The whole thing — the friendship between two guys, the magical charity games — started with an injury basketball had no language to describe. On March 15, 1958, the Cincinnati Royals lost to Detroit in the playoffs. After the game, the Royals watched their power forward Maurice Stokes throw up in the toilet. The guys figured Stokes was drunk. He'd had a couple of beers — everyone had. When the Royals' owner walked by, they thought, Christ, don't let him see Mo like this. Stokes was the best thing about the Royals. He was a classic, big-shouldered, double-digit rebounder — a 230-pound "moose of a man," Oscar Robertson said. But Stokes could also run the court and drive to the basket. Today, we'd say he had "athleticism." "He was probably the first 6-foot-7 guy that could have played guard," said Frank Ramsey, the Celtics Hall of Famer.
You know Stokes was great because no player from the fifties can agree on which all-timer he resembled most. "He was like a Magic Johnson type or a LeBron James type," said Dolph Schayes of the Syracuse Nationals. Bob Cousy said, "He was a forerunner of the great forwards: Dr. J and Elgin Baylor. Mo would have been a Hall of Famer."
Stokes was a puckish figure. He sent his teammate Jim Paxson Sr. to buy show tickets in New York and when Paxson came back with an obstructed-view ticket, Stokes never let him forget it. "He walked around in three-button suits," said Monk Meineke, a Royals forward. "He wore black glasses. He looked like a Rhodes scholar." On the road, Stokes would pay a maid to go into Meineke's hotel room and wash his shirts. He'd leave a note that said, "Monk, you're in the pros. Dress like it."
Stokes's injury began with a play in Minneapolis in the last game of the '58 regular season. The Lakers' Slick Leonard said Stokes drove to the hoop, got his legs cut out from under him, and smacked his head against the floor. A news photo shows Stokes on his knees like a penitent, his head buried in his palms. He played the rest of the game. He had 24 points and 19 rebounds.
Three days later, Stokes played slow and heavy-legged in the loss in Detroit. (He still had 12 points and 15 rebounds.) Then Stokes began to feel ill. "On the way home, I was sick, too," said Jim Paxson. That threw everyone off the scent. Maybe Mo and Jim have the flu, the Royals thought. The flu made sense.
At the Detroit airport, Stokes handed his bags to a teammate, walked into a bathroom, and threw up. Sometime later, he threw up again. When he got to the ramp of the plane, his whole body began to ache. "He kind of keeled over," said Tom Marshall, a Royals forward. "Dick Ricketts and Jack Twyman were there, and we helped him to the plane."
Stokes could have been packed in an ambulance and sent to a Detroit hospital. But a hangover or a little flu was surely something the Royals doctor could handle back in Cincinnati. The Royals' plane took off. Within a few minutes, Stokes was covered in sweat. "I feel like I'm going to die," he cried. He said nothing else. Stokes's teammates thought he'd passed out.
But Stokes was very aware of the events of the next several minutes. He saw a flight attendant place an oxygen mask over his mouth. He heard Richie Regan, a Royals guard, invoke the emergency provision that allows a layman to baptize a dying man into the Catholic Church. Stokes had been toying with Catholicism — the baptism pleased him. But Stokes could not respond. A rigid, neurological barrier had formed between what Stokes could see and what he was able to do. It was a lonely sensation he later compared to being buried alive.
"Nobody knew what the hell the problem was," said Celtics Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn. "I'm not sure they do today." Indeed, when the Royals talked about how bad they felt for Mo, they didn't say much about the injury. Even when they heard it diagnosed as post-traumatic encephalopathy, they couldn't make much sense of it. Football players were the ones carted off the field as vegetables. It didn't happen in basketball. The Royals felt the same bafflement we felt when Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis died.
The plane landed in Cincinnati. Stokes remembered a half-dozen players carrying his corpse-like body down the stairs. Paxson said the rest of the players stayed put and craned their necks to look out the airplane windows. They watched paramedics load Stokes onto an ambulance.
When he opened his eyes in the hospital, Maurice Stokes could not move his limbs, and he could not speak.
