HIRED TO BE FIRED. It's a staple at every coaching level, accentuated at the highest ones. Six NBA coaches gone already this season. Five NHL coaches gone already, too, although Barry Melrose really shouldn't count.

But Mo Cheeks was really fired when someone else was hired, when Ed Stefanski took over for Billy King. Think about it. The Sixers were 18-30, Stefanski was talking about taking some time to evaluate the team and the coach, and then the team almost inexplicably turned the season around.

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And if it hadn't?

"Had we not gotten to the point where we went to the playoffs last year, this may not have even gotten this far," Cheeks was saying during a news conference yesterday. "Had we not gotten to the playoffs last year, I probably would have been saying goodbye to you guys a long time ago . . . "

Not probably. Definitely. As the roll began last season, compliments for the coach were practically squeezed from the new general manager. What Stefanski would say, countless times, was that he was as surprised as anyone by the team's success, that soon.

He had a different timetable it seemed, a different destiny. The end of last season might have sped that up, or at least heightened anticipation. That became evident in the offseason, when Stefanski freed up enough cap space to lure Elton Brand to the Sixers, luring us into a civic faith that the Sixers were on the precipice of the NBA's elite.

Who wasn't excited?

Cheeks got fired because of that faith, because he believed it, too. The Sixers would run you to death, would post up Brand when you got back to defend in time, and they would suffocate you, as always in the backcourt with their speed and tenacity. That's what Cheeks believed back in training camp, a belief he was still trying to prove when he was let go.

During a 28-minute press conference, Cheeks was asked repeatedly by a radio guy whether he had the players to do that, and repeatedly Cheeks either refused to answer the question, or argued that he did.

"I had some quality, quality players," he said. "They're only going to get better. And characterwise I don't think I could get much better in terms of dealing with me, trying to go out and do what you ask them to do . . . "

That they could not do it, or make much progress trying to do it, that's been this season's Rubik's Cube, the puzzle that got the popular Sixer fired just 23 games into his extended contract. Stefanski even argued upon that dismissal that Cheeks' 2-year extension was a reward for what he had done rather than what he was expected to do.

Hired to be fired indeed.

Still, more was expected from this team. Much more. By Stefanski, by Cheeks, by fans, by the players themselves. And when Cheeks said yesterday, "When you lose games sometimes players get a little down on themselves, get a little down on the coach," you got the sense that he had run out of things to try, or was awfully close.

"Those are natural reactions," he said. "Things are not positive, you get a little down. Those are natural things, things we all have within ourselves."

Sometimes in professional sports, players stop listening, or stop believing. Now your hopes, your waning belief, rides on that premise. You watched the huddles last week, the body language during that second straight loss to Cleveland, and you thought about what Allen Iverson once said: "You can't play for Mo Cheeks, you can't play for anybody."

That's what we're going to find out for the rest of this season. Because no matter how much you like Tony DiLeo, or Stefanski for that matter, there's no getting around the new guy's lack of coaching experience at this level. DiLeo's strength is that he's a new face, a new voice. Maybe he has a better formula than the previous coach. Maybe Cheeks just got lucky on that run last season, and Stefanski knew it then, and now.

Or maybe we all got too giddy, too soon. Maybe we banked just a little too much on the change of general managers, overvalued the potential of young players, got duped by that finish into thinking something had started here.

Maybe we banked just a little too much on Brand's size and statistics, too, ignoring that he has appeared in the playoffs just once in nine previous seasons.

Maybe that's why Cheeks could smile often yesterday, why he could take the high road on his way to Miami for some R & R. Stefanski's Rubik's Cube sits in another man's office now. And in the next 23 games, we should find out if it's simply defective. *

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