The Tragedy of Maurice Stokes

To know Maurice Stokes was to hold him in the highest esteem. Case in point. On March 6, 1957, the NBA Rochester Royals closed out their season with “Maurice Stokes Night,” a tribute to “one of the best to wear a Royals’ uniform.” At city hall, Rochester Mayor Peter Barry even issued a formal proclamation declaring March 6, 1957 as “Maurice Stokes Day” across the city. Not bad for a second-year pro from tiny St. Francis College. 

Maurice Stokes Day and Night would also mark the final game for the Rochester Royals. The team relocated to Cincinnati the next season (1957-58). Stokes settled right into the Queen City and quickly became its King of the Basketball Court. “Marvelous Mo,” snatching 18 rebounds and scoring 17 points a night, led the rebuilding Royals to a respectable third-place finish in the NBA’s Western Division heading into the final week of the season.

The Cincinnati Royals, a playoff berth secured, closed out the regular season on March 12, 1958 in Minneapolis. The finale coincided with “Vern Mikkelsen Night” in anticipation that “the Great Dane” would announce his retirement and close out his celebrated career for the Minneapolis Lakers. “It’s a financial thing,” he explained. “If my Northwest [insurance] agency can grow, I’ll have to give my time to the insurance business.” My, how the NBA has changed. 

Facing his last hoorahs, Mikkelsen played like a man possessed, matched up against Stokes. The two got to jostling and, according to several there, that’s when the tragedy of Maurice Stokes probably struck. “It was the kind of accident that happens a dozen times a night, 1,000 times a season,” columnist Jim Murray would later write of Stokes’ fateful drive to the basket. “Maurice Stokes crashed heavily into Vern Mikkelsen, and they both crashed heavily to the floor. The crowd laughed. Fourteen feet of humanity, 300 pounds of flesh rolled around the floor in their lingerie.”

Stokes rose gingerly to his feet, reportedly with the help of smelling salts, and jostled into the fourth quarter, pitching in his 23rd and 24th points of the evening to help clinch a 96-89 Royal victory. The article below, written by Cincinnati reporter Earl Lawson, chronicles the slightly delayed reaction that soon would leave Stokes bed-ridden but still held in the highest esteem. The article appeared in the February 1959 issue of Sport Magazine.]

Vern Mikkelsen drives to hoop during what would be Maurice Stokes’ final NBA game. Stokes (center) jostles for position.

This was the night of October 21 last. A crowd of the 5,511 had turned out at the Cincinnati Garden for an exhibition doubleheader, the Boston Celtics against the St. Louis Hawks and the Cincinnati Royals against the Detroit Pistons. 

The Celtics and the Hawks, playing the opener, hooked up in a game that was uncommonly exciting for exhibition play, and the fans were happy. So was Tom Grace, the Royals’ executive vice-president. And he hadn’t even seen the game. Grace, used to seeing modest crowds of 2,000 to 3,000 for regularly scheduled Royal games, looked over the crowd. “I’m glad it’s a nice turnout,” he said as the floor was cleared for the between-games ceremony. He had a reason for caring about the size of the house. This was a benefit doubleheader for Royal basketball star Maurice Stokes, bed-ridden since March 15 with a brain injury that in medical terminology is referred to as encephalopathy.

For four months, Stokes had lain in a hospital bed little more than a “living dead man.” Even today he can’t talk. When he so much as lifts an arm, it is called “progress.”

This is the six-foot, seven-inch, 250-pound giant of a man who at this time last year was one of the finest players in the National Basketball Association. “It’s a heartbreaking story,” says Pepper Wilson, the Royals’ general manager. “Let’s all pray there’s a happy ending.”

The crowd hushed as Jack Twyman, captain of the Royals, walked out on the floor holding a microphone. Twyman thanked the gathering for Stokes. It was strictly a cash crowd—not a freeloader in the house. Even the four competing basketball teams were paying their own expenses. Only taxes were drawn from the take. The net proceeds amounted to $10, 121.41.

