Remembering ‘Big Mo’

By Steve Aschburner
Updated: March 14, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minneapolis Auditorium is gone, demolished nearly two decades ago. The Lakers are gone, too, a basketball team’s heritage stirred into the franchise pot ever since it relocated to Los Angeles, blended so completely now that Jack Nicholson and Penny Marshall and Andy Garcia and all the other celebrity-regulars might mistakenly assume that the first five championships in team history had anything to do with L.A.

The court itself is gone, and with it the spot where Maurice Stokes landed hard on a drive to the basket. At least that’s how some who were there remember it.

Other accounts have Stokes, a supremely gifted big man for the Cincinnati Royals, battling for a rebound with Lakers forward Vern Mikkelsen — who was the guest of honor at a halftime ceremony celebrating his nine seasons with the club. (His bounty that night included a “hi-fi” stereo, 10 record albums, a set of stainless steel cookware and a $100 savings bond.)

It was 50 years ago this week — March 12, 1958 — that the career of possibly the best basketball player you never saw effectively ended. In a tumble in Minneapolis.

There was no mention of Stokes’ mishap in the next day’s Twin Cities game coverage. Sportswriter Ray Canton of the Minneapolis Tribune was like everyone else, exhaling or simply reassured when Stokes got up suffering few apparent effects of his fall. Instead, Canton wrote: “… No one explained the social rules of etiquette on such an occasion to Moe Stokes, a big fellow who breezed in from Cincinnati. The party-crasher scored 24 points and fought his way for 19 rebounds to lead the Royals in a 96-89 victory over the last regular season [NBA] game for both teams… . The performance of Stokes, who is 6-7 and 235 and moves about with the agility of little [Lakers guard] Slater Martin, helped the Royals gain a tie for second place in the Western Division standings.” But Bobby Leonard, who scored 10 points off the Lakers bench that night, remembered Stokes’ fall. “He took a hard one on a drive underneath. His feet went out from under him,” Leonard, the longtime broadcