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Monday, June 10, 2013

Twyman-Stokes Award Honors the Enduring Importance of Friendship and Character

Maurice Stokes passed away before I was born and I never had the opportunity to interview Jack Twyman (who passed away on May 30, 2012), so I do not have firsthand knowledge about either of them--but I know that both men are historically significant not just for their achievements on the court but also because of the way that their interconnected lives embody a tremendous triumph of the human spirit. Twyman, who was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, was one of the NBA's greatest scorers in the 1950s and 1960s, averaging 19.2 ppg in his 11 year career and pouring in a career-high 31.2 ppg (second in the league to a rookie named Wilt Chamberlain) in 1959-60. Stokes, who was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004, was one of the most overlooked and underrated players of all-time but the significance of his life story extends far beyond his considerable abilities as a basketball player: he made the All-Star team in each of the first three seasons of his NBA career as Twyman's teammate with the Rochester Royals (the franchise now known as the Sacramento Kings) but in the final game of his third season he suffered a head injury that soon led to permanent paralysis. Stokes, who was on course to become one of the greatest players in NBA history, was struck down before he even reached his prime; he faced massive medical bills and the daunting prospect of life as a physically disabled person but Twyman--then a newly married 23 year old with young children--stepped in, became Stokes' legal guardian and not only raised the money to provide for Stokes' medical care but also regularly visited Stokes and often had Stokes over for dinner. The part of the story that should not matter--but does matter considering our country's history of racism/racial discrimination--is that Twyman was white and Stokes was black. Twyman and Stokes remained close friends until Stokes passed away in 1970, 12 years after suffering that life-changing injury.

The NBA has just created the annual Twyman-Stokes Award to recognize the NBA's teammate of the year, as voted on by NBA players from a pool of finalists selected by NBA legends. NBA Commissioner David Stern says, "The Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award recognizes friendship and selflessness among teammates and celebrates the legacy of Jack and Maurice." This is a great initiative by the NBA to not only honor and preserve the memory of the wonderful Twyman-Stokes friendship but also to commend players who demonstrate strong character. Chauncey Billups is the inaugural winner of the award, finishing ahead of Shane Battier and Jason Kidd. Twyman's son Jay spoke at the award ceremony:

Dad truly felt that he was the one who benefited most from the relationship. He would visit Maurice nearly every day over that period. Also, Maurice would come to our house most Sundays for dinner, which was not a small undertaking for transporting a 6'8" 250‑pound man in and out of the hospital. Dad felt and we all feel that we gained so much from helping to care for Maurice. And here is Maurice Stokes, he was at the top of the NBA, a world‑class athlete one day, paralyzed and bed‑ridden the next, reduced to communicating through blinking his eyes. None of us can ever remember Maurice ever being down, and he always approached each day upbeat ready to fight for his recovery. I remember a poster growing up that Maurice prominently had hung above his bed. It read "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." And that was his attitude. He was never down. And I think Maurice truly did feel blessed with all the support he received from so many, especially from our father.

Neither Twyman nor Stokes won an NBA championship but they are two of the greatest champions in NBA history and it is very appropriate that the NBA has named this prestigious award for them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

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