NBA

Maurice Stokes’ Tragic Injury Set the Stage for Jack Twyman’s Heartwarming Act of Friendship

If you’ve watched sports for any amount of time, you’ve surely heard plenty of cliches about teammates becoming like family. While it’s easy to write those off as insincere—there’s a difference between working together and truly becoming friends—some NBA players really do form a bond. For an illustration of that, you don’t need to look any further than Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman.

In March 1958, Stokes suffered a tragic injury, ending his NBA career. That terrible moment, however, set the stage for a heartwarming act of camaraderie and friendship.

Maurice Stokes seemed poised for NBA stardom

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These days, Maurice Stokes’ name has largely been lost to the annals of NBA history. During his playing career, however, the big man seemed poised for basketball stardom.

As documented in an ESPN Classic biography, Stokes first hit the hardwood at Westinghouse High School; after winning back-to-back city titles, he headed to St. Francis University in Pennsylvania. While the Red Flash might not be a traditional power program, that reality didn’t slow the young forward down.

Stokes only spent two seasons on the varsity squad, but that didn’t stop him from making an impact. During his first collegiate campaign, he averaged 23.1 points and 26.5 rebounds per outing; as a senior, he potted 27.1 points and pulled down 26.2 rebounds per game.

When the 1955 NBA draft rolled around, the Rochester Royals selected Stokes with the second overall pick. The step-up in quality didn’t affect his performance, as he cruised to the Rookie of the Year title with an average of 16.8 points, 16.3 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per night. “The first great, athletic power forward,” Bob Cousy explained, according to ESPN. “He was Karl Malone with more finesse.”

A tragic injury ended a promising career

In the NBA, Maurice Stokes seemed poised for stardom. A tragic injury, however, would change that path.

On March 12, 1958, Stokes drove to the basket and crashed awkwardly to the floor; he was knocked out but, with the help of some smelling salts, returned to the game. His problems were only beginning, though.

A few days later, the big man started feeling sick. “On the team’s flight back to Cincinnati, Stokes looked ill and supposedly remarked to a teammate, ‘I feel like I’m going to die,” MinnPost recounted. “He lost consciousness and, when the plane landed, was rushed to a hospital in Covington, Ky. He lay in a coma for weeks.”

Doctors initially diagnosed Stokes with encephalitis, but ultimately determined that he had post-traumatic encephalopathy. Before his tragic fall, the forward was a dominant athlete, destined for NBA stardom; now, he was left paralyzed, unable to speak, and facing mountains of medical bills.

Jack Twyman stepped up when Maurice Stokes needed him most

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After his tragic fall, Maurice Stokes’ life changed forever. Thankfully, his teammate, Jack Twyman, was there to provide an invaluable assist.

“The Royals were obscenely quick to remove Maurice and his $20,000 salary from their payroll. There was no pension or medical plan for NBA players back then, which left Stokes and his family unable to endure medical bills that would approach $100,000 a year,” Curtis Harris explained for ESPN. Twyman, however, wouldn’t abandon his stricken teammate.

“Twyman became his teammate’s legal guardian and undertook all kinds of fundraising efforts to round up the money and save Maurice,” Harris continued. “A benefit game of NBA All-Stars was played annually in New York to raise funds. Twyman, who worked for an insurance company during offseasons, successfully sued under Ohio law to have workman’s compensation awarded to Stokes.”

While Stokes died in 1970, his life—and Twyman’s friendship—weren’t forgotten. Years later, Twyman inducted his late teammate into the Basketball Hall of Fame and, in 2013, the NBA gave out the first Twyman–Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, commemorating the two men’s bond.

Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference and Basketball-Reference