Twyman and Stokes story a hope for humanity

It’s the greatest story never really told.

Jack Twyman’s care for paralyzed teammate Maurice Stokes was the subject of a movie, though almost 40 years ago. It’s a subject familiar to many who know and are around the NBA. But its significance on NBA history and the absolutely remarkable humanitarianism of Twyman may make it one of the most important stories in NBA and American sports history.

Twyman, 78, a Hall of Famer who along with Wilt Chamberlain were the first NBA players to average 30 points in a season, died last week. And though Twyman last shot a basketball in the NBA 46 years ago, his influence and inspiration are perhaps as great as anyone who ever has played the game.

Twyman’s care of paralyzed teammate Stokes, one of the premier players of the first great era of the NBA, was a truly amazing story, the best sports story I’ve ever heard.

Twyman would become Stokes’ guardian at a time Twyman was not only playing pro ball for the Cincinnati Royals, but having a full time job selling insurance to support his family and care for Stokes and sharing local TV nighttime sports duties with Ted Kluszewski of the baseball Redlegs. After retiring, Twyman would become a national TV broadcaster for NBA games and a successful local businessman.

Has a teammate in any sport ever given more of himself and unselfishly to provide for a friend in need? It’s a model for every charitable effort over the years in sports. And at a time in the south when black teammates on the Royals could still not stay in the same hotels and eat in the same restaurants.

But beyond that, Twyman’s actions on behalf of Stokes were the foundation for the NBA to become a profession that included the care and treatment of NBA players.

Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman

Maurice Stokes (r) of the Cincinnati Royals talks over a few things with teammate Jack Twyman while resting in the hospital in 1958.
(Photo by NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images)

When Stokes became paralyzed from post traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury, in the final game of the 1957-58 regular season after hitting his head in a fall, the Royals were being sold. They offered no help for Stokes. Nor did the NBA. The league provided no health insurance or pension plan.

So Twyman began raising money for his care and the NBA players began the labor movement that has helped lead to the riches the game enjoys today with their simple act of defiance in threatening to boycott the 1964 All-Star game in Boston unless the owners finally considered benefits.

Twyman would say Stokes’ injury was an eye opener for everyone something of “There but for the grace of God go I.”

It was part of a coming together of the league, a true family of sport. The Kutcher family, who owned a resort in the Catskills in upstate New York, offered to host an annual charity game that became one of the great events of the NBA season for decades. The first one in 1958 to raise money for Stokes drew 65 players at a time there were eight teams and fewer than 90 players in the entire league. Wilt Chamberlain was playing for the Globetrotters in Europe and chartered his own plane to return for the event.

“I was the privileged one to be exposed to Maurice,” I remember Twyman saying when I once asked him about it. “I witnessed courage every day.”

Twyman was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, and then he was the obvious one to make the speech for Stokes when Stokes was enshrined in the Class of 2004.

In that speech, Twyman marveled at Stokes’ courage. He said despite spending almost 12 years in the hospital, Stokes never failed to vote in a local, state or national election and happily did physical therapy daily for nine hours.

“Never in 12 years did I see him depressed or angry or ‘Why me?’ or ‘How did this happen?’” Twyman said at the Hall of Fame in 2004. “He looked forward to a new day every day. He was an amazing person. It was an unbelievable opportunity for me to be exposed to this man and see what he was made of. He inspired everybody who came in contact with him.”

And so did Jack Twyman.

Twyman was born in Pittsburgh and was your classic late bloomer. He didn’t even make his high school team until his senior year. But he would develop one of the first jump shots of the era. He went to the University of Cincinnati and would be drafted by the Rochester Royals in 1955 after their top pick, Maurice Stokes.

Now that was a player. Stokes was a rare 6-7, 240 pound athletic powerhouse in that era from little St. Francis in Pennsylvania.

“He was better than (Elgin) Baylor,” said former Bull Chet Walker, who is being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this year. “I used to watch him all the time (growing up). He was physical and played like Baylor. He could put the ball on the floor and hang in the air. Could shoot. Tremendous player.”

