"That's What Friends Are For": A Tribute To Jack Twyman

If the Jack Twyman story were simply about basketball, it would be extraordinary enough: a six-time all-star in 11 NBA seasons. A Hall of Famer who was the first NBA player to average 30 points per game for an entire season, who retired in 1966 as the league's second all-time leading scorer. A broadcaster best remembered for calling Willis Reed's unexpected emergence from the tunnel during the 1970 NBA Finals.

Twyman died Wednesday night at the age of 78, and his basketball accomplishments alone would have been enough for your local newspaper to publish a few paragraphs about him yesterday on Page D6, enough for your grandfather to have maybe read those paragraphs and been reminded of what a gifted player Jack Twyman was.

But Twyman's playing career is only the beginning. The rest of it intertwined with the story of his former Cincinnati Royals teammate, the late Maurice Stokes, and the lengths Twyman went to assist Stokes after Stokes was paralyzed from hitting his head on the floor during the 1958 season finale.

Stokes had been well on his way to being a star; in an NBA TV documentary, Red Auerbach described him as "Magic without flair," while Ed Kalafat, another NBA player from that era, said Stokes "could do everything Michael [Jordan] could." Stokes was just 24 at the time he was paralyzed, and according to an obituary of Twyman published in The New York Times, the only way Stokes could qualify for worker's compensation was to remain in Cincinnati, even though his entire family was back in his native Pittsburgh. "Maurice was on his own," Twyman would tell the New York Post in 2008. "Something had to be done and someone had to do it. I was the only one there, so I became that someone."

As the Times put it:

So he became Stokes's legal guardian. He helped him get workers' compensation; raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for medical care, partly through organizing an annual charity game of basketball superstars; and helped him learn to communicate by blinking his eyes to denote individual letters.

And for decades Twyman pressed the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., to induct Stokes, a power forward who once grabbed 38 rebounds in a game. When the Hall of Fame finally did so, in 2004, 21 years after Twyman's admission, Twyman accepted the award for his friend.

Stokes would live until 1970, his heart finally quitting on him when he was 36. Twyman, who was also from Pittsburgh, had known Stokes since their summer league days before college. "That's what friends are for," was Twyman's simple explanation for why he went to the lengths he did on Stokes's behalf. But Twyman's efforts were not a simple matter of friends and former teammates. Twyman was white and Stokes was black, and the two had become—in an almost literal sense—family. As John Doleva, the president and CEO of the basketball Hall of Fame, told the AP:

"To do what he did in the late '50s when, frankly, racial relationships were what they were, it wasn't a normal thing to do—a white man to basically adopt and become the legal guardian for Maurice. It's an extraordinary story, but it speaks to his heart. Jack left his heart on the basketball court every time he played, but he had a much bigger heart when it came to his teammates."

Photo via AP