Remembering Maurice Stokes

Maurice Stokes came down court in his graceful lope, took a pass from Richie Regan, saw daylight down the middle and drove in. Just as he moved through the keyhole, the daylight dimmed. Two definitely placed rear ends caught him in a snapping vise. Maurice hung there under the basket for an instant, like a galloping moose stunned by the unexpected crash of the hunter’s bullet into his tough hide. Then he dropped , tumbling forward across the end line and into the first row of spectators. He scrambled back, looked at the referee and was notified that he had been called for traveling. 

No bones were broken, his pride was undamaged—Maurice doesn’t worry about pratfalls or the laughter they provoke—and he didn’t make a face. But he learned a lesson from the brief skirmish under the nets. His mistake had not been trying to drive down the landlocked middle; his error had been getting caught in the trap. Next time he would remember to move in a little quicker and a little harder. 

That the pros, tough and talented, would give him, a rookie with a big name, a working-over was something young Maurice Stokes of St. Francis College had expected. He knew it was part of the game, and that it came to all rookies. Here he was, a glory boy from the pep rallies and easy applause of All-America life on a college campus—even one as small as the Franciscan school at Loretto, PA—looking to play in a league where All-Americans sat on the bench and liked it. Or else went into AAU ball. Stokes, strong and mature as the son of a steel-millhand father often is, was ready for his lumps. But he was ready to succeed. And that he is done—despite his lumps. 

The pros, in any sport, accept as a regular tenet the need to determine, by various means, the give-and-take qualities of a newcomer. In its strategy, this working-over has the flavor of Hell Week on fraternity row, but in its execution, it resembles more the opening round of a prize fight. You feel out your opponent. You’re going to be in there with him for a while, and you have to know as quickly as you can how he moves, when he blinks, where he doesn’t like it. 

The test is reasonably standardized around the League and varies only in degree and laboratory technique. It begins informally in the exhibition season and turns hot in the early weeks of the official, salary-paying campaign. If a rookie shies away, the going-over becomes habit. Even this late in the season, there is a rookie or two who has to ride with an elbow in his ear every time he moves with the ball toward the basket. There are stories, told only in hotel lobbies and only in the closest of confidences, about rookies who were browbeaten right out of the league. 

Stokes who was not the only rookie to receive The Treatment. But how he took the full blast of such brainwashing, beating it back and becoming an exciting and talented new star in pro ball, is a fitting success story in a successful NBA season. Nothing was noticeably omitted from Maurice’s baptism. When he shot fouls, the usual silence on the court was broken by wishful whispers known either as whammies or “canaries.” When he lined up for someone else’s foul shot, he was leaned against heavily. On offense, he was walked into blocks; on defense, he was run into a teammate on a pick or a push. He had his toe stepped on under the boards, his pants tugged down when he wanted to jump up. He was boxed out and hemmed in, spun when coming down and goosed when going up. 

In an exhibition game against the Boston Celtics, a big Celt known for his blackness of soul he portrays on the court, feigned a stumble, thereby inviting Stokes to drive around him. Maurice lunged at the advantage, but as he fled by, he was jolted by a body block neatly planted by the hatchetman. It was counted, however, as a point on the side of the angels that the hatchetman was smiling when he returned to the Boston bench soon afterwards with the news that Stokes didn’t scare. “He hits back, too,” he reported without malice but with a welt on his side. Maurice’s shoulder had dug deep.  

If there was anything unexpected about Stokes’ baptism, it was its brevity. The Treatment lasted just once around the league. Then, quietly, it ended. The rookie with the long legs and big shoulders was in. He had been initiated and proven unwanting. Boston coach Red Auerbach was one who predicted the outcome. Halfway through the exhibition, Auerbach said that, “Stokes is no rookie. He was ready for the league when he was in college. Nothing’ll stop him.” Another NBA coach, not given to undue compassion and compromise, commented after his opening game against Stokes and the Rochester Royals that “there’s nothing more I have to know about this fellow. He’s good, and he’s ready. Why knock myself out trying to make him timid? He won’t be backed down. If I keep trying to disprove it, I’ll end up with a player of mine hurt.” 

Stokes’ test ride was probably the shortest in the history of the NBA. 

I spent a few cold and windy days of early winter in Rochester getting to know Stokes, and one of the questions I was determined to have answered was how he felt about his working-over. We were sitting in the stands during the first game of a pro doubleheader, and Jesse Arnelle, who had joined the Fort Wayne Pistons after the start of the season, was getting jammed up when he moved toward the defensive backboard. Arnelle, I knew, is a friend of Stokes. 

“It must be frustrating not being able to move in close enough to have a fighting chance for the rebound,” I said. 

