MAURICE CHEEKS was on the phone several times with trusted colleagues. Make no mistake, he was hurt. His pride had been rocked. His job as coach of the 76ers had been taken away.

But he still had his remarkable ability to diffuse what might be a painful situation for others. The nervous little laugh was still there. The good-natured one-liners, as they often were, remained his shield.

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"He said he wanted to meet one more time with the staff," said Bernard Smith, who had been Cheeks' assistant in Portland and Philadelphia and who remains one of Cheeks' closest friends. "He said, 'Let's do it tonight.' Then he paused, laughed and said, 'Oh, you've got a game.' Then he said, 'Well, let's do it Sunday . . . Oh, you might have practice.' "

That was a natural defense mechanism kicking in after Cheeks was told by Sixers president/general manager Ed Stefanski that he was being relieved of his duties. Never mind that Stefanski previously had rewarded Cheeks with two 1-year contract extensions in a 7-month period. The team was 9-14, had lost eight of its previous 10 games and had dropped its last five in the Wachovia Center when Stefanski pulled the trigger on Saturday.

Cheeks left for parts unknown for the remainder of the weekend, and is likely to meet with reporters early this week. He will be offered another position in the organization - who knows what? - but it doesn't seem likely that he will accept. It's hard to know what he will do next, but he has been as resilient as his previous Sixers teams; few people thought he would ever be a head coach in the NBA.

It is a career choice that comes with this caveat: You are essentially hired knowing that someday you will be fired. A quick check by Sixers director of statistical information Harvey Pollack showed that just four Sixers coaches in history have left the position of their own volition: Alex Hannum, Jack Ramsay, Larry Brown and Billy Cunningham.

This time, Stefanski turned to senior vice president/assistant general manager Tony DiLeo, and made him the coach for the remainder of the season, starting with Saturday night's 104-89 blowout of the dreadful, 4-17 Washington Wizards. But Stefanski believed the timing was right to fire Cheeks, who is signed through next season, because the Sixers had basically hit a wall. They could perform in bursts, but they couldn't sustain anything at either end of the floor. And left unsaid was the optimal timing for DiLeo, whose first four games would come against the Wizards twice, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Indiana Pacers, all eminently beatable opponents.

"Mo surprised me with a very positive attitude when we talked," Smith said. "But he's like anyone else - he takes pride in what he did. This was saying, 'You didn't get the job done.' "

Smith said seeing Cheeks fired was "an eerie feeling."

"I don't have this opportunity if not for him," Smith said. "He put himself out there for me. He said I could do this job."

On a higher level, Stefanski - with the blessing of chairman Ed Snider and chief operating officer Peter Luukko - said DiLeo, who has been part of the organization in several capacities for 19 years, could do the job Cheeks no longer could. And he kept the full staff in place: Jim Lynam, John Loyer, Jeff Ruland, Aaron McKie and Smith.

The players said all the right things. Some seemed to feel it more than others.

"I played [against the Wizards] with mixed emotions," Willie Green said. "I played with a heavy heart. Tony drafted me, but my heart goes out to Mo. I appreciated the way Mo stood up for us, allowed us to have a say in situations. This [firing] was tough to see."

DiLeo became the fifth coach for whom Green has played as a Sixer, the sixth for Samuel Dalembert.

"We may see more coaches," Green said.

Stefanski made it clear that Cheeks wasn't gone because of two consecutive losses to the powerful Cleveland Cavaliers. Cheeks was, in fact, out after Stefanski had carefully monitored a 10-game stretch. He hadn't seen consistency at either end of the floor. He hadn't seen the team, other than in glimpses, that he believed he had put together to climb the ladder in the Eastern Conference - not as good as the defending champion Boston Celtics, but certainly reasonably competitive with everyone else.

"I believe in this team," Stefanski said. "We are better than this, and we're going to make it better. We will find a way to improve on this team . . . The last 10 games [before Saturday night's victory] were not going the way we wanted this to go. We haven't been able to put that together for a 48-minute period."

Later, he said, "I believe in this team. I'm doing it [changing coaches] also because the season is far from over."

In effect, Stefanski had signed Elton Brand to a 5-year $80 million contract, re-signed Andre Iguodala for 6 years and $80 million, re-signed Lou Williams for 5 years and $25 million, drafted Marreese Speights, filled out the bench with Kareem Rush, Royal Ivey, Theo Ratliff and Donyell Marshall, and the team had inexplicably gotten worse.

The Sixers have struggled to mesh Brand's post skills with the running style that made them one of the darlings of the East down the stretch last season. Brand, in fact, has drawn the double teams everyone anticipated, but he hasn't gotten the perimeter shooting to counter the opponents' schemes. The Sixers are No. 29 both in made threes and three-point percentage. In the last three games, they have been 2-for-12, 1-for-12 and 1-for-10 from beyond the arc; the Cavaliers understood that weakness, the Wizards were too defenseless for it to matter.

"The message for all of us is, everyone in the organization is accountable," Stefanski said. "It's early in the season enough that we're not giving up. We're changing right now. There's a long way to go."

For better or worse, it will be without Maurice Cheeks. *

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