Twyman told of visiting Stokes that afternoon in the hospital . . . of Stokes’ thanks . . . of his hopes . . . and of the treatment he had been receiving and the treatment still to come. 

“And now,” came Twyman’s voice over the mike, “there are a few people here I would you all to meet.”

Across the floor sat Mr. and Mrs. Terro Stokes, the Royal star’s parents. Alongside was his twin sister, Clarice, and a brother, Terro, Jr. The day after Stokes was stricken, his mother and sister came to Cincinnati to be at his bedside. So did his brother, who obtained emergency leave from Bunker Hill, Ind., Air Force Base. 

In a happier time, Stokes (left) receives the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. His mother stands next to him. NBA President Maurice Podoloff (second from right) smiles at Stokes.

Twyman looked toward Mrs. Stokes. “She stayed with him until she almost dropped over from exhaustion,” he said. “So did his sister. Somebody had to be with him all the time. It was touch and go.”

Twyman’s voice droned on. “Sitting next to Mr. and Mrs. Stokes is Mrs. Josephine Ross.”

The spectators’ eyes focused on a pleasant-faced elderly woman who wore a happy smile. “She was Mo’s nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in northern Kentucky before it was considered safe to transfer him to Cincinnati’s Christ Hospital.

“There wasn’t a sign of a bed sore,” said Wilson.

A pretty brunette wearing an airline uniform, sat a few seats down from the nurse. “That’s the girl who was on the plane that night,” said Dave Piontek, a Royal veteran. “She gave Mo the oxygen. They say it saved his life.” Miss Jeanne Phillips, a southern belle from a little town in Mississippi, stood up as Twyman introduced her.  

In an areaway beneath the stands, Piontek was recalling that night on March 15. That afternoon, the Royals had lost to the Pistons in the finale of their playoff series. Stokes hadn’t been his usual jovial self before the game. It was to be a televised game, and usually, on such occasions, Mo would kid his teammates about how he was going to star for the national audience. This time, though, there was no joshing by Mo.

But Piontek and his teammates hadn’t thought too much of Stokes’ subdued behavior. Three days earlier, in a game against the Minneapolis Lakers, he had been handed a hard jolt. And he was suffering from a boil on his neck. It was understandable, they figured, that he didn’t feel in a joking mood.

Stokes played 39 of the 48 minutes of the game against the Pistons. He scored 12 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. It wasn’t quite par for him, but then neither was his physical condition. 

“After the game,” Piontek said, “Mo said he didn’t feel well. Still, none of us thought too much about it.” 

Stokes had a late snack across the street from the Sheraton-Cadillac, and, like most of his teammates, had a couple of beers with his meal. On the bus ride to the airport, though, he again complained of feeling ill. 

“We opened the window for him so he could get some air,” Piontek said, “and we didn’t have time to do anything. Rickie Regan and Dick Ricketts and I literally carried Mo onto the plane.”

Stokes was settled in a seat in the rear of the plane. “Some of the fellows thought maybe he had a little too much beer,” Piontek said. “You know, the last game of the season and all that. And they were staying away from him so he wouldn’t be too conspicuous. You know, the owners of the team (the Harrison brothers, Jack and Les) were on the plane. And so was Maurice Podoloff, the president of the league.”

It wasn’t long after the take-off that Stokes again vomited. His breathing became labored. “I knew then that it was more than an upset stomach,” Miss Phillips recalls. That’s when she began giving him oxygen. 

“By now,” she said, “we were too far away to return to Detroit. We knew, too, that there was a hospital near the Greater Cincinnati airport. So we radioed ahead to have an ambulance waiting.“

Stokes was carried off the plane to the waiting ambulance, which rushed him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Covington, Ky., just across the river from Cincinnati. “I’ll never forget that sight,” Piontek said. “Mo was dripping perspiration. It had soaked all the way through his suit.”