“It isn’t really that bad,” Stokes said, his eyes on the court. “The pros are bigger and stronger than college players, and you’re always working against fellows 6-8 and 6-9. But rebounding isn’t tough, not off the defensive board. What you have to learn is not to wait. In college I was able to delay and then rush in. There would always be room for me. Here, if you wait, you’re shut out. Everyone is board conscious. Even the little guys. Jesse’ll catch on.”

“How did you catch on?”

Maurice hesitated. (He has a habit of pausing slightly before answering. He is also a good listener.) “I don’t know,” he said, now watching me scribble in my notebook. “I just picked it up. I suppose it’s a matter of knowing what it is you have to do. Some fellows hold themselves back. It’s attitude or fear of failure. They hesitate because they’re afraid to make a mistake or look bad. It was the same way in college. Probably, I’m fortunate. I don’t hesitate.”

“Are you saying there is no difference between college and pro ball?” I asked, knowing well that he wasn’t saying that at all. But I wanted to get back to The Treatment.

“Not quite,” Maurice answered, adjusting his horn-rimmed glasses. (He was wearing a Harris tweed sport jacket, charcoal-gray slacks and a charcoal-gray cap with a belt in the back. He looked Ivy League, and a bit like Harry Belafonte, as a young lady a few rows back had noted earlier.) “There are a lot of little differences, but the big one I’ve noticed is that you have to be able to adapt. No two players are alike here. When you play Philadelphia, I usually take Paul Arizin. He’s a jumper. Against Minneapolis, it’s (Dick) Schnittker, a driver. Against St. Louis, I cover either Ricketts, who works outside, or Bob Pettit, who likes to move around the pivot. You have to adjust from game to game.”

I asked Stokes how such adaptation works, and he explained that with Arizin, for example, he plays him close before the shot and slacks off when he is inside. “He can drive,” Maurice said. “I prefer to give him his outside shot and just hope. You can’t hold these pro scoreless, so your job should be to keep their scoring within reason.”

We continued talking, but Stokes wasn’t saying much about The Treatment. When I would ask, he’d say, “They have to keep you honest” or “Once they know you’re going to keep playing, they don’t bother you.” When I would ask about certain specific tactics, he’d nod yes, they were tried. To end the subject, he said, “It really didn’t amount to much.”

He preferred talking about what he had learned from these tough and talented pros. Like: Everyone sags around the keyhole, and pros have good and busy hands. There isn’t much dribbling, he noted, and the give-and-go is a constant maneuver. Pros play a co-operative five-man defense (“and you can never slack”) and take advantage of every flaw. The impression he seemed to be giving was that working over a rookie was part of this pattern. If a rookie is a team’s flaw, the pros have to capitalize on it; if he isn’t, they shop elsewhere for an “edge.”

In the opening game of the season, it was clearly indicated that Stokes was no flaw in the Royals’ attack. It is doubtful if an NBA rookie ever made a more impressive debut. Before the largest crowd ever to watch professional basketball at Madison Square Garden, he made 11 baskets and 10 foul shots for 32 points, and pulled down 20 rebounds. He stole the ball, passed off, moved quickly up and down the court. With the Royals 17 points down, he came off the bench after a brief rest and hit for eight straight points. That crowd of New Yorkers was his that night. 

But Rochester lost the ball game, and in the Royals’ dressing room afterwards a reporter said to him, “Nice game, Maurice.”

Stokes looked at him and said, “No such thing as a nice game when you don’t win.”

The next morning, praise was everywhere. There was no doubt that Stokes was—and would remain a colorful, exciting, and talented star. He had been that in college, and he was maintaining the same dramatic tempo in the NBA. “Better than Gola,” some people said and “the next George Mikan.” People were jumping on the bandwagon, and from the way Maurice continued to go, it was a good place to be. 

In a win against Syracuse, he scored 17 points and brought down another twenty rebounds. In a loss against the Warriors, he had 26 points and again 20 rebounds. In the first three games of the season, he had scored 75 points, had 60 rebounds, and 19 assists. 

Such a beginning, obviously, made him feel good. “It’s a mental push,” Maurice explained afterwards. “Not that I thought I lacked confidence. I felt I could play in this league. But some fellows fight themselves. A start like I had turns everything the other way. You’re flying.”

He cruised a bit slower for a while after that beginning because, in the second week of the campaign, he hurt his leg and didn’t tell anyone. He just kept playing, getting 25 points against St. Louis. A week later, while on the road, he mentioned his injury to coach Bobby Wanzer, but assured him that it was coming around. He had been treating it himself—heat, whirlpool baths, massage. In the next game, however, he aggravated the injury and had to sit out a couple of weeks of action. 

