Original Old School: A Beautiful Tragedy
SLAM 146: Maurice Stokes’ career suffered a tragic ending, but his memory lives on today.
If not for a terrible injury that cut his career short, Maurice Stokes may have changed the landscape of 1960′s NBA basketball. Unfortunately, the 1956 Rookie of the Year fell victim to post-traumatic encephalopathy after landing on his head in a 1957-58 Playoff game. The injury robbed Stokes of his career just when it was getting started, but the reaction to his injury showed NBA players at their most caring and selfless. Peep this feature from the most recent issue of the magazine, SLAM 146—Ed.
by Michael Bradley
There he stood, in the lobby of a Broadway theater, sipping an orange drink at intermission and surveying a world he had never experienced before. Despite his sharp blue suit and quiet countenance, at 6-7 and 230 pounds, he certainly wasn’t the typical patron. In town for a business trip, the young man decided to see a show with an associate, and short of causing some trouble for whatever unlucky ticketholder happened to be seated behind him, he had experienced nothing all that unusual.
Then the whispers started. People noticed that the typical Broadway lobby didn’t include such physical specimens. It didn’t help that his friend was just two inches shorter. New Yorkers may be a self-absorbed lot, but eventually they notice their surroundings, especially if they had changed. Maurice Stokes smiled, finished his refreshment and moved back to his seat. He wasn’t comfortable with the attention—at least not in this venue.
A couple nights later, he was more at ease. In fact, Stokes was so relaxed he would unfurl one of the greatest performances in NIT history. We’re talking about 1955, when the NIT mattered. Greatly. How couldn’t it matter? It was played in The Garden, which even after CCNY’s gambling scandal stained the college game in New York, remained the sport’s cathedral. In a semifinal matchup with Dayton, Stokes scored 17 points in the game’s first 10 minutes and finished with 43. He had 19 rebounds, too. It was one of the finest collegiate performances in the history of the famous arena. But it wasn’t enough. Stokes’ team, from tiny St. Francis College in Loretto, PA, fell in overtime to the Flyers, 77-73.
A night later, the “Frankies,” as they were known in those quaint times, dropped another overtime decision, this time to Cincinnati, in the third-place game, despite Stokes’ 31 points. St. Francis finished fourth, but Stokes became the first player from that spot in the final standings to earn the tournament’s MVP honor. The kid from Westinghouse HS in Pittsburgh had lifted a tiny Catholic college to great heights. “After that NIT appearance, St. Francis received 1,200 applicants for its freshman class,” says Bob Ford, who played on the ’55 team with Stokes and was the other dapper gentleman standing in the lobby at the New York theater. “We said, ‘He not only fills up the basket, he fills up the classroom.’”
Jack Twyman can still remember many details from Cincinnati’s NIT win over St. Francis in ’55. And he reveled in reminding Stokes that his Bearcats prevailed—and that Twyman had scored one more point than his future teammate. “I never let him forget it,” Twyman says.
Twyman had plenty of opportunity to rib Stokes about the game because he later answered the call on a day when no one else was there to do it. “Certain things had to be done,” he says flatly. They did, but Twyman didn’t have to do them. Faced with a situation in which money had to be gathered, and decisions had to be made, Twyman acted. He became Stokes’ guardian. He directed his care. He…well, he did what a lot of us wouldn’t have done.
“One thing led to another,” he says. “I didn’t think it would last 12 years, but it did.”
Twyman is adamant. Had Maurice Stokes continued to play in the NBA, people wouldn’t be talking about a Celtics dynasty in the 1960s. “They would be talking about the Cincinnati Royals,” he says.
Stokes was that good. Long before Magic Johnson proved that a big man could handle and pass and move like someone six inches shorter, Stokes did the same thing. He led the fastbreak. He ran the offense. He could shoot from the outside, and he could rebound. Boy, could he rebound. In his third and final NBA season, Stokes averaged 18.1 rpg to go with his 16.9 ppg and 6.4 apg—all career highs. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1956, but he was clearly improving each year. He may not have averaged a triple-double in one season, but he would have come pretty close.
The man who did accomplish that feat, Oscar Robertson (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in ’61-62) still laments the loss of Stokes the player. Robertson was a great friend of Stokes, but he was also a ballplayer, and not having Stokes on the Royals, for whom Robertson played for 10 years, was a huge loss.
“[His injury] hurt the Royals forever,” Oscar says. “When I was with the Royals, we didn’t have anybody inside to combat the big guys on other teams. We would have won quite a bit if Maurice hadn’t been injured. We never got anybody else like that.”
When Stokes was first hurt, it didn’t seem as if he would miss any time, much less lose practically everything. During the final game of the ’57-58 season, he was flipped over the shoulders of a Minneapolis Lakers player and landed on his head. Though the fall knocked Stokes out, he didn’t seem incapacitated and he actually returned to the game. Of course, this was long before people knew much about concussions or head trauma. Stokes was still sore and groggy, but he played a couple days later in the Royals’ first-round Playoff game in Detroit, notching a quiet 12 points and 15 rebounds. It would be the last time he appeared on a basketball court without a wheelchair.