Stokes was rookie of the year and would have a 38-rebound game that season. He had 32 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists in his first NBA game. In his second season, Stokes set an NBA record for rebounds. He would play just three years in the NBA, but in his third season almost averaged a triple double with 16.4 points, 17.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists as he was one of the best passers in the game. Stokes was third in the league in assists that third and what be his final NBA season. Hall of Famer Wayne Embry, a teammate, said he always used to tell Bill Russell the Celtic wouldn’t have half the titles they did if Stokes hadn’t been disabled.

That was what seemed like nothing special at the time, Stokes going over an opponent and landing on his head. Getting your bell rung, as they said then. Stokes was out, but regained consciousness and stayed in the game. It was the last one of the regular season. The team then headed for Detroit for the first playoff game. Stokes had 12 points and 15 rebounds, not a great game for him, and said he didn’t feel well. He became violently ill on the plane ride back to Cincinnati. They took Stokes to a hospital. He went into a coma and was paralyzed, not even able to speak. Stokes was 24.

Something had to be done as Stokes had $9,000 from his three years as a pro. Twyman simply said a teammate was in need, so he did something.

But it was a different era in many ways. Players all had other jobs to support their families, and if there ever was a love of the game era that was it.

“They carried their own bags, lousy transportation and accommodations,” recalled Michael O’Daniel, a Royals staffer from that era. “It was for the love of the game and to have a good time. Jack had a fulltime job selling insurance. And he was raising a family. But they were the people who helped build the league.”

O’Daniel said Twyman was a remarkably humble man who helped recruit Oscar Robertson to the University of Cincinnati and then gave up his role of top scorer for Robertson on the Royals.

“His scoring began to go down every year, and all I remember him saying was he’d do whatever he could to help the team,” O’Daniel said.

Embry recalls his rookie season and Twyman taking he and fellow rookie Bucky Bockhorn in and teaching them about the league. When Bockhorn blew out his knee to end his career, Twyman was the first in the hospital to be with him. He brought Stokes with him and Stokes consoled Buckhorn that things would work out.

But it was with Stokes that amazed even his teammates, especially since Twyman was the star and a perennial All-Star.

“Jack was there every day for him, the ultimate care giver,” recalled Embry.

Twyman would sit with Stokes and letter by letter help him relearn the alphabet so he could communicate with nods or blinks of his eye.

“He made him feel a part of the team,” said Embry. “He’d always invite us all to the hospital to see Maurice. When he was out of the hospital at Jack’s house we’d all come. Jack gave him his whole life and hope. He’d eventually utter (through signals) he’ll be back and help us win the championship. That kept him going that he always thought he’d be back playing with us.

“And remember this is the late 1950’s, early 1960’s Cincinnati. This wasn’t New York City,” said Embry. “I couldn’t even rent a place, eat at restaurants. The day of reckoning for me came after we got back from our 17 games in 18 days exhibition tour and I’m trying to rent a place close to the arena and the guy says they can’t rent to me.

“But it never was a racial thing with Jack,” said Embry of the white Twyman and black Stokes. “One time Spike Lee wanted to make a movie and Jack said he didn’t want to make it racial. Maurice just became part of Jack’s family. If it were me or any teammate, Jack would have done it. That’s who he was. Jack didn’t need any reason more than a friend in need. He used to say Maurice needed help, what else could he do? He was an amazing humanitarian. God in heaven, what he did was remarkable.”

Stokes died of a heart attack in 1970 and was buried back at St. Francis. He was 36. But what Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes endured and became will never be and should never be forgotten. It’s truly a hope for humanity.

Sixers could be a candidate for Gasol as well

-- Last week I was working on a Bulls deal for Pau Gasol. But if you don’t move, perhaps someone else will. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the Philadelphia 76ers. Coach Doug Collins said after the 76ers’ unlikely 13-game playoff run that the team will look very different next season. The speculation has long been the 76ers would deal All-Star Andre Iguodala, who is hoping to make the USA team. "We have to grow as a team,” said Collins. “We have to add some more pieces. We know that. I always tell our players to make sure that you look around that locker room, look at your teammates because you'll be forever bonded. This team will not be the same team next year. That's the nature of sports."

