Column: Jack Twyman and a life worth remembering

Associated Press Modified: June 1, 2012 at 2:32 am •  Published: June 1, 2012
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One of the greats is gone.

And, no, we're not referring to anything Hall of Famer Jack Twyman did on a basketball court.

Twyman ignored the ugly racial times that were the 1950s and '60s to dole out perhaps the greatest assist in NBA history.

He stood up when many wouldn't, becoming the legal guardian and the best of friends to Maurice Stokes when his stricken African-American teammate needed him most.

It's a life everyone should know about.

It's a story worth telling again and again.

"Maybe this is a little learning opportunity for everyone who plays professional sports," said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. "Jack didn't look for accolades. It was just the right thing to do. That's what made him a very, very special man."

Twyman, who died Wednesday night at age 78 from an aggressive form of blood cancer, was a largely forgotten relic from that quaint era before professional hoops became a truly national sport. Never mind he was a six-time All-Star, who along with Wilt Chamberlain became the first player to average more than 30 points in an NBA season.

None of those glitzy numbers was more important than the lasting bond he carved out with Stokes, who passed away more than four decades ago but remained a part of Twyman until his last breath.

The NBA could do its part to keep their legacy alive by establishing the Twyman-Stokes award, honoring the best teammate in the league.

The recipient wouldn't have to go as far as Twyman did — stepping in as Stokes' legal guardian after he was stricken with a debilitating brain injury and essentially watching over him for the last 12 years of his life. But that would be the template. Someone who fit the description on and off the court, who would be willing to put aside his own wants and needs if something so tragic happened to another in the same uniform.

"I knew the story," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Thursday during a break in the Eastern Conference final, "but, honestly, I don't know it as well as I probably should."

Well, here's a refresher.

Stokes was one of the NBA's budding stars in the '50s, a power forward who could do a bit of everything. Rebound. Shoot. Dribble. Block shots. Run the court. In a documentary that aired on NBA TV, legendary coach Red Auerbach remembered Stokes as "Magic without flair."

Stokes scored 32 points in his first NBA game for the Rochester Royals. He went on to average 16.8 points, 16.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists in his rookie season, was chosen Rookie of the Year and earned the first of three straight trips to the All-Star game.

"Probably next to Michael Jordan, he was the greatest ballplayer to hit the NBA," Ed Kalafat, who played during that era, said in the same documentary. "This guy, for as big as he was, he could do everything Michael could."

Twyman, who was 11 months younger than Stokes, entered the league with Rochester during the same 1955-56 season and had the look of a budding star, though he wasn't as dominant as his teammate. The Royals moved to Cincinnati in 1957 and made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, with Stokes ranking third in the league in both rebounds and assists.

But Stokes — and Twyman — would be forever changed by what happened in the last game of the regular season at Minneapolis.

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