mo turned with Natalie to the awkwardly silent crowd and picked up the song where Natalie left off.

The strength of Mo’s presence flushed out her fear, primed her fibrillating synapses and Natalie began to sing again. Mo Cheeks, because of his instinctive and compassionate presence of mind, saved the dignity of a child that parents throughout America wanted to reach through their television screens and rescue that night.

Moms and Dads everywhere wished this were a world we could safely send our daughters into comforted by the knowledge that a Mo Cheeks would step in to save them whenever the many dangers of life appeared.

I don’t know whether or not firing Mo Cheeks was the right thing to do. I do know that the indignities Mo had to suffer from some of his players boorish behavior must have been exponentially more painful for a Man whose life has been guided and punctuated by the countless acts of grace and dignity Mo Cheeks shows others.

Especially a 13 year old girl named Natalie Gilbert.

  • Todd Birch (unverified)

    Mr. Leonard is usually right about something once every 30 days or so. He seems to have gotten it out of his system early this month.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    Thanks...I think.

  • allehseya (unverified)

    (sigh) .... you made me shed tears -- thanks to your poignant recapping of these events....

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    Very nicely written, Randy. I particularly liked the phrase "fibrillating synapses." A little literary reference to PFR days gone by? :)

    I love sports, and the Gilbert incident was the first thing I thought of when I heard the news. Apparently this was also true of Gilbert's mom, who called her in the middle of geometry class to give her the news:

    I'd rather the Blazers miss the playoffs with 5 guys from Lincoln High, than can the one person with BY FAR more class than anyone else in the organization.

    Anyhow, nice job.

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    I hate OregonLive... Canzano's colum here--

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    Maurice Cheeks is class act, obvious playing 'Sixer's ball and ever since. That's why he was wrong for Paul 'buy a title' Allen's Trailblazers. Coach: good, toyteam: bad. I choose to think they couldn't fire Cheeks, because he quit them two years ago.

    Allen didn't ruin pro ball but he sure was one of the first to push it over the edge and down the slippery slope to its sleazey Vegas-rigged rotting place.

    I love ball. (So I don't watch the TV-travesty of it anymore.) Let's get a game. "Let's play two" -- Ernie Banks.

  • brad (unverified)

    Yes, this was undoubtedly the most memorable positive moment in recent Blazers' history. I found it so typical of the organization that they would fire the one guy the fans actually LIKE and who actually does his job. I'd wish a hex on this team, but obviously someone else got there first, a long time ago.

  • justin (unverified)

    Cheeks was a good guy but not a great coach.

    I think the Blazers did the right thing.

  • Rob Kremer (unverified)

    Mo Cheeks made an eternal fan out of me that day when he rescued Natalie Gilbert from humiliation.

    I have a daughter the exact same age, who is also a serious singer, who has also sang the national anthem in front of large audiences (if anyone went to KXL's last "TalkFest" with Alan Colmes and Tony Snow, you saw my daughter sing it.)

    So when Cheeks did what he did it was not too much a stretch to imagine my own daughter in that very spot.

    What the moment with Natalie Gilbert revealed is that Cheeks is a truly good man. I'm not qualified to judge his coaching ability - I'll leave that to others.

    But I'll be a fan of Mo Cheeks the person forever, not just for what he did that day, but for what it revealed about him.

    Now... On to the next thing....

    Do the Blazers have the sense to hire Terry Porter?

  • Ryan Leonard (unverified)

    "Hey, I like Mo Cheeks." Randy- "Really? I always thought you liked a lil' caboose." "No, no, Mo Cheeks!!" Randy- "Look son, I support you and your choice in the ladies. Sometimes more is, well, better. I respect that." "What? Pop's, I'm talkin' about the Blazers coach." Randy-"Huh? The Blazers? Coach? There's a job out there to show people how to wear coats?" "Sigh. Pop's. The basketball team we have in town. The one with the symbol that nobody knows what it means. Maurice (woooot, woooooooo) Cheeks. He coaches the Trail Blazers." Randy-"Ohhhhhhhhhh, yeah! That guy. He always has nice suits." "Yup". Seriously, good job pop's. Mo was/is a great guy. Good luck to him wherever he winds up. Oh, and about that DNA test....

  • the prof (unverified)

    The Blazers continue their descent into the worst run organization in pro sports.

    Yes, Cheeks probably needed to go. Management has saddled themselves with long term contracts to players whose most productive days are behind them (Ratliff) and other players whose ability to carry the team is questionable (Randolph, Miles).

    Something has to change, and the Coach is the only possibility (although perhaps a new GM ...?).

    Why a cheap shot? At this point, the Blazers have no chance to make the playoffs. So why not just play out the string and decline to renew Cheeks's contract?

    And hey, they already stopped Mo from competing for his dream job in Philly.

    Another low point for the Blazers.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    "Oh, and about that DNA test...."

    I am looking at a serious refund,, Ryan

  • Randy2 (unverified)

    Nice summary of why I think this canning made me scratch my head.

    I'd given up years ago caring about the Blazers. Yet I would always read about Cheeks' actions in trying to run this bunch of overpaid misfits playing a game.. I remember the story well. It made me proud to be associated with the city that had such a man associated with my city.

    My departure from interest in the NBA was gradual. Although I stopped caring about the Blazers, for a few years I did watch the later rounds of playoffs. But even that is gone.

    For my basketball fix now I load up on March madness (although the antics of the Chaneys are tempering my high of college ball... what's next - starting to follow HS ball?).

    I, for one, wish continued misfortunes on the Blazers. There has to be some city out there that would love to take them from us, returning Portland to a town where the real stories of sports glories would be covered by the local paper and the outcomes of professional men playing a game would be reduced to one or two pages of coverage.

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    Sorry, Randy. Mo Cheeks. Nice man. Bad coach. goodbye.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    Steve the Novick- I would expect no less of a Machiavellian observation from the King of Shrewd.

    And, of course, that is meant as the Compliment of compliments!

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