It is fitting that these two stories crossed paths over the weekend from two separate sports.
Both involve greats act of humanity in the face of tragedy – one is a forgotten story from the NBA’s past and the other grand-slam gesture in baseball – and both deserve a standing ovation.
Part 1: The NBA Legend
In the NBA, they announced and awarded the initial the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award to Los Angeles Clipper Chauncey Billups Billups is a great ball player and asset to the Clippers but neither he nor any subsequent recipient is likely to measure up to the award’s namesakes.
Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes were teammates on the Cincinnati Royals. Maurice Stokes, while not the first African-American NBA player or top draft pick, was the NBA’s first black superstar and among the best to ever play in the league.
Ever partisan Johnny Most offered up this praise for a Celtic adversary:
His quickness, passing ability, and court awareness were just unbelievable. When I first saw Magic Johnson play, it brought back memories of Maurice. You have to understand that Stokes was 6-foot-7 and weighed 240 pounds. He could handle the ball like a point guard and rebound like a center.
Hoop-historian Curtis Harris described him in more contemporary terms:
Never before had the professional league seen such a big and powerful man, 6’7″, 250 lbs, operate with such agility and speed. Power forwards usually stuck to their forceful nomenclature and banged down low. Stokes surely accomplished that aspect. In his three NBA seasons he averaged 16.3 then 17.4 and finally 18.1 rebounds a game. He led the league in RPG his rookie season and finished 2nd to Bill Russell in his final two years.
As for the speed and agility, Stokes could take off down court once he had nabbed a rebound, or do a fabulous outlet pass to a guard. But outlet passes didn’t catch people’s imagination like a 250 lbs power forward leading a fast break. That still rarely happens. The closest things to it have been Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and LeBron James.
But then tragedy struck (from Wikipedia):
On March 12, 1958, in the last game of the regular 1957–58 NBA season, in Minneapolis, Stokes drove to the basket, drew contact, fell to the floor, struck his head and lost consciousness. He was revived with smelling salts and returned to the game. Three days later, after a 12-point, 15-rebound performance in an opening-round playoff game at Detroit against the Pistons, he became ill on the team’s flight back to Cincinnati; “I feel like I’m going to die,” he told a teammate. He later suffered a seizure, fell into a coma and was left permanently paralyzed. In the end, he was diagnosed with posttraumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that damaged his motor-control center.”
The tragedy greatly shook the team: Stokes, a tremendous talent who could play center, forward or even guard, was second in the NBA in rebounds and third in assists in 1957-58, a feat only Wilt Chamberlain has matched for a full season. Without their best player the Royals nearly folded, but recovered after drafting superstar point guard Oscar Robertson two years later.
The Royals quickly cut him and Stokes was left without income or insurance. His 23-year old teammate Jack Twyman, the first NBA player to average 30 points per game in a season and newly married, decided to become his legal guardian, caring for him the rest of his shortened life. Twyman organized an annual charity basketball game that featured NBA greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. J and Pete Maravich and has now evolved into the Maurice Stokes/Wilt Chamberlain Celebrity Pro-Am Golf Tournament.
Stokes died in 1970 at the age of 36, but his teammate had one last assist for his old friend. The former rookie of the year was inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously in 2004.
Part 2: Diamondbacks Redraft Prospect
In 2010, the San Diego Padres drafted one of the nation’s top high school prospects – Cory Hahn – who elected instead to play at Arizona State. His college career ended after 3 games when he suffered a spinal injury.
Playing against New Mexico on Feb. 20, 2011, he suffered a spinal injury after sliding head-first on a steal attempt and colliding with Lobos second baseman Kyle Stiner’s knee.
Hahn was taken off on a stretcher and had surgery later that night, but was paralyzed from the mid-chest down after fracturing his C-5 vertebrae. He’s spent the past two years helping Arizona State’s program as a student coach.
Hahn, now a senior at ASU was drafted in the 34th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks (Hahn wore #34 at ASU). The best part of the story is that it is not a symbolic gesture, but rather the Diamondbacks plan on hiring Hahn as a part of their coaching staff.
From USA Today:
Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall said. “But we thought it was the appropriate time to draft Cory, and we wanted to do it. We called him a couple of rounds before to make sure the he was OK with being selected, and he was thrilled.
“But I didn’t want to draft him and let that be the end of it. I talked to him (Monday) and told him, ‘Let’s find something for you to do with us during your last year in school, and when you’re finished, we’ll have a job for you in baseball operations or scouting.’
“He’s got such a good baseball mind, and he’s such a motivational baseball story. It just makes sense.”