John Kennedy "Jack" Twyman, a 6-foot-6 Royals forward, was sitting one row in front of Stokes on the plane. On the surface, the two men had a lot in common. They were both from Pittsburgh and had played each other in high school summer leagues. But in basketball terms, Twyman was Stokes's intellectual opposite. Stokes was a rebounder, an on-court mensch. Twyman just wanted to shoot. His favorite line in warm-ups was, "Right back, baby!" He didn't play much defense. "When I played against him," said Dolph Schayes, "I'd score 30 a game and he'd get 35. We would guard each other. I used to joke that I got him into the Hall of Fame and he got me into the Hall of Fame."
"You know Maurice and Jack never got along when they played?" said Monk Meineke. During one game with the Royals, Twyman took three shots. He missed them all. Stokes rumbled under the boards and snagged all three rebounds. On the next possession, Twyman did what came naturally: He shot the ball again. He missed. Timeout was called, and Stokes told Twyman to cut it the fuck out.
That was Twyman. He was a bottomless pit of self-confidence. While he was still playing basketball, he sold insurance. He later parlayed that into a richly compensated job as CEO of a wholesale food distributor. "Like I told you," Paxson said, "he was a shooter."
When the Shooter decided to devote his life to caring for Stokes, he was 24 years old. "What am I going to do?" Twyman told a teammate. "I'm from Pittsburgh, he's from Pittsburgh. He didn't have any family here. I just did it."
"Maybe it was the naïveté," said his son, Jay Twyman. "If you were really smart and thought things through, you'd say it was impossible to raise $100,000 a year to pay for Maurice's hospital bills. Their contracts to play pro ball were $15,000 a year."
Twyman was white; Stokes was black. Twyman understood the optics, but they didn't mean much to him. He was friends with a lot of black basketball players. Nobody made much money, which he felt drew everyone closer.
Twyman's management of Stokes's life was complete. Stokes's dad worked in a steel mill back in Pittsburgh and didn't get to Cincinnati much. In April, Twyman petitioned the courts to become Maurice's legal guardian. He became Stokes's accountant (Stokes had $9,000 in the bank), his health specialist, and his communications director with the world.
Stokes could not speak. So Twyman stood at his bedside and ran through the letters of the alphabet, asking Stokes to blink when he got to the first letter of the first word he wanted to say. "A?" Twyman would ask. No response from Maurice. "B?" No response. "C?" When Stokes blinked, Twyman would hunt for the second letter. "A? B? C?"
In the fall of 1958, Stokes's hospital room became a mandatory stop for NBA teams that were playing the Royals. But many players were unnerved by his giant, inert form — Stokes's injury still didn't make sense to them. They tended to avoid touching or hugging Stokes. They stood at the edge of the bed, cracked a few jokes, and split. See you next time, Mo, they'd say. "I'll be here," Stokes would blink.
Twyman kept no such distance. He and Stokes were intellectual rivals. Their lingua franca was the sarcastic dig. They were still arguing the point that came up that day in the huddle.
"What's wrong with being a rebounder?" Maurice asked one time.
"A guy like you had to be a rebounder," Twyman said. "You couldn't hit with the first shot, so you had to get the second or third."
In 1958, the NBA had no pension plan. The Royals cut Stokes after his injury, so he had no income. Twyman figured he needed a perpetual cash-generator to keep Stokes alive. That fall, Twyman was playing in New York when he got to talking with a hotelier named Milton Kutsher. Kutsher, who was nuts for basketball, suggested a charity game at his hotel in the Catskill Mountains. I'll provide the rooms and the food, Kutsher said, if you bring the best players in the NBA. Twyman got on the phone and started calling his pals.
On August 4, 1959, NBA players began pulling into the oblong drive at Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club in the Catskills. Twyman had hoped to get 10 guys — enough for a game. But while he was making calls, so were Kutsher's public-relations man Haskell Cohen (a former NBA PR director) and Zelda Spoelstra, who worked in the league office. Cars pulled up with tags from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio. They got 30 players.
Kutsher's was a glittering star in the constellation of Jewish resorts in the Catskills. It sits at the top of a wooded hill in the town of Monticello, which the locals call Monti-sell-o. Kutsher's has an 18-hole golf course, a cosmetics counter, and a nightclub that has featured everyone from Jackie Mason to Alan King. You can spot the additions to the hotel by the subtle changes in the carpet patterns.
