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The Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Maurice Stokes

Maurice Stokes Tribute

Let’s play a game. Here are some clues and facts about a former NBA player. All you have to do is guess who it is. Ready? 6’7 and 235 pounds of raw muscle, which his fair share of finesse and grace. A couple of names probably come to mind, don’t they? 

Here’s another hint. In his rookie debut, he scored 32 points and crashed boards for 20 rebounds. You must be stumped, so I’ll give you one last hint. In just three seasons, he made the All-NBA team three times and was selected to three All-Star games.

Give up? His name is Maurice Stokes.

The story of Maurice Stokes transcends not only basketball but the world of sports itself. You’ll never hear his name uttered among other legends of his era like Bob Pettit, Bob Cousy, or even Bill Russell. Even among the greatest sports tragedies, his name is rarely brought up. Which is a tragedy in it of itself.

Maurice Stokes

In 1958, the Royals were playing their final game of the season against the Minneapolis Lakers. Stokes drove to the basket and had his legs cut from beneath him. He plummeted towards the ground, banging his head against the hardwood. 

He clutched his head in both hands, writhing in pain. Somehow he managed to get back on his feet and finish out the rest of the game, finishing with an astonishing 24 points and 19 boards. What’s even more incredible is that he played just three days later in a playoff game against Detroit. 

Something was obviously wrong with Stokes, though, as the Royals fell to the Pistons. After the game Stokes suffered several violent seizures, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

At the time the NBA was still a Mom and Pop league compared to the NFL or MLB, lacking many of the basic benefits the modern day athlete takes for granted. So it should come as no surprise that the Cincinnati Royals made no qualms about terminating Stokes $20,000 contract. 

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Stokes had no guaranteed pension or medical plan, so he was left paralyzed, with absolutely no way of paying his costly medical bills that tallied over $100,000 a year. Jack Twyman had other plans, though.

Jack Twyman was a Hall of Fame forward, and teammate of Maurice Stokes. During their playing careers, the two were inseparable, and Twyman became Stokes legal guardian. He dedicated his life to Maurice, raising money to pay for his lofty medical bills that would only grow larger and larger. Twyman even successfully sued to the Royals under Ohio Law and was granted a pension for Stokes. Ultimately, Stokes passed away from a heart attack in 1970. He was only 36.

Stokes will remain one of the sport's biggest “what-if’s”, and one of it’s greatest tragedies. Had he not have fallen, he would be mentioned among the NBA’s greatest players of its golden era. In his first year in the league, he was already top 10 in points, rebounds, and assists (in a time when blocks and steals weren’t recorded), and in just his second season he set a then, NBA record for the most rebounds in a single season (1,256 or 17.4 a game). He was second in rebounding and third in assists, being one of two players to ever accomplish the feat. The other? Wilt Chamberlain.

Over his first three seasons, he recorded the most rebounds in the span of 1955-1958. The second most? Hall of Fame power forward Bob Pettit, who recorded 75 fewer rebounds. He’s also one of five players to produce four consecutive triple-doubles. Like all great players, numbers could not just do Stokes justice. Testaments from his peers can paint an even clearer picture.

“The forerunner of modern forwards.” Proclaimed, Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy

“He was probably the first 6’7 guy who could have played guard.” Said, Celtics Hall of Famer Frank Ramsey.

Even Syracuse Nationals legend Dolph Schayes compared him to Magic Johnson or LeBron James. The combination of talent and skill that Stokes possessed has to leave basketball fans wondering, what could have been? Thanks to the territorial selections allowed during the era, the Royals inevitably drafted future Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, and Wayne Embry. Imagine a team consisting of those legendary players? I think it’s safe to say that Russell may have been walking around with fewer rings.

It’s only fitting to end the article with a quote from Stokes’ closest friend, Jack Twyman.

“How would you like to be one of the premiere athletes in the world on a Saturday,” Twyman recalled. “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?”