Later, as many as 15 ice packs were applied to Stokes’ body in an effort to reduce his temperature. Pepper Wilson will never forget Stokes’ early days in St. Elizabeth’s. “It really shook you up,” he said, “to see a fellow like Stokes lying there helpless, not being able to even talk or move. He wanted to ‘get to you’ but he couldn’t. And when he realized this, tears came into his eyes. It really shook a guy up.”

During those early days, Stokes was fed with tubes leading into each nostril. There was another tube in his mouth to handle the saliva. And a fourth tube was placed in his neck to enable him to breathe. His weight dipped below 200 pounds. 

In the beginning, the big fellow’s ailment was diagnosed tentatively as encephalitis (sleeping sickness). However, exhaustive tests failed to isolate any offending virus or organism that might have caused encephalitis. His teammates remembered that Mo had been hit hard enough to be dazed during the Cincinnati game at Minneapolis on March 12, and that injury now is believed to have been the forerunner of his illness. 

“Mo’s awareness,” Wilson said, “is just as good now as ever. He has his moments of elation and depression. In his own mind, he feels that he’ll play again. And that’s important.”

During those early days, Stokes had to learn to chew and swallow all over again. “Today,” Wilson says, “Mo can raise his arm and clench his fist lightly. He can push his hand against gravity, but not against any force. He bobs his head and shoulders, but there is very little movement of his legs.”

There is hope that Stokes soon will regain his speech. “They have him blowing out matches,” Wilson says. “Eventually, he’ll try blowing up balloons. They’re trying to get his vocal cords working again.”

Stokes now has a unique way of communicating with the few visitors he is allowed. “It’s sort of a modified version of charades,” Wilson says. The visitor spells out the words by naming letters. If it’s the one Stokes wants, he nods his head. Sometimes he can get his meaning across after just a couple of words. Sometimes, though, it takes much longer. 

Wilson grinned. “He watches television all the time. He picked the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series, and he was really elated after the first four games.”

The clotting of blood in Stokes’ legs has slowed down treatment. “Clotting has to be closely guarded against,” Wilson says, “because Mo has been lying in bed so long. When it occurs, there can be no exercises for him, or massages.”

Most of Stokes’ hospital expenses are taken care of by the state workmen’s compensation. The claim was granted when doctors showed that the constant pounding he took on the basketball court reduced his immunity to the illness that has bed-written him. “I can’t recall ever seeing a bill for Stokes from a doctor,” Wilson says. 

The state, in addition to taking care of most of Stokes’ hospital bills , gives him $40.25 a week. Teammate Jack Twyman is Stokes’ guardian. “That’s because a guardian must be a resident of the state of Ohio,” Wilson explains. “Mo had a $9,000 savings account when he was stricken. His parents live in Pennsylvania.”

The Harrison brothers, who sold the Royals to Cincinnati interests, headed by industrialist Tom Wood, after the season was over, assumed Stokes’ expenses when he was at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. They paid a $1,465 bill. The money will be reimbursed, says Wilson. But the Harrisons didn’t know that, or worry about it, when they laid out the money. 

. . . It was later now, and the Royals came off the floor after losing a close one to the Pistons. “We’d have won it easy with Mo,” Bobby Wanzer, the youthful Royal coach, mumbled. It was a remark he was due to repeat many times as the season progressed. 

It’s a young team that Wanzer has now. Only three—Piontek, Twyman, and Tom Marshall—are experienced pros. Si Green, back from the Army, had seen only limited action in the NBA this year. 

“How much will Stokes be missed? You saw him play last year,” Wanzer says. (Last year, Stokes sat out eight game with a knee injury: the Royals lost every one of them.) “You can look all around the league,” Wanzer says, “and you won’t find a better all-around player.”

Stokes is a big man, six-foot-seven and 250 pounds, and yet everything he did on a basketball court was graceful. “It was his amazing reflexes and his perfect coordination,” Wanzer says.