The Catskills might seem like a strange place for basketball: Hello, Mrs. Lipshitz! Hello, Mr. Drexler! But since the late '40s, Kutsher's had been recruiting college basketball players for jobs as bellhops and waiters. At night, the "bellhops" became ringers on the hotel's house team. While he was winning world titles with the Celtics, Red Auerbach coached a summer team at Kutsher's. Wilt Chamberlain was a Kutsher's bellhop. Basketball players were hired entertainers — the new Catskills comedians.
"It was an opportunity to make some money and meet some girls," said Bob Cousy, who worked down the road at the Tamarack Lodge. "We went up having never been kissed. We were outnumbered 15-to-one by all those horny New York City girls who came up for their vacation. The jocks looked juicier than the average waiter, I guess.
"The first year I worked as a waiter I came home with $1,500 in twos and ones. They still had two-dollar bills back then! I came home and dumped all this money on the table. My mother called the police because that was the most money she'd ever seen at one time. She was sure I'd robbed a grocery store."
The Stokes Game was based on the same idea, except with more star power. "We're not talking about the second-tier players," said Dolph Schayes. "We're talking about Russell, Chamberlain, Cousy, and Havlicek." The players paid their own way up and back. For the game site, Milton Kutsher selected a simple asphalt court next to a maple tree. The backboards were made of wood and KUTSHER'S was stenciled on them in large script.
The hotel staff acted as if they were throwing the world's biggest bar mitzvah. They built wooden bleachers. They ordered green and gold uniforms. Kutsher told his son, Mark, that he could come to the game as long as he helped out. At 8:30 p.m., fans crowded around the court. A newsreel camera started whirring.
August 1959 was a lucky time to start the game: Wilt Chamberlain, the old Kutsher's bellhop, was about to make his NBA debut. The Stokes Game was the very first look at how Chamberlain would fare against the pros.
Auerbach, who was coaching the opposing team, unleashed his goons: Boston's "Jungle" Jim Loscutoff and Detroit's Walter Dukes, who'd just led the NBA in foul-outs. They dog-piled Chamberlain. Chamberlain didn't even play a full half and finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 blocks. "It absolutely was a statement," said Mark Kutsher. "Not only 'I can play with you guys,' which they knew and he knew, but 'I'm gonna be the best thing you ever saw.'"
"He's going to drive coaches to the nuthouse," Auerbach moaned after the game. Fuzzy Levane, the Knicks coach, was already there: He complained that Chamberlain was goaltending. Chamberlain said, "They'll keep yelling until the refs call a few bad blocks. Next thing they'll raise the baskets to 12 feet."
The Stokes Game was like the All-Star Game with a deeper bench. But it was almost a secret. Maybe 3,000 fans saw it live. Moviegoers saw a little over a minute of newsreel footage. The Kutshers collected $4,000 for Stokes's convalescence.
After the game, a Kutsher's employee asked the best players in the world to return their jerseys. They would need them next year. Everybody was coming back.
The Shooter had all sorts of ideas to raise money for Stokes. Twyman invited big-time sports columnists into the hospital room. He didn't do it often. And he picked guys like the Los Angeles Times's Jim Murray or the Post's Milton Gross — guys who could write the soulful human-interest stories Twyman wanted. After their columns appeared, readers would send envelopes full of money, which piled up in Maurice's room. Stokes wanted the nurses to write a thank-you note to everybody, but it was impossible.
When someone suffers a catastrophic injury, recovery takes on its own psychology. First a phony goal is set forth. "I'll be back playing basketball with the Cincinnati Royals," Stokes declared early on. Then a realistic goal is set forth. In Stokes's case, that was walking under his own power. The people around him believed he could have walked had he lived longer.
"Yessir, I do," said his physical therapist, Charles Eliopulos. "At the time when I was working with him, we had him in braces. They were the longest that were ever made, I think. They went clear over his shoulders and were attached to his shoes. With parallel bars, he would shuffle his feet along without me helping him for a distance of about eight or 10 feet."