Iguodala is perhaps the team’s most valuable player, though also long discontented. After last season, he blew off the meetings with management and when there was talk during the season of friction in the locker room toward Collins, local media identified Iguodala as the likely source of the talk. The expectation with Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner the team’s future backcourt that it’s most likely Iguodala would be used in trade. And Collins has made it clear the team’s priority is inside scoring and size.

So how about this one: Iguodala and Thaddeus Young (or Lou Williams in a sign and trade) for Gasol. Or Gasol and Steve Blake and perhaps Jodie Meeks returning with Iguodala and one of the others. The addition for the 76ers is obvious while the Lakers get youth, athleticism and some shooting and ballhandling. That one could work well for both. Would the Knicks flip Carmelo Anthony for Pau? Not likely as management seems insistent on building around Anthony. If the Lakers were to trade Pau, he’s obviously going to the Eastern Conference. The Bucks perhaps could put together a sign and trade with Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings and there’s Toronto who could offer Andre Bargnani and Jose Calderon. Both are situations where the Lakers end up with a power forward and point guard to address a pair of needs. The Lakers and Pau keep insisting on Pau is staying, but there seems too much perhaps available that would make sense. And this is not a negative toward Pau. I think he’s terrific.

Thunder’s Ibaka flirts with postseason history

-- One of the statistical highlights of the Western Conference finals was Serge Ibaka’s 11 for 11 shooting game in Game 4 in Oklahoma City. It was mentioned as equaling the second best perfect shooting game in the playoffs to Larry McNeill’s 12 of 12 April 13, 1975 in the Western Conference semifinals for the Kansas City/Omaha Kings. It happened to be against the Bulls and was something of a classic representation of that great and often forgotten Bulls team. McNeill was an athletic forward from New York, another of Al McGuire’s many New York recruits. The Bulls won Game 1 as McNeill would hit his last six shots. McNeill then scored 28 points in the Kings’ Game 2 win with those 12 straight. The games alternated cities in that series and they were back in Chicago for Game 3. This was to be the last run of that group, and they believed it was their year and were not going to be stopped by the Kings. The Bulls had been helping out inside on Kings All-Star center Sam Lacey. Not this time. The team’s rallying cry for Game 3 was “Straight up,” as in defense. And it was Bob “Butterbean” Love who took it to McNeill. “Jerry (Sloan) told me Bob Love said he’s (McNeill’s) not going to make a lot more shots,” recalled Phil Johnson, the league’s coach of the year that season for the Kings and later Sloan’s longtime assistant. “The first shot Larry took Butter hit him right in the nose with a straight shot. He didn’t make a lot after that. There was no foul called. Butter said he wasn’t going to make a reputation on him.” McNeill went one of five shooting the rest of the series. The Bulls went on to win the series in six games. Though they would lose the heartbreaker series of all time against the underdog Warriors, who went on to sweep to the NBA title. But if you never saw that Bulls team play you missed the best team in NBA history that no one talks about.

Williams turns to Twitter for damage control

-- Deron Williams had quite a time last week refuting a Yahoo! Sports report he doesn’t plan to resign with the Nets unless they acquire Dwight Howard. Williams tweeted (the players’ main source of communication these days: “I would love to know who (the Yahoo! reporter’s) source is bc he knows more about what I’m thinking then I do maybe they can help me decide?” Then: “His source is chuck norris! Chuck norris can create a fire rubbing 2 ice cubes together!” Then: “Better check your bank account too because if he knows your thoughts then he knows those bank codes.” Though my favorite part was the reporter writing the story and talking to Williams wrote, “Williams, condescending as always, denied and mocked a Yahoo! Report…” Jeff Van Gundy during the Boston/Miami Game 4 broadcast followed an Erik Spoelstra huddle talk with saying players’ responsibility only is to “Do your job.” That, of course, was one of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s famous rants, though he put exclamations after each word.