When a player makes a basket, it shows up in the box score. A look at the point totals of Royal players last year shows that Stokes’ totals, in most cases, were ordinary. But this was the only thing that was ordinary about him—from a basketball standpoint.

Cold statistics did Stokes in injustice. They told only part of what he did on the court. You had to see him play to really understand his immense ability. “Stokes got rebounds because he could go up the second time so fast while the other big men still had his feet on the ground,” Wanzer says. 

In Pittsburgh, Stokes attended Westinghouse High School. There, he was a teammate of former Royal and Minneapolis Laker Ed Fleming, and made only a modest impression, attaining in time an all-state honorable mention.  It was with little St. Francis College that he acquired national recognition. In his senior year, he was an All-America. His performance in Madison Square Garden in the National Invitation Tourney after the regular season won him a berth on the All-NIT team and gave him permanent Possession of the affection of the New York fans. He had sparked his small Pennsylvania school to the finals. 

Just after he graduated, Stokes turned down a reported $15,000 a year offer from the Harlem Globetrotters and signed instead with the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball Association. It didn’t take him long to show that he belonged in the fast company. That year, he was voted the league’s rookie of the year. He averaged 16.8 points and 16.8 rebounds per game, and compiled 328 assists. 

As one writer put it that season, “Stokes isn’t the greatest scorer or greatest rebounder or greatest playmaker, and perhaps not even the most valuable man in the NBA. He is, however, probably the one player who best combines scoring , rebounding , playmaking, and team leadership.”

Stokes made quite an impression that first year with rival coaches, too. someone asked Al Cervi, then coach of the Syracuse Nats, who he thought was the best rookie in the league.  “Well,” Cervi said without hesitation, “the answer to that one has got to be Stokes. But it could go further than that. He may very well be the best player in the league.”

And Joe Lapchick, former New York Knickerbocker coach, said, “Stokes does things with the ball. He moves inside and outside. You try to figure him playing against somebody like Dolph Schayes, and he doesn’t come out badly.”

That’s the tragic story of Maurice Stokes. Mo Was big and strong and graceful, an impressive athlete. If he didn’t have everything, he came close. He lived pleasantly in a bachelor’s apartment in a Cincinnati suburb, enjoying his hours of relaxation watching television and playing records. He had no steady girl but he wasn’t complaining. His car was a custom-built Chrysler. He spent his summers swimming, playing tennis and more basketball, a game he truly loved. He was earning a good salary and socking a fair amount of it into the bank. He was a popular hometown hero in Pittsburgh and a popular adopted son in Cincinnati. And he was a great basketball player. 

All this he was, and had, and enjoyed. But what about the future? His doctors are optimistic, but they refrain from making predictions. Last spring, Dr. Benjamin Hawkins, the Royals’ team physician, said, “Barring complications, Stokes may recover and play basketball again. But there seems small chance of his making a quick recovery. He is in a long fight to regain his health.”

It has been a long fight already, and nobody knows how much longer it will take . Recently, Mo has begun to make slow but steady progress. He receives hours of therapy every afternoon, and his visitors are limited because they would interfere with the work. He still can’t talk, but his mind is unaffected. He reads, and he watch his television. At first, he lost weight rapidly, going down to 160 pounds at one point, but now he is regaining the weight. His doctors point out that this is a particularly difficult time for him because he is a proud young man, and a basic part of the treatment he receives involves his morale. But he is getting better, as tough as the struggle is, Mo is fighting, as he always did. And, as it always was during his playing days, he has thousands of fans rooting for him. 

[Tragically, complications arose. Stokes remained paralyzed, though he did regain some motor function and limited ability to talk. His condition deteriorated through the 1960s. He fell into a coma and later died of a heart attack on April 6, 1970. Stokes was 36 years old.

Teammate Jack Twyman took care of Stokes to the end. Their special friendship was the basis for the 1973 movie “Maurie” and, more recently, the book An Unbreakable Bond.]

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