Stokes's mornings began with a nurse feeding him breakfast. It was real food, eggs and cereal, and Eliopulos would enter the room and find Stokes's plate cleaned. Eliopulos would pull Stokes out of bed, use a pivot to maneuver him into a wheelchair, and take him to a whirlpool. Then the therapist would stretch his muscles, which made Stokes scream. "The sweat pours off him like it's pouring out of a shower," Twyman once observed. Stokes took a nap around midday, ate lunch, and repeated his therapy in the afternoon. Dinner was New York cut sirloins — procured by Twyman — veggies, and dessert.
Twyman came to the hospital nearly every day on his way home from practice. When he got within 10 feet of the room, he could hear Stokes laughing. After a while, Twyman started bringing his kids, Lisa and Jay. He was careful to describe Stokes as a man rather than his ward. "It was never phrased in such a blatant way as, 'This is your brother, I adopted him,'" Jay Twyman said. "It was, 'This is the man we're helping out.'"
People often said Stokes was never bitter or angry about his injury. The claim should be treated with suspicion, because Stokes couldn't communicate what was in his head. He smiled a lot, though. His lower jaw would drop open like a nutcracker, and the corners of his mouth would curl slightly. That smile had a way of convincing visitors that Stokes was at peace. Twyman would go into the hospital in the dumps and come out bouncing. "Maurice couldn't do anything but he could do everything," said Jim Paxson. "You know what I mean?"
Stokes learned to speak again. His words came out as a stuttering moan. Everyone in the room would go silent except for Twyman, who recognized what Stokes was saying. It was a dig.
"Oh, come on, Maurice!" Twyman would say. And then they both started cracking up.
As part of Stokes's therapy, the hospital staff hung a sling near his bed. Stokes placed his left wrist in the sling, and it allowed him to suspend his hand above a nearby typewriter. Stokes typed his first sentence for Twyman. It was a difficult task and it took him about a week to complete. The sentence read: "How can I ever thank you for all you've done?"
The Stokes Game wasn't a cupcake game like today's All-Star Game. When a guy drove baseline, five defenders didn't take a synchronous step to the left to let him dunk. "Listen, I nearly got killed in one of those games," said the Bullets' Kevin Grevey. "It was a Knicks or a Nets player — I can't remember which one. I went to the basket and he nearly took my head off. I was like, So this is all good fun. What a bunch of crap that was!"
"Wilt was god when I was there," said the Pacers' Len Elmore. "I was absolutely in awe. One time, he went up for a shot. I couldn't stop him, so I tried to foul him. I got caught on his wrist and he almost lifted me off the ground."
Chamberlain was the Stokes Game's prime attraction, its chief bullshitter. After the game, a crowd formed around Chamberlain in the Kutsher's coffee shop while he gulped down plates of food. "Wilt would hold court and talk about how … good he was at things," said Marc White, a counselor at the Kutsher's sports camp. One year, the Warriors' Adrian Smith pulled up at Kutsher's and introduced Chamberlain to his young son, Tyler. Now, Chamberlain was the best player in the NBA; Smith was a solid point guard who was happy to be wearing the same uniform. Wilt told the boy, "Tyler, I'm the guy who got your dad that car."
The first challenger to Chamberlain's Stokes supremacy was Lew Alcindor. The two had a history at Kutsher's: Chamberlain had invited Alcindor to the Catskills when Alcindor was a New York City high school player. Alcindor's first Stokes Game was 1969. On an early possession, he dunked on Chamberlain. Chamberlain got the ball back and unleashed a dunk that modern announcers would have called "emphatic." "If Kareem didn't move out of the way," said Mark Kutsher, "he'd have been going through the backboard with the ball." Since the Stokes Game took place between the NBA draft and the start of the season, it became the proving ground for every heralded rookie. "I remember Pete Maravich was in awe of that game," said the Bullets' Kevin Loughery. This was in 1970, when Pistol Pete was the third pick in the draft. Maravich was so much in awe he shot 4-for-18. His passes hit guys in the head. The Celtics' Dave Cowens, who'd been taken with the fourth pick, had 32 points and 22 rebounds. Kutsher remembers seeing a shit-eating grin forming behind Red Auerbach's cigar.
In 1971, the Kutshers figured they could no longer ask the best basketball players in the world to play on asphalt. So they moved the game to a drafty, barn-like gym down the road. A few of the Celtics thought it resembled the Boston Garden, only with fewer seats. To complete the effect, Auerbach donated the original, pre-parquet Garden floor to Milt Kutsher. Cousy showed up at the Stokes Game, bounced the ball on the floor a couple of times, and declared, "Same dead spots."
