The Royal Stoker

[Several years ago, I spent a memorable evening with Bob Wilson and Earl Lloyd, two of the first Black cagers in the NBA. They were also college teammates at West Virginia State (1947-50). Today, Lloyd is remembered as the first Black player to appear in an NBA game and accolades, deservedly, flowed to him for making history until his death in 2015. 

Coming out of college, Lloyd wasn’t much of a shooter. He was a tall, athletic kid with long arms, the “Moon Fixer” they called him. He could reach up and snatch rebounds out of the air, gather himself, and leap up and drop two-footers into the hoop. Many of those rebounds came from misses by Wilson, the team’s muscular, 6-foot-3 scoring machine. Having spent a few years in the military, Big Bob was a man playing among boys in the Black college ranks. He’d mastered all the shots, all the footwork, and all the grit needed to finish around the basket. Get Wilson the ball, and he was good for 20 points a game. 

Wilson went unselected in the 1950 NBA draft. But he caught on the next season with the NBA Milwaukee Hawks, averaging a respectable 20 minutes a game as a rookie. Unlike his high-scoring college days, Wilson trickled in 3.7 points a contest for the Hawks, while shooting a mere 30 percent from the field. As Wilson explained to me, he and other Black players weren’t in the game to score. They were in there to do the dirty work—set screens, jostle for position in the paint, rebound the misses, and pass the ball back out to their featured white teammates for another one-handed set shot that reset the roar of the mostly white crowd. 

Racist, yes. But pro basketball was still a nickel-and-dime business, and most of the promoter/owners feared (as history would prove, wrongfully) that nobody would pay to watch Black players’ lead the offensive attack. The NBA’s superstars, like baseball’s Ted Williams and Joe DiMagggio, had to be handsome, white boys next-door to keep the turnstiles turning. Leonard Koppett, a New York Times reporter and NBA insider, said it well in his book 24 Seconds to Shoot, “Whatever else the sports promoters were, they were not social-engineering heroes, eager to take what they saw as a risk in their already shaky enterprise. In this, as in most things, they acted upon expediency as they understood it.” 

Lloyd was well-suited to do the dirty work, Wilson wasn’t, and he struggled to embrace the indignity of dumbing down his sophisticated game. Wilson ended up blowing out a knee, and that was it for his NBA career. “In those days,” he told me, “there was no sports medicine. It was expected that one bad really bad injury and your career was over.”

Wilson’s struggle to adapt to a system that looked past his talent is what makes so remarkable the rise of Maurice Stokes just four seasons later. As a rookie, Stokes was the NBA’s first featured Black star. True, change was inevitable, with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson percolating through the college ranks to loud applause and acclaim. But remember: for every Elgin Baylor, there was a Willie Naulls, a Cleo Hill, and other Black college stars of the 1950s whose names long ago stopped trickling comfortably off the tongue. 

As NBA players love to say, “Making it in the League is all about finding the right fit.” Stokes got that perfect fit in Rochester, a proud franchise in the midst of a rebuild and which happened to be run by Les Harrison, the “Branch Rickey of basketball.” As described in this article, which appeared in Sports Review’s 1957 Basketball Yearbook and the start of his second NBA season, Stokes took the opportunity that Bob Wilson never had and started clearing the lane for the African-American revolution to come.

Maurice Stokes

Before the whistle blew opening play in the National Basketball Association last season, the acknowledged golden boy among the league’s prize rookie crop was the Philadelphia Warriors’ Tom Gola.

That was understandable enough. Talented Tommy had captured the headlines as a member of LaSalle college team which won the NCAA title. And when the Warriors obtained draft rights to him, everyone said it was like getting a chunk of Fort Knox. But as good as Tom is, he still had plenty of publicity help from the Philadelphia and New York press. 

When they started playing for keeps in the pro league, the rookie who made them all stand up and take notice was Maurice (The Magnificent) Stokes, a fine Negro athlete from out of St. Francis College of Loretto, PA.

Few people knew where St. Francis College was. The college’s stationery describes it simply as the college in the pines. But Stokes put the school on the map. 

Now the big guy from Pittsburgh who plays for the NBA’s Rochester Royals is being talked up by basketball people everywhere as the best window dressing the pro league has had since large George Mikan.