When he returned, he was able to pick up the splash of stardom even before he regained full operating efficiency. Once he attained top working order, the show was on the road again in full swing. The talent and temperament to do the things required of a pro are there. He has good speed, can lead a fast break, and he knows what to do with a ball when he plucks it off the boards. Player-coach Wanzer, who thinks there is no one quite like Stokes, claims the big fellow (6-7, 230 pounds) is a perfect pro. 

“He can play inside, outside, or the corner,” Bobby says, “and he’s no stationary player. He’s always doing something—scoring, feeding. He is amazingly unselfish and completely likeable. He’s our board man because he’s the best in the league at it. He has a good, sound mind, he watches and learns and works. That and ability, and you have to have a great player. There is positively nothing I could ask of him that he hasn’t done and won’t do again.”

It was a long and exciting route that took Stokes from his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he bypassed Duquesne, to Loretto, almost to a world tour, and to stardom in Rochester, where he is the catalytic agent in the Noble Experiment of Royal owner Lester Harrison.

Maurice played for Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, where he was overshadowed by Ed Fleming, now a Rochester teammate. Stokes didn’t make any of his high school all-state teams; in fact, his only honor was selection on an alternate squad. But he had good size (6-5 then), agility and strength, and a number of colleges were interested. He received firm bids from Duquesne, Niagara, Washington and Jefferson, Penn State, and University of Hawaii—not an excessive list these days. Duquesne lost him because, more than anything else, he wanted to go to an out-of-town school. Hawaii failed because he didn’t want to go that far. What he wanted was a school just far enough away from home for him to live on campus, but close enough for him to visit his folks. 

It may seem too simple now, but it was because Maurice is part of a closely-knit family and yet felt the need to establish a mark of independence that he settled for little known St. Francis. There was no intrigue involved in his modest choice. Just the fact that Loretto is 74 miles from Pittsburgh—just the right distance, he says. While teammate Fleming went to Niagara, another teammate, Gene Phelps, who was also a very close friend, was already a student at St. Francis. 

Skip Hughes, who is a working dentist and basketball coach at St. Francis, made about 15 trips to Pittsburgh following Stokes’ graduation from Westinghouse. He was a man of modest desires. His dream was to have an All-America basketball player. Stokes looked like a possibility. Hughes took him to baseball games—although watching the Pirates may not have been any special treat to a Pittsburgh boy—and dinners, and carefully explained how a bigger name could be made at a small college. But even Skip admits it was less his salesmanship than Maurice’s fears and desires that sold his product. As a four-year varsity letterman, Stokes was on full athletic scholarship—room, board, tuition, and books. 

His success at St. Francis was immediate. In the third game of the season, against powerful Villanova and high-scoring Larry Hennessy, Stokes got 32 points and 28 rebounds before fouling out. St. Francis lost, 94-86. Villanova coach Al Severance’s comment afterwards was, “He’s the greatest freshman player I’ve ever seen.”

Severance should never have said that St. Francis, a good small-college team even before Stokes, had a respectable 30-game schedule that season. The next year, though, only 16 games could be lined up. Siena College, then only five years old itself, reported that it would be unable to schedule the Red Flash (that’s St. Francis) again because it was “previously committed to traditional rivals.” Siena had lost to St. Francis, 54-51, in Stokes’ freshman year. Other schools explained that “restricted budgets limited them to 20 games,” yet all managed to extend both budget and schedule later. The most-direct comment was by Honey Russell. His Seton Hall squad with Walter Dukes and Richie Regan in the lineup, was invited to play the Frankies in 1952-53. Russell’s answer, St. Francis has since reported, was: “We won’t play you until you lose Stokes.”

Iona, Georgetown, Le Moyne, Niagara, and Loyola (MD), all met and beaten in 1951-52, when St. Francis had a 23-7 record, were among the missing the following season. 

Things picked up in Maurice’s last two seasons. He scored 24 points against Villanova, 22, 25, 28, 22, and 24 in five meetings against Duquesne. For his four-year career, he topped 2,000 in points and rebounds. In the 1954 National Invitation Tournament, he scored 34 points and brought down 24 rebounds to beat Brigham Young, 81-68. It was after that game that New York City adopted Stokes. Many people had been slow to accept Maurice. These were the days of Bevo Francis and other scoring phenoms, and many roundball fans were suspicious of any deadeye rolling in from the hills. But now they were excited by the well-built young man from the small Pennsylvania school. 

In the quarter-finals against Duquesne, Maurice had 28 points and 20 rebounds, limited 6-8 Jim Tucker to one field goal, and fought the Dukes’ four big men—Tucker, Ricketts, Si Green, and Fletcher Johnson—with exceptional success off the boards. His club lost, 69-63, and was out of the tourney, but he came close to winning the Most Valuable Player award. 

