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Ball Don't Lie

Remembering Jack Twyman, an NBA saint

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Jack Twyman with the Rochester Royals, in 1958 (Getty Images)

Jack Twyman passed away on Wednesday, at the age of 78. The former Rochester and Cincinnati Royal enjoyed an 11-year NBA career that included six trips to the All-Star game, and two Eastern Conference finals losses to the then-champion Boston Celtics. When Twyman retired at age 31, with his final year per-minute numbers nearly as stout then as they were in his prime, he was the NBA's second-leading scorer behind the mighty Wilt Chamberlain.

And this remains the secondary story behind Twyman's life and career, in a move no journalist should feel bad about. Because as you've no doubt heard by now, Twyman acted as former teammate Maurice Stokes' caretaker for the last 12 years of Stokes' life, after the former Royals forward suffered significant brain damage during an injury sustained in the final game of the 1957-58 season, cutting short a promising career (to say the absolute least) that saw Stokes average a combined 33.7 points/rebounds a contest for the Royals.

Worse, with Stokes' family hundreds of miles away and workers compensation failing to cover the costs of his care in the years before the NBA developed a strong union and significant pension plan, Stokes was just about left to his own devices as he grew more and more destitute. This is where Twyman came in, organizing fundraisers for his former teammate, visiting him weekly, and essentially acting as his caretaker (while working as an NBA All-Star, while running his own insurance company in the NBA's offseason, and while working as ABC's lead color analyst) until Stokes' passing in 1970.

Because our words pale in comparison to theirs, here are two remembrances. One, from the New York Times' Douglas Martin:

Twyman sometimes worried that his wife and family might become upset over the amount of time he devoted to Stokes over 12 years, but his daughter said in an interview that they had come to look forward to Stokes's Sunday visits from the hospital. Twyman's wife of 57 years, the former Carole Frey, became, with her husband, a co-trustee of the Maurice Stokes Foundation, which was set up to defray Stokes's hospital costs but grew to help other needy N.B.A. veterans as well.

The charity basketball tournament they began at Kutsher's Hotel in the Catskills drew stars like Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and, of course, Chamberlain.

Years after his accident, when Stokes had recovered enough finger flexibility to type, his first message was: "Dear Jack, How can I ever thank you?"

From the Cincinnati Enquirer's Bill Koch:

I asked him one day what Wilt Chamberlain was like and he told me about the time Chamberlain flew back from Paris for Twyman's annual fundraiser for Maurice Stokes, paying for the flight himself and never making a big deal out of it.

From the New York Post's Peter Vecsey:

"Mo was stranded in Cincinnati and I lived there," Twyman told me when we last spoke three or four years ago, utterly downplaying the sacrifice of his family and the enormity of the undertaking. "I did what anyone would have done for a friend.''

A year older than Stokes, they had competed against each other and played alongside one another in the Pittsburgh area. In 1955, they became teammates before the Royals moved from Rochester to Cincy.

As great a scorer as Twyman was (31.2 ppg in '59-60; 19.2 overall), his 11-season Hall of Fame career was shaded by his compassion for Stokes, whom he cared for until his death from a heart attack at 36.

I still can see Jack's right hand in the air as he turned downcourt after nailing another jumper. And I still can see that ever-present arm around Mo.

And the Associated Press' Paul Newberry:

"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."

Here's a clip of Jack helping to announce the arrival of Willis Reed, before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

And here is Jack's Basketball Hall of Fame induction, helped in by fellow University of Cincinnati alum Oscar Robertson:

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