Stokes' life a tale of tragedy and friendship

Updated: September 13, 2004, 12:12 PM ET
By Bob Carter | Special to ESPN.com

"To see the way he conducted himself, I just stood in awe of him. It got so bad, when I would be having a bad day myself, I would go to see Maurice, selfishly, to say, I want to get pumped up. And he never failed to pump me up," says Jack Twyman.

In the 1950s, his ability to beat opponents to rebounds with his muscular body, quickness and positioning was nearly unparalleled. He averaged more than 20 rebounds per game in college, more than 17 in the NBA. He passed well, too, good enough to be among the NBA's assist leaders, and averaged double figures in scoring.

Maurice Stokes was one of basketball's best forwards then, one of its least-known stars now. Stokes, 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, wasn't around long enough to be remembered like many of his peers. In the final regular-season game of the 1957-58 season, his third year as a pro, the Cincinnati Royals all-star fell to the floor, hit his head and was knocked unconscious.

Three days later, the 24-year-old went into a coma and was permanently paralyzed, his career over. His life, however, wasn't over, thanks mostly to teammate Jack Twyman, who helped to raise money for his medical expenses and became his legal guardian. Twyman started an exhibition game in Stokes' honor and established the Maurice Stokes Foundation to defray hospital costs.

In 1973, three years after Stokes' death, his story was told in the film "Maurie," which starred former football player Bernie Casey. Though few of today's NBA stars know much about Stokes, mid-century players appreciated his game. Bobby Wanzer, who coached and played with him, said, "If things had worked out differently, Maurice would have become one of the top 10 players of all time."

Said Twyman: "No one had seen a guy with that combination of strength, speed and size."

Stokes, who was born on June 17, 1933 in Rankin, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, and Twyman had connections early on. They were high school basketball contemporaries in Pittsburgh, and both showed late development on the court.

The Stokes family - Maurice, his parents, two brothers and twin sister - moved to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh when he was eight. At Westinghouse High School, Stokes was a two-year starter and the team won back-to-back city championships, but he often was overshadowed by teammates. Though he received 10 basketball scholarship offers, some college coaches thought he was too slow.

Twyman, during the same span, failed to make his Central Catholic High School team three times and played only one season before going on to the University of Cincinnati, where he turned into a superb shooter.

At St. Francis College in Loretto, Pa., Stokes became a small-college All-American. He averaged 23.3 points and 22.2 rebounds in his junior year as St. Francis went 22-9 and played in the National Invitation Tournament. As a senior, he led the Frankies to fourth place at the 1955 NIT, where he scored 43 points in a 79-73 overtime loss in the semifinals to Dayton and was named the tournament's MVP. In 1997, a media panel voted him to the all-time NIT team.

The NBA, Harlem Globetrotters and industrial teams pursued Stokes after his senior season. The Rochester Royals chose Stokes No. 2 overall in the 1955 NBA draft - after Milwaukee picked Dick Ricketts of Duquesne - and selected Twyman in the second round. Along with Niagara's Ed Fleming, the Royals' No. 3 pick who was a Westinghouse teammate of Stokes, they drove from Pittsburgh for their first pro training camp.

Stokes made an immediate impact, getting 32 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists in his NBA debut. He went on to average 16.8 points in 1955-56 and a league-best 16.3 rebounds, snatching a franchise-record 38 in one game, and was voted the NBA's Rookie of the Year.

"The first great, athletic power forward," Bob Cousy said years later. "He was Karl Malone with more finesse."

Twyman also became a rookie starter for the Royals and averaged 14.4 points and 6.5 rebounds.

In Stokes' second season, he set an NBA record by grabbing 1,256 rebounds (17.4 per game), ranked third in the league in assists with 331 (4.6 average) and scored 15.6 points a game.

The Royals moved to Cincinnati before the 1957-58 season, and Stokes finished second in rebounding average (18.1) to Bill Russell, third again in assists (6.4), behind only guards Cousy and Dick McGuire, and scored 16.9 points a game.

A 35-percent shooter in his three seasons, he averaged 16.4 points, 17.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Playing 37 minutes a contest in his 202-game career, he was named second-team all-league each year.

"Competitive, hard-nosed, tough," former NBA player and coach Gene Shue described Stokes in 1992. "He was a coach's dream."

The dream career ended tragically on March 12, 1958 in Minneapolis when Stokes drove to the basket against the Lakers, drew contact and fell awkwardly to the floor, hitting his head. Knocked out for several minutes, he was revived with smelling salts and returned to the game.

Three days later, the Royals lost their playoff opener at Detroit, and after a 12-point, 15-rebound performance, Stokes became ill on the team's flight back to Cincinnati. "I feel like I'm going to die," he told a teammate.

When the plane landed, he was taken to a nearby hospital in Covington, Ky., where he remained unconscious for weeks, a quadriplegic. He later was moved to a Cincinnati hospital, his home for six years.

Stokes' illness was first diagnosed as encephalitis. Soon, it was traced to the head injury he suffered against the Lakers. The final diagnosis: post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that damaged his motor control center.

When Stokes' family could not afford the medical bills, stepping up to take charge was Twyman, who lived in Cincinnati. "Things had to be done immediately," he said, "and no one was there to do them but me."

Twyman worked feverishly. He applied to become his friend's legal guardian and a judge granted the request, enabling Twyman to control Stokes' $9,000 bank account and pay some bills. He filed applications so that Stokes received work injury compensation, which helped with his hospitalization, care and medicine.

Later in 1958, Twyman worked to organize an exhibition doubleheader that raised $10,000 for Stokes' expenses. He handled Stokes' mail, including his bills. And though he had a family of his own, Twyman spent countless hours at the hospital with Stokes, who after regaining consciousness could not speak.

Twyman communicated by going through the alphabet, letter by letter, until Stokes, who was mentally alert, blinked in recognition. Slowly, the process spelled out words.

The brain injury had robbed Stokes of his speech, mobility and independence, but not his spirit. He took on a painful regimen of physical therapy, gradually gaining minimal movement in his limbs and joints. His body sweating, Stokes spent hours receiving treatment from therapists and eventually took small steps down the hospital hallway in braces, his large frame supported by nurses.

Though his body suffered spasms and his fingers didn't always go where he wanted, Stokes learned how to type again and how to paint. In a wheelchair, he accompanied Twyman to some of the annual exhibition games in his honor, an event kept alive by Milt Kutsher, who offered up his Catskills resort as a game site. Somehow, after accepting his situation, Stokes kept his sense of humor.

"Stokes lived as a symbol of the best that a man is, despite the terrible things which can happen to him," wrote New York Post columnist Milton Gross. "He was a beautiful man who believed that surrender was not the way, even though he couldn't walk, couldn't talk except agonizingly. And he laughed when he should have cried."

On April 6, 1970, Stokes died of a heart attack. At his request, he was buried at St. Francis. Maurice Stokes was 36.

In September 2004, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

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