Earl Cureton arrived in the NBA in 1980 to a loaded Philadelphia 76ers roster filled with big names and powerful personalities. Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins and Andrew Toney were headline-grabbing stars, but the 76ers also had Doug Collins, Lionel Hollins and Bobby Jones dotting the lineup of a team that won 62 games. By the time they were ready to win a championship two years later, smack in the middle of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era, the Sixers had added another gargantuan talent and outsized personality, Moses Malone.
But it didn’t take the Detroit native long to find out whom another legendary name with a powerful personality, Billy Cunningham, trusted to run his team: Mo Cheeks, a second-round pick out of West Texas State by way of Chicago who was in his third NBA season when Cureton arrived.

“Billy had a lot of confidence in Mo,” Cureton told me Monday from Phoenix, where he serves as an assistant coach with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. “He ran the team. He came from a small college, but we had some high-profile players on that team. To be able to come in there and be able to control the egos and manage the team the way he did, he did a great job of keeping people happy. I think that translates into becoming an NBA coach. He’s really good with players. You never see Mo being too riled up.”

Cureton, who played three seasons with the Pistons after his time in Philly, was a teammate of Joe Dumars’ during the latter’s rookie season. He and the members of the 1983 NBA championship 76ers remain close, he said, with a 30th reunion planned for late July in Las Vegas. He talks frequently to Cheeks and knew of his interest in the Pistons job.

“He thought he was going to be an assistant for a while, but after a couple of years in OKC I think he’s ready to get back at it again,” he said. “Being a head coach gets in your blood. I think this will be a great opportunity for him. I want to see the Pistons come back and have a quality team and I think he’ll be the perfect coach at the right time to do it.”

Though the Pistons will have the cap space to make significant off-season additions via trade or free agency, with young players like Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond they will remain in need of a nurturing presence who can safeguard their development. Cureton thinks Joe Dumars found the ideal candidate in that regard.