As a newspaper columnist for more than three decades, I had the opportunity to champion numerous causes. One of my prouder moments was joining Jack Twyman’s campaign to get former basketball great Maurice Stokes inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
I got to know Twyman, who passed away the other day, while writing a retrospective about Stokes for my old newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, about a decade ago. Stokes was a transformative player for the old Rochester and Cincinnati Royals whose career was tragically cut short when he became paralyzed and unable to speak after crashing his head against the hardwood while pulling down a rebound in a 1958 NBA game.
Stokes would remain paralyzed for the rest of his life (he died at age 36 in 1970), but he regained his ability to communicate by using a special typewriter and flashing that trademark smile of his – the one with enough wattage to light up a basketball arena.
Stokes became an inspiration to all.
As did Twyman, his former teammate and friend.
Twyman was a superb player who also would earn induction into the Hall of Fame. But like the man he will forever be associated with, Jack made a more powerful and meaningful impact away from the court.
At the tender age of 24, he showed us the true meaning of friendship.
That’s when he became Stokes’ legal guardian and welcomed him into his family. Jack tirelessly battled for Stokes to be awarded worker’s compensation, and in order to defray the exorbitant medical and rehabilitation expenses, he also started an annual NBA charity game that was played at Kutsher’s resort in the Catskills and annually attracted the likes of megastars Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
“There was nothing heroic about what I did,’’ Twyman told me in a 2004 interview. “A friend was in need and I just did what any friend would have done in that situation. I became his advocate. It was Maurice who was the hero.”
Stokes had been a player ahead of his time – a muscular 6-foot-8, 250-pound power forward who was destined for superstardom before his unfortunate accident just 202 games into his NBA career. An indication of just how good he was occurred during his pro debut at the Rochester War Memorial on Nov. 5, 1955 when scored 32 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and assisted on eight other baskets. As I wrote in a retrospective a few years ago, “It was a Magic night before anyone ever heard of Earvin Johnson; a glimpse into the future.”
Stokes, who had been a consensus All-American at St. Francis (Pa.) College, would go on to earn NBA Rookie of the Year honors with the Royals that season. In his second year, he established a league record for rebounds in a season. In year three he hauled in 38 rebounds in a single game and earned All-Star honors for a third time.
“The sky would have been the limit for Maurice as far as basketball was concerned,’’ Twyman told me. “In my mind, he would have been one of the five best (basketball players of all-time). He could play every position, and do it all. He could start the fast break and finish it, too. No one had seen a guy with that combination of strength and speed and size before. There were nights when he was unstoppable.”
The more I spoke to Twyman and other basketball greats about Stokes, the more convinced I became that he belonged in the Hall of Fame. I wrote several stories and columns about this historical oversight, and Twyman used those along with testimonials from many others to make a case for his friend.
In 2004, the committee of voters took a more indepth look at Stokes’ marvelous college career – he put tiny St. Francis on the map – and his brief but brilliant pro career – he averaged 16.4 points, 17.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.
I was grateful that my paper sent me to Springfield, Mass. to cover Stokes’ induction that fall. It gave me an opportunity to see Twyman again. I told him I admired his persistence and perseverance on Stokes’ behalf. And he thanked me for helping make sure history did not forget his friend.
I thought about that wonderful moment when I heard the news of Jack’s death at age 79 after a long battle with cancer. He truly was a Good Samaritan; a man who defined the meaning of friendship.