On the flight back to Cincinnati, Stokes began to perspire heavily. The pilot called ahead to the airport, requesting an ambulance, while stewardess Jeanne Phillips worked tirelessly to keep Stokes comfortable and, ultimately, alive. When the plane arrived, Stokes was unconscious, his fever had spiked at 106 degrees, and he was rushed to St. Elizabeth’s hospital, where he slipped into a coma. The next day, Detroit whipped the Royals, 124-104, ending Cincinnati’s season. As the players scattered to their hometowns, Twyman remained. For that, Stokes would be always grateful. Stokes’ parents, Tero and Myrtle, didn’t have the money to pay for their son’s care, and the hospital was losing patience. Somebody needed to act. Right away.
“I became his guardian,” Twyman says. “He had a bank account that no one could touch. He had a new car that we needed to sell.”
The final diagnosis was post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that damaged his motor control center, and it left Stokes paralyzed from the neck down and unable to speak. Stokes was eventually moved to Good Samaritan Hospital, which created a suite for him. That was where Stokes would begin the arduous rehabilitation that would allow him to move his hands and speak, years later. But the costs were high, and Twyman had a lot of work to do.
It was 1958, so the NBA had no insurance policies for its players. There were no pensions. Player salaries were barely $10,000 per year—if that. And the idea of a professional basketball player receiving workman’s compensation for an injury sustained while playing was ludicrous. But Twyman enlisted a lawyer who sued for benefits—and won. That helped. But there was more work to be done.
He was only 21, but he was already something of a mythical force. He was Wilt Chamberlain, and Wilt Chamberlain never did anything in a small way. In 1958, Wilt hadn’t taken aim at the NBA yet because he had left the University of Kansas early and the League didn’t welcome players who hadn’t completed four years of college. So, Wilt was playing with the Harlem Globetrotters in Europe when he got the call. Twyman had worked with NBA PR director Haskell Cohen and Catskills hotel owner Milton Kutsher to create a benefit basketball game for Stokes. Back then, the Catskills weren’t quite known for basketball. The area was known as the “Borscht Belt” and was a haven for vacationing Jewish families and fledgling comics.
Kutsher’s hotel was a little different. It employed some interesting folks—Wilt worked as a bellhop there—and also offered basketball instruction from people like legendary coach Red Auerbach. When Kutsher heard about Stokes’ plight, he wanted to help. So, he opened his hotel to whatever players wanted to come and play ball to help Stokes. He handled all their expenses; all they had to do was get there. The response was overwhelming. When the first game was played, in ’58, more than 60 NBA players showed up.
So did Wilt. Of course, he did it in a style that befit his size and growing status. The Globetrotters were in Paris, beating up on the Washington Generals between sightseeing and croissants. Wilt flew from France to New York and chartered a helicopter up to the Catskills. He had the copter wait, played in the game, headed back to the airport and returned to Europe—all on his own dime.
“The guys felt an affinity for [Maurice],” Robertson says. “As opposed to today when players fly in private planes, have their own suites on the road and don’t eat together, there was a kinship. The players realized what he was going through.”
Over the years, the Maurice Stokes Game helped raise $750,000 for Stokes’ medical bills. But Twyman needed more. So, he would approach the media in every town where the Royals played and tell them Stokes’ story. Donations poured in. Every Christmas, he would appear on Howard Cosell’s radio show to talk about Maurice, and another 50 grand or so was raised. An article in Sports Illustrated netted another $200,000. While his friend raised funds, Stokes worked. He learned how to talk again, although it was hard to understand him at times. Stokes took small, difficult steps with the help of therapists and support bars. And he made ashtrays for each of the players who came to the annual summer game at Kutsher’s. “He was an unbelievable, outstanding individual,” Robertson says.
Anybody who met Stokes thought so. Twyman asked comedian Bill Cosby to visit the player, and Cosby enjoyed his time with Stokes so much he came back every time he was in Cincinnati. The hospital was always bringing seriously ill or injured patients to Stokes for him to inspire and cheer them up. Even Twyman wasn’t immune to his friend’s charisma and enthusiasm. When he was down after a tough game, he would visit Stokes for some rejuvenation. “He inspired other people,” Twyman says.
Stokes was unique and remarkable, but he wasn’t immortal. In 1970, his heart, no doubt weary after years of Herculean efforts to produce the energy and emotion necessary to carry on so courageously, gave out. On March 30, he suffered a massive heart attack. One week later, he was dead. He left half his estate to St. Francis—which named its new field house after him—in honor of Twyman, “without whose prolonged and arduous work no estate would be available for me to give.” In 2004, the Hall of Fame inducted Stokes, whose short career was nonetheless incandescent. Twyman enlisted Robertson and NBA legend Bob Pettit as his co-inductors. To this day, Robertson remains touched by Stokes’ life, his bravery and the sad reality of his situation.
“Here was a young man and a great basketball player who was struck down,” Robertson says. “Why? I don’t know.”
In 1973, they made a movie about Stokes. Maurie didn’t win an Oscar. Nor did it receive particularly stirring reviews. The New York Times stated that “The heroism, tragedy and friendship of…Stokes and…Twyman…evolves on screen with largely soap-opera effects.” But those who knew Stokes were touched. Tero and Myrtle came to a special screening of the movie. When it ended, and the lights were still down, they sat in the quiet, dark room, absorbing what they had just seen. The lights came up, and Tero gently interrupted the silence.
“It was sad,” he said. “But it was beautiful, too.”