The NBA didn't yet have a formal offseason. The Stokes Game became the place business was transacted. In 1965, Sixers owner Ike Richman came to Kutsher's and signed Chamberlain to a $100,000-a-year contract. (When Philly coach Dolph Schayes was asked how he felt about the deal, Schayes answered: "Poor.") Starting in the late '60s, the players powwowed to discuss the NBA-ABA merger. In 1964, the Stokes Game marked the debut of the NBA's new 16-foot-wide lane, and a dozen years later, of Tiny Archibald's newly shorn head.
Once, basketball players had been summoned to Kutsher's like Yiddish comedians. Now, they came as rich men on a holiday. "Danny Ainge was an excellent tennis player," the Celtics' M.L. Carr said. "One year, Ainge said, 'M.L., you can't play. I don't have any sneakers but I'll play you in socks.' He beat me with socks on. Then Ainge said, 'I'll play you with only my left hand.' He beat me with only his left hand.'"
"I was a pretty good tennis player," said Kevin Grevey, "but I remember losing to Red Auerbach. That was one of my worst defeats as a pro athlete. Red just pushed and shoved the ball around the court and I choked. And Red never, ever let me forget it. I'd see him and he'd say, 'Still can't beat me, Grevey!'"
They were basketball players. They had some naughty fun. A Hall of Famer told me he met a woman at a neighboring hotel who offered herself to him within earshot of her husband. But mostly the players hung around and B.S.'ed. They played golf. They went to Kutsher's dining room and stared at the kasha varnishkes. Carr, who'd played a season in Israel, said, "I was probably the only black guy up there that could speak Hebrew."
By 1965, Stokes could moan a few words, walk 10 feet, and do a partial push-up. He was ready to travel to his first Stokes Game.
Naturally, Twyman persuaded an Ohio businessman to lend him a private plane. The plane carried Stokes and Twyman along with Royals players Oscar Robertson, Wayne Embry, and Adrian Smith. Embry was the team's center, so Robertson nominated him to lift Stokes into the plane. They strapped Stokes into a seat. A nurse stood by and wiped the saliva from his cheeks.
Mark Kutsher met the players at the Orange County airport in New York. Stokes was carried off the plane and loaded into the back of an ambulance. The rest of the players took a car. On the night of the game, Stokes was wheeled to the asphalt court amid wild applause.
Stokes had become a beatific figure even for the ballplayers who were keeping him alive — a sign above his bed contained the Barbra Streisand lyrics, "People who need people/Are the luckiest people in the world." A Filipino mother of six sent a letter saying Stokes had caused her to renounce thoughts of suicide. Kids in the Good Samaritan Hospital were taken to Stokes's room to be inspired, fired up. Claude Brown, the father of future Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, told his son he was Stokes's injury replacement in the Royals lineup. Scott Brown later discovered that his dad, caught up in the Stokes legend, had made the whole thing up.
Yet here was Stokes in the flesh — wearing his thick glasses and smiling that nutcracker smile. The players went up to him and extended their hands. Stokes slowly lifted his hand to shake them. "Those guys played like maniacs that night," said Jerry Izenberg, a columnist at the Newark Star-Ledger.
Stokes had been making pottery, simple pieces he could form with his hands. They were his gifts for the players. He made one for Wilt, one for Oscar, one for Dave DeBusschere. Some players keep the ashtrays and vases and plaques with their basketball trophies. They have trouble talking about this without crying.
By 1970, Stokes was collecting books like he once had rebounds. He asked for thick histories, like Bruce Catton's multi-volume studies of the Civil War. He was 36 years old. His fingers now moved more frequently across the typewriter keys. Jim Paxson got a note on Cincinnati Royals letterhead. It began:
Then there was a series of blank lines, as if a shaky finger had tapped the return key many times.
The Cincinnati Royals have hired me to be a scout. If you know of any good players, let me know.
There were many more blank lines.
"It probably took him all day," Paxson said.