NBA news and notes

-- It’s not quite that it will have the Oprah effect. But maybe some others with just a high school degree like LeBron James will read. “Books, Jerry!” We’re seeing lots of pregame locker room shots of James reading books, which James admits is new for him. Florida media reports the titles have included Jerry West’s biography, the Pact, Tipping Point and Hunger Games, an eclectic mix of sports, love, sociology and young adult. Apparently not included was Ron Watt’s “Love Story for Cleveland” about his home town. ... Educational in a different way was another of the conference finals’ offbeat stories of rapper/hip hopper (I’m taking everyone’s word for it) Lil Wayne complaining about being denied front row tickets in Oklahoma City. Though unlike your menches like Denzel Washington who pay for their courtside seats, Lil wanted his tickets for free. At least we now know why they call him little. ... It’s not clear who is making the final decisions in Charlotte. But Michael Jordan’s biggest draft mistake — though it was mostly a poor draft with lots of lottery mistakes — was not taking Elton Brand for the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft. The Bulls ended up trading Brand for No. 2, so I assume they’d have taken No. 1. Without a classic impact player after Anthony Davis, you wonder if the Bobcats will take a veteran if someone else has a plan. Though you’d think no one can afford to build with young players more than the Bobcats.

-- The unnamed intermediary with Sam Vincent apparently to try to recruit Phil Jackson to Orlando, as outlined in an Orlando Sentinel story, sounded a lot like Scottie Pippen, whom Jackson once tried to hire as an assistant and who supposedly been sniffing around the NBA for a head coaching job. Vincent to the Sentinel described his intermediary this way: “Former All-Star player and Hall of Famer who was to be the next coach of the Magic. Jackson would help mentor him.” ... It’s sounding like the era of the $5 million coach in the NBA may be ending. The Wizards apparently are rehiring interim Randy Wittman, the Knicks signed interim Mike Woodson, the Clippers brought back low paid Vinny Del Negro and the Trail Blazers are rumored to be talking about bringing back interim Kaleb Canales. All the while mostly big name coaches like Jackson, Stan Van Gundy, Nate McMillan and Jerry Sloan don’t get that much attention. During the labor negotiations when owners complained about costs, NBA commissioner David Stern reportedly lectured them to stop paying coaches so much. ... Stephen Jackson likened himself to role playing veterans on the Spurs like Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry. You do see the three clubbing together often. ... Scott Wedman, who also was 11-11 in a playoff game, was a teammate of Larry McNeill in the game McNeill hit 12 of 12 last week. ... Perhaps the best analysis of the Thunder came from Kendrick Perkins, who said, "Coach (Scott) Brooks is in a tough situation where it's hard for him to impose his will on young, talented guys. At this time in their careers, it's kind of hard for them to sacrifice when they're trying to reach so many individual goals." It is the biggest issue with the Thunder, who when they lose it’s often because of isolation play from Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden. It’s worked, so it’s been difficult for Brooks to persuade young players more driven by honors and awards to play more like the Spurs. If they could, they’d probably have swept by now. It’s also one reason Phil Jackson always used to argue with Tex Winter that, “You win with men in the NBA.” Though you could with young talent like the Thunder has. ... The Thunder did a good job slowing the Spurs ball movement in games three and four doing a lot of switching on defense. It’s been interesting in the playoffs to see how often that has been effective in deploying variations of zone defenses and NBA shooters not good able to shoot teams out of it often enough. ... If a team is looking for a veteran with head coaching experience, they might take a look at former Bulls coach Bill Cartwright, who isn’t returning to the Suns. “I do want to continue to coach,” said Cartwright. “Hopefully, an opportunity will arise where I can come in and help build a team.” Tyson Chandler when he accepted Defensive Player of the Year mentioned Cartwright as instrumental in his development, and under Cartwright Suns center Marcin Gortat has been developing into one of the better big men. ... Rajon Rondo turned into America’s basketball sweetheart Sunday night when he blurted out in the usually brutal halftime-coming-off-the-court-why-the-heck-are-they-doing-this interview that the Celtics were profiting because the Heat was “complaining and crying to referees in transition.” Rondo reiterated in his post game interview after the Celtics evened the series 2-2, "What I said was true." The question now is whether going back to Miami that relentless lobbying — Dwyane Wade rarely runs back in transition he complains so much — will again have an effect on the officials like in Miami’s Game 2 47 free throws. Miami still has the edge going home, but that was pretty brutal, unimaginative play calling to end regulation and overtime.