Saturday, June 2, 2012

Twyman's Death Brings Care of Stokes Back To Light

You probably don't recall the playing career of Jack Twyman, unless you're close to 60 (OK, I qualify), or you remember him as a color commentator for televised games from the late 1960's/early 1970's.

And, Twyman has nothing to do with MAAC basketball. But, his story is an exemplary one that any basketball fan should know about.

Twyman's professional career lasted 11 years, from 1955 through 1966. Over that time he was a six-time all-star and averaged 19.2 points and 6.6 rebounds. One year he averaged more than 30 points per game, the first player other than  Wilt Chamberlain to average more than 30 points over a full season. He was a terrific outside and inside player, particularly prolific as a scorer.

His one weakness was that he was not a great passer. He only averaged slightly more than two assists per game.

But, one particular "assist" set Twyman apart and made him universally known as, arguably, the greatest "teammate" in the history of sports.

One of his on-court NBA teammates was a spectacularly gifted 6-foot-7, 250-pound forward Maurice Stokes, who the great Bob Cousy recognized as "Karl Malone with more finesse."

But, late in the 1957-58 season Stokes went up for a rebound, got tangled with an opponent and his head slammed to the court. Three days later he had a seizure, went into a coma and suffered post-traumatic encephalopathy. The blow had damaged the part of his brain that controls motor function.

At first, all Stokes could do was blink his eyes. He would be paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Back then, the NBA did not have comprehensive medical coverage. Stokes' staggering medical bills were basically his responsibility, and he had less than $10,000 to his name.

He was hospitalized in Cincinnati. His only teammate who lived there in the off-season was Twyman, who took on the responsibility of caring for Stokes, eventually becoming his legal guardian.

Twyman needed help paying for Stokes' medical care and came up with the Maurice Stokes game, an all-star game of sorts that was played every summer at Kutsher's Country Club in Monticello, N.Y. The game attracted the best of the best from that era. If Twyman asked an NBA player to show up, he did with no questions asked.

Your hoopscribe, while working for a newspaper in downstate New York, covered several of the Stokes games, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although Stokes was gone by then having passed away at age 36 in 1970.

By then, proceeds of the game went to a fund to help indigent former NBA players. And, it still attracted some of the sport's best performers. And, Twyman still came to the event.

He had to be prodded to talk about his role in caring for Stokes.

"He was in a hospital in Cincinnati, and I was the only member of the team who lived there," I remember Twyman saying. "I just did what any teammate would do."

Twyman not only became Stokes' financial support, but his regular companion, too, spending countless hours next to Stokes' bedside over the years.

Eventually, through years of rehabilitation, Stokes had gained some use of his fingers. He was given a typewriter one day and he was able to type a short note.

"What he typed was `Dear Jack. How can I ever thank you?' " Twyman recalled.

But, Twyman said he was the one who should have been thanking Stokes.

"He never had a bad day," I remember Twyman saying about Stokes. "If I was having a bad day, I would go to see Maurice, and he never failed to get me to smile. I was just in awe of him."

The story came to light again this week with the death of Twyman recently at age 78, and remains one of the most unselfish acts of a sports figure being a great teammate in the history of sports.

1 comment:

EdB said...

A great column on Jack Twyman, who was a tremendous humanitarian. Thanks for bringing him to your readers so we can reflect one more time on a wonderful man who was truly his brother's keeper.