Al Cervi, the fiery coach of the Syracuse Nats, was holding court once for the press in his dressing room, and the question was put, “Al, who do you consider the best rookie in the league?” 

“Well,” Al said without hesitating, “the answer has got to be Stokes. But it could go further than that. He may very well be the best player in the league.” 

This remark was passed after Maurice had been in the league less than a month. It is a rare tribute when you can get any coach to offer that kind of praise on a rookie on such short notice. These coaches are too used to watching All-American collegians come into the League and fizzle as pros. 

Cervi’s words carried a lot of weight later when Stokes was the only rookie in the league chosen to play in the All-Star game. Still later, he was voted Rookie of the Year. 

“That Stokes does things with the ball,” observed Joe Lapchick, former coach of the New York Knickerbockers. “He makes the play, he moves inside and outside. You try to figure him playing against somebody like Dolph Schayes of Syracuse, and he doesn’t come out badly.”

Joe Lapchick

Lapchick has a lasting picture of Stokes, for it was against the Knicks that Stokes officially broke in like a burglar into pro basketball. “Big Mo” ate up the backboards and nets in a tremendous inaugural effort in his first pro game. 

If anyone had a notion that this was just beginner’s luck, Mo soon dispelled the thought with consistent high-grade shooting, rebounding, feeding, and aggressive all-around play. 

Rochester’s fans through the years had become accustomed to watching great players in their own bailiwick, former Royals standouts such as Bobby Davies, Red Holzman, Fuzzy Levane, Bobby Wanzer, George Glamack, Otto Graham, Arnie Risen, Cervi, Franny Curran, Andy Duncan, Arnie Johnson.

But this Stokes, he was something different. When he injured a leg severely, enough to put most players out of action, he simply had it taped up like a mummy and played on what amounted to a leg and a half.

The fact that Stokes played so brilliantly on a club that turned out to be the losingest club in the eight-team NBA circuit last season is just more of a tribute to his ability and hustle. 

When Stokes was burning up the boards in college, he was one of the most sought-after players by the pros. 

To sign Stokes, named most valuable player in the National Invitational Tournament, Royals owner Les Harrison had to outbid Abe Saperstein, the crafty impresario of the world-famed Harlem Globetrotters.

Although figures were not divulged, it is no secret that Abe offered Stokes $15,000 a season [today, $145,00] to join his touring company of Negro basketball magicians. “Frankly,” said Harrison, “Maurice signed with us for less than Abe’s figure.”

“Eleven months of basketball with the Trotters is too long,” Mo explains. “I’d like some of those trips they make. But the competition made me choose the NBA. I figure if you do well in this league, you’re doing it against the best players in the world.”

Royals coach, Bobby Wanzer, a great player in his own right, says of Mo: “He’s a tremendous asset over six feet, six inches tall and weighs 235 pounds but can move like 180-pounder. Stokes gives us a terrific start for rebuilding our club. He was the guy we wanted, but I didn’t think we had much chance when I heard the Trotters were after him. After all, Abe usually gets who he wants. Look at the way he grabbed off Walt Dukes when the Knicks (who now have him) were fighting for him when he came out of college.”

The Stoker is extremely versatile on the court . He can play up front, in back or in the corners. He moves like a small man, rebounds beautifully, and can play a man inches taller on even terms. He has all the shots, including a deadly one hand push from around the circle. He passes off very well and often. 

He takes no bullying from the league’s veterans. When the rough play around the backboards began, Mo moved in and took charge, well enough in fact to mark him as one of the leagues’ top rebounders as well as scorers. 

When he came out of Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, where his father works in the steel mills and where he played with Royals’ teammate and former Niagara University star, Ed Fleming, Stokes could have named his college. He chose St. Francis because it had the double advantage of campus life and being near Pittsburgh.  

Once when playing in a basketball game as a youngster, an opponent accidentally stuck a finger nail in Mo’s eye, and Mo had to wear a patch and dark glasses for a long time and still wears glasses off court now. But there’s nothing wrong with his eyesight once the game starts. He doesn’t even use the glasses in the game. Highlight of his brilliant college career was the night he scored 43 points for the Frankies in a losing cause against Dayton in the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden. 

Sweetwater Clifton of the New York Knickerbockers was a spectator at that game. Afterwards, “Sweets” was almost speechless at what he saw. He recovered sufficiently to remark, “I’ve never seen anyone play like that kid. He does everything.”

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