The next year he had better luck. He topped his brilliant work in the NIT with 43 points against Dayton in the semi-finals. The Frankies lost the game, but this time Maurice won the MVP easily. He earned the same honor in the East-West All-Star game. 

By now, he was a hot item in the marketplace. Abe Sapterstein had him all but signed with the Harlem Globetrotters for a world tour. Both the Peoria Caterpillars and the Wichita Bankers offered him attractive AAU propositions. “They had quite an inducement,” Maurice says now. “If I played AAU ball, I would remain eligible for the Olympics.”

Then Harrison came into the picture. “Lucky Les,” the Rochester press calls him because he moved into the game knowing little and came out with a winner. Harrison had pioneered pro ball in Rochester, from running preliminaries for the Filaret girls’ basketball team to the great post-war Royal teams. He had Al Cervi, Bob Davies, Red Holzman, Fuzzy Levane, Otto Graham, and Bobby Wanzer on his club. Season ticket sales were heavy, victories were steady, and the team was the craze of Rochester. 

But as happens with all man-made machines, the Royals wore down. The players grew old, the fans spoiled, the turnstiles rusty. His team had finished first or second in its division nine times in its ten-year existence. It ended up third once—last season. 

Harrison’s idea had been to scrap the club before the real decay showed up, to do his rebuilding before last season. But, with the gate dangerously low, he feared the risk that the fans might fail, or refuse, to acknowledge that their old heroes were through and it was time for a change. The threat of a boycott of old, crampy Sports Arena loomed, he thought. So, Les decided to let the fans see for themselves that the old Royal dynasty was dead. It cost him another bad year at the gate, but at least now the public was convinced. The Noble Experiment was under way. 

He introduced his New Look this season. There were new uniforms, sweat suits, traveling bags, and faces. A veteran ballplayer was named coach. Prices were scaled down. A new arena—the 9,000-capacity War Memorial—was opened. And six members of his ten-man squad were new. But the key to it all was Stokes. 

Harrison knew at the start that this club would not be overly strong this year. The NBA is too well balanced for a rebuilding job to be completed overnight. During reconstruction, he figured, he needed a personality, an exciting, standout player to draw the crowds. Stokes was that man. 

At the draft meeting last April, with Tom Gola already the territorial property of Philadelphia, the big choice was between Stokes and Dick Ricketts. The St. Louis Hawks, picking first selected Ricketts, because they explained later, “We have enough shooters and need a quarterback.”

Still, after naming Stokes, Harrison had to gamble that he could sign him. The Globetrotters had been working on Maurice ever since the NIT. Walter Kennedy, a member of the Saperstein firm, had announced that Maurice would be signed to a one-year contract within a week, that the delay was due to Stokes’ turning the contract over to his lawyers for study. (“I never did any such thing,” Maurice told me.) Lucky Les was bidding against what he called “the Saperstein millions.”

He had a right to be nervous. “But I had a feeling Maurice would want to play with the pros.”

As Harrison explains it, Dolly King, the former LIU star who played briefly with the Royals, contributed to the campaign that finally landed Stokes. King met Maurice at the time of the East-West game and told him that Lester was “the Branch Rickey of basketball.” Dolly’s text was that Harrison had been the first to sign a Negro for the “major leagues.” He wasn’t counting the old informal dance-hall circuits. That first Negro was, incidentally, Dolly King.  

Dolly’s talk may have helped, but there were other notable factors. Skip Hughes believes that one of them was Maurice’s desire to establish a hometown for himself where he could go into business—he was an Economics major and an English minor at school—and that another was his distaste for playing one-night stands 12 months of the year. Stokes himself explains that he always wanted to play in the NBA, that it was a real challenge. 

The money angle didn’t hamper his decision, either. The Globetrotters’ last offer was $15,000 [$147,000 today] for a one-year contract. Considering that the pros play less than six months of league competition, Harrison bought high. Although neither he nor Maurice would reveal the final price, it is almost definitely $25,000 for a two-year contract. Which is extravagant pay for the NBA. Gola reportedly is earning the same amount, a note indicating another of Maurice’s talents—this time as he bargainer. 

“I have no complaints coming,” Harrison commented recently. “Maurice was not at all difficult to deal with. He told me what he wanted, and, after a while, I accepted. He was fair with me. You know what I said after I signed him? ‘Today I made history!’ That’s how sure I was he’d be great. Great for the Royals, and great for the league.” 

How much of this was originally made with fingers crossed is tough to determine. The boss of the Royals is not one to reject the prophet’s wreath. But most people now agree, he is entitled to wear it. With his Royal rookie, at least, Lucky Les was never righter. 

[This article ran in Sport Magazine in March 1956. The byline belongs to Irv Goodman.]

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