Sad news. Jack Twyman died last Wednesday in Cincinnati. He was 78. The cause was complications from blood cancer.
Twyman was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word. He was also a pretty fair basketball player.
But not at first. He didn’t even make his high school team until his senior year. "Every time he got cut, it gave him more inspiration to work hard and make it," his son, Jay, told the Cincinnati Enquirer last week. "When he finally made it, he parlayed it into a scholarship, and the rest is history."
The scholarship came from the University of Cincinnati. As a senior in 1955, Twyman averaged 24.6 points and 16.5 rebounds, earning All-America honors. His number 27 is one of only three retired by the Bearcats. He still ranks second on the career rebounding list, and ninth on the career scoring list.
He was drafted by the Rochester Royals, who became the Cincinnati Royals two years later; the team now resides in Sacramento as the Kings.
During his 11-year NBA career, Twyman averaged 19.2 points, and made six All-Star teams. In the 1959-’60 season, he and Wilt Chamberlain became the first players to average 30 points per game.
"Jack was a great shooter," Oscar Robertson told the Enquirer. "If he had a shot, he would take it, which was fine. Jack knew how to play the game of basketball."
"He loved to shoot," friend William Keating added. "I always kidded him that when they threw the ball to him, that was the end of any other players seeing the ball!"
Twyman’s nickname on the Royals was "right back, baby!" for his habit of calling out that phrase after he’d made a rare pass.
But don’t get the impression that Jack Twyman wasn’t a good teammate. He became the best teammate anyone ever had.
During the final game of the 1958 season, Twyman’s teammate Maurice Stokes fell to the floor, hit his head, and lost consciousness.
Stokes was the prototype for today’s power forward. He stood 6 feet, 7 inches and weighed 232 pounds, and could run the floor. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1956, and set a rebounding record the next year. He was an all-star in each of his first three seasons.
"He was the first great, athletic power forward," Celtic great Bob Cousy told the New York Times. "Probably, next to Michael Jordan, he was the greatest ballplayer to hit the NBA," Ed Kalafat, who played in the ‘50s, said during an interview on NBA TV. "This guy, as big as he was, could do everything Michael could."
Once revived, Stokes finished the game, and even played in the playoff opener against Detroit. But on the plane flight back to Cincinnati, he became ill. "He sweated profusely," Twyman told Paul Newberry of the Associated Press. "It was as if someone grabbed him by the head and dunked him in a swimming pool."
Stokes lapsed into a coma. When he awoke, he was totally paralyzed. He had post traumatic encephalopathy, which attacked the part of his brain that controlled his motor skills. He would never play basketball again.
"How would you like to be one of the premier athletes in the world on Saturday," Twyman once asked the Enquirer, "then, on Sunday, you go into a coma and wake up totally paralyzed, except for the use of your eyes and brain. I mean, can you imagine anything worse?"
Sadly, yes. Neither Stokes nor his family could afford the enormous medical bills he was facing. So Jack Twyman took charge. "It’s what friends are for" he would always say.
He had himself named as Stokes’ legal guardian.
He arranged for Stokes to receive workman’s compensation. He created the Maurice Stokes Foundation, which still helps former NBA players in need. He created an annual charity basketball game as a fundraiser, with all the current NBA greats participating.
Often, throughout the ‘60s, you’d see the odd spectacle at NBA gatherings: the tall, thin white man pushing the smiling black man along in his wheelchair. That image remains vivid to this day.
"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," John Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, told Newberry. "A white man to basically adopt and become 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."
Twyman took care of Stokes for 14 years, until his heart gave out at age 36. He didn’t live to see Twyman inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. Nor did he hear Twyman tirelessly campaign for Stokes to join him there.
When, in 2004, Twyman’s pleas were answered, he accepted the Hall of Fame plaque for his friend.
Had he still been around, Stokes could have repeated the same words he first typed many years earlier, when he regained limited use of his fingers:
"Dear Jack, How can I ever thank you?"