Published: Jun 01, 2012 3:10 AM EDT
Updated: Jun 01, 2012 6:31 AM EDT

One of the greats is gone.

And, no, we're not referring to anything Hall of Famer Jack Twyman did on a basketball court.

Twyman ignored the ugly racial times that were the 1950s and '60s to dole out perhaps the greatest assist in NBA history.

He stood up when many wouldn't, becoming the legal guardian and the best of friends to Maurice Stokes when his stricken African-American teammate needed him most.

It's a life everyone should know about.

It's a story worth telling again and again.

"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."

Twyman, who died Wednesday night at age 78 from an aggressive form of blood cancer, was a largely forgotten relic from that quaint era before professional hoops became a truly national sport. Never mind he was a six-time All-Star, who along with Wilt Chamberlain became the first player to average more than 30 points in an NBA season.

None of those glitzy numbers was more important than the lasting bond he carved out with Stokes, who passed away more than four decades ago but remained a part of Twyman until his last breath.

The NBA could do its part to keep their legacy alive by establishing the Twyman-Stokes award, honoring the best teammate in the league.

The recipient wouldn't have to go as far as Twyman did - stepping in as Stokes' legal guardian after he was stricken with a debilitating brain injury and essentially watching over him for the last 12 years of his life. But that would be the template. Someone who fit the description on and off the court, who would be willing to put aside his own wants and needs if something so tragic happened to another in the same uniform.

"I knew the story," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Thursday during a break in the Eastern Conference final, "but, honestly, I don't know it as well as I probably should."

Well, here's a refresher.

Stokes was one of the NBA's budding stars in the '50s, a power forward who could do a bit of everything. Rebound. Shoot. Dribble. Block shots. Run the court. In a documentary that aired on NBA TV, legendary coach Red Auerbach remembered Stokes as "Magic without flair."

Stokes scored 32 points in his first NBA game for the Rochester Royals. He went on to average 16.8 points, 16.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists in his rookie season, was chosen Rookie of the Year and earned the first of three straight trips to the All-Star game.

"Probably next to Michael Jordan, he was the greatest ballplayer to hit the NBA," Ed Kalafat, who played during that era, said in the same documentary. "This guy, for as big as he was, he could do everything Michael could."

Twyman, who was 11 months younger than Stokes, entered the league with Rochester during the same 1955-56 season and had the look of a budding star, though he wasn't as dominant as his teammate. The Royals moved to Cincinnati in 1957 and made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, with Stokes ranking third in the league in both rebounds and assists.

But Stokes - and Twyman - would be forever changed by what happened in the last game of the regular season at Minneapolis.

Stokes fell over the back of another player and slammed his head on the court. He was knocked cold but, in the crude medical treatment of the times, some smelling salts brought him back to consciousness and he finished the game. He also played in the opening playoff game, a loss at Detroit. On the flight back to Cincinnati, Stokes suddenly became ill.

"He sweated profusely," Twyman would remember years later. "It was if someone grabbed him by the head and dunked him in a swimming pool."

An ambulance was waiting when the plane landed, and Stokes was rushed to a nearby hospital. But nothing could be done. He fell into a coma and was totally paralyzed when he came out of it. He was suffering from post-traumatic encephalopathy, which ravaged the part of his brain that controlled motor skills. He would never walk again, much less play basketball.

That's where Twyman stepped in.

He was one of the few Royals who lived in Cincinnati during the offseason. His teammate was confined to a hospital bed - scared, all alone, with bills to pay and no way to do it.

"How would you like to be one of the premier athletes in the world on a Saturday?" Twyman once said. "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?"

Twyman took over as Stokes' legal guardian, organized what became an annual exhibition game to raise money, and made sure his buddy was cared for the rest of his all-too-short life. That Twyman was white and Stokes was black made no difference, even during an era when race relations had become the nation's defining struggle.

"To do what he did in the late '50s when, frankly, racial relationships were what they were, it wasn't a normal thing to do - a white man to basically adopt and become the legal guardian for Maurice," said Doleva, who oversees the hall where both men are rightfully enshrined. "It's an extraordinary story, but it speaks to his heart. Jack left his heart on the basketball court every time he played, but he had a much bigger heart when it came to his teammates."

Physically, Stokes never came close to being the man he once was. Mentally, he was stronger than ever, never feeling sorry for himself, never griping "Why me?" His heart finally gave out in 1970. He was just 36, having never realized anything close to his potential as a player, but having lived a full life as a man.

Later, when explaining why he did what he did, Twyman said simply, "That's what friends are for." Besides, he always felt he and his family got far more out of his relationship with Stokes than they ever gave back.

"He taught us a lot. We learned a lot from him," Twyman said in the documentary. "We're honored to have had the opportunity to be associated with him."

Right back at you, Jack Twyman.

The human race was honored to have been associated with you.

___

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963