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Lesson of ex-NBA teammates’ bond resonates in coronavirus times

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The celebration was going to culminate in the 700-seat auditorium at the John F. Kennedy Student Center, tucked into the northern segment of the campus of St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa. There, Monday night, the 2,100-student school would celebrate the life of Maurice Stokes, the school’s most famous alumnus, on the 50th anniversary of his death.

“But God has his own plan,” says Rev. Malachi Van Tassell, the university’s president.

So much about the extraordinary life of Maurice Stokes must be explained, if it is to be explained at all, by those six simple words. He was a brilliant college player at St. Francis, the first player to win the MVP at the NIT from a team that didn’t win the tournament (in 1955), culminating a year in which he averaged 27.1 points and 26.2 rebounds.

He was the NBA’s rookie of the year in 1956 for the Rochester Royals, became an All-Star when that franchise moved to Cincinnati, averaged 16.4 points and 17.3 rebounds and was well on his way, at age 24, to becoming one of the greatest players in the league’s history.

But on March 12, 1958, Stokes fell and banged his head in the Royals’ regular-season finale. A few days later, on a small plane ride home from Detroit for a playoff game, he took ill. By the time he reached the hospital he was fully paralyzed, diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalopathy.

He would regain some motor skills over the years through intense physical therapy but suffered a heart attack and died on April 6, 1970, two months shy of his 37th birthday. His funeral was held at St. Francis and he is buried on campus, in the Franciscan Friar Cemetery, one of only a few lay people given their eternal rest there.

It is one of the heartbreaking stories in the history of American sports, but also one of the most redeeming, too, thanks to Stokes’ friendship with Jack Twyman. Twyman was a fellow all-star on the Royals and though the two men weren’t especially close, Stokes’ accident changed that. Twyman lived year-round in Cincinnati. Stokes’ family was in Pittsburgh. Soon after Stokes’ diagnosis, Twyman agreed to become Stokes’ legal guardian.

What followed was one of the extraordinary friendships ever formed.

One day, Jack was asked why he’d decided to make such a remarkable commitment to Maurice, and again he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Maurice needed someone. I became that someone.”

That phrase — “Become That Someone” — all these years later, has become St. Francis’ motto. And though St. Francis had to postpone its celebration of Stokes’ life, it is a message that has never seemed more relevant than it does in these turbulent, uncertain days.

“During this pandemic it’s a call for each person to become their best self,” Father Van Tassell says. “We can become that someone in any number of scenarios.”

Tim Frank was hoping to be a part of the celebration. Frank is the NBA’s senior vice president for basketball communications and he is from Altoona, Pa., less than a half-hour from St. Francis. He grew up believing Stokes was larger than life, watched Red Flash basketball games in the fieldhouse named for Stokes, looked at his retired No. 26 in the rafters there.

One of the saddest elements of Stokes’ story is that he played in the league so briefly, and even among many basketball fans his is a name that often draws blank stares. The NBA did its part to rectify that eight years ago when it created the Twyman-Stokes Award to recognize the league’s teammate of the year.

It is a poignant trophy — one figurine helping another to its feet — and the winners, who have included Chauncey Billups, Tim Duncan and Vince Carter, are invariably honored at first and then completely humbled once they read up on the award’s namesakes.

“It’s so gratifying to see that,” Frank says. “More people should know about Maurice, and more people should know about the amazing friendship he had with Jack. Especially now. This is a story that resonates.”

It does. It should. We lean on friends now as much as we ever have, more even, as much as Maurice and Jack leaned on each other. Once, late in his life, Maurice’s intense rehab yielded a small victory: he was able to regain a little flexibility in his fingers. It took him a few hours, but he finally completed his first sentence. He showed it to his friend:

“Dear Jack, how can I ever thank you?”

To which Jack immediately, and quintessentially, replied: “You may think I come here to cheer you up. But, really, it’s the other way around.”

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