Two or three times a month, Stokes came to the Twymans' house for Sunday dinner. "It took a mass of humanity," Jay Twyman said. "He would come in an ambulance. They'd need helpers to pull the body out, put him in a wheelchair, and wheel in him." Stokes was pushed up to the Twymans' dinner table, where a nurse would feed him and wipe his mouth. Jack Twyman started teasing him: "Maurice, I can't carry you around — can't you pull your own weight?"
On March 30, 1970, Stokes suffered a heart attack. Twyman was out of town, so he dispatched his wife, Carole, to the hospital. Carole found Stokes on a stretcher with doctors bent over him. Stokes spotted her and moaned words to her. He died six days later. The hospital kept his body long enough for Twyman to return to Cincinnati and pay his respects.
Stokes left behind an interesting piece of writing. "When the sun peeks over the horizon, it is the signal for the beginning of a new day," it read. "The beauty that the sun creates is something that words cannot describe. To me, one of the great satisfactions of living in the country is that you can get the real beauty of the sun, without the obstruction of the smoke." For the last dozen years of his life, Stokes had lived in a hospital room in downtown Cincinnati. The "country" probably refers to the few days each year he spent in the Catskills.
Twyman gave up running the Stokes Game after Maurice's death. His mission, he said sadly, was complete. But players kept turning up in the Catskills every August. The Stokes Game selected new beneficiaries. The old Celtic and Knick Gene Conley had a heart problem. Howard Porter, the star of the '71 NCAA tournament, needed money for rehab. An NBA widow called to say she couldn't afford to bury her husband. The Kutshers cut checks to all of them.
By the mid-1970s, Stokes the man began to get indistinct and fuzzy again. Like Brian Piccolo, he had become a media saint, a TV movie. Old-timers who knew him were increasingly the lifeblood of the Stokes Game. Twyman and Chamberlain came every year. Auerbach, who was by then the general manager of the Celtics, told his players: It's up to you, but consider it mandatory. One night in the late '70s, Kenny Albert, who's now a Fox play-by-play man, was shooting baskets at the old Kutsher's outdoor court with a pal. "It was like a scene in Field of Dreams," Albert said. "Out of the darkness appears Oscar Robertson."
The Stokes Game faced two intractable problems. One, the Catskills were disintegrating. Vacationers who had once trekked to Kutsher's every year began using cheap airfares to fly to London, Cancun, Punta Cana. When Dirty Dancing came out in 1987, it was a fond glance backward, a eulogy. "There was gallant feeling up here," said Mal Z. Lawrence, an old Catskills comedian. "Everything was going right. Then everything disappeared. It's like a bomb went off and there's no more hotels."
The second problem was that the NBA was growing. Clyde Drexler was the MVP of the '88 Stokes Game. But Larry, Magic, and Michael never made the trip to Kutsher's. They couldn't risk their knees on a 30-year-old court. They had their own charities. There are two ways to think about this. The gloomy way is that the NBA had become barnacled by lawyers, agents, and insurers. The happy way is that the league was finally big enough to take care of its own.
The Stokes Game dissolved slowly. Five years after Drexler won the MVP, the roster was down to Danny Schayes, Malik Sealy, and Anthony Mason — and Mason forgot his shoes and had to drive back to White Plains to get them. Marc White, the camp counselor, was thrown onto the court so they could have two full teams. "I have a picture of Anthony Mason's elbow in my neck," White said. "He's got a scowl on his face like, Who is this guy?"
When Chamberlain died in 1999, just two months after his final trip to Kutsher's, they canceled the Stokes Game. It lived on for a few more years as a pro-am golf tournament. Jack Twyman got a form of leukemia in 2006. The cancer went away, then returned in 2012. The Shooter received the news of his imminent death as gracefully as you'd expect. "He was propped up by drugs, but his mind was working perfectly," Jay Twyman said. "My dad was so upset. He'd say, 'I feel so young! I'm just too young!'"
Did Jack mention Maurice in his final days? I asked.
"He'll kill me for this," Jay Twyman said, "but when he was in the hospital he got a bedsore. You're lying in bed. You're gonna get a bedsore. But he was so upset. When he was getting treatment from the nurse, he'd look at me and say, 'Maurice never had a blemish!'"
Jay Twyman laughed. It was as if the contest between the Shooter and the Rebounder had continued into the beyond. "I think Maurice must have whispered to him, 'Jack, you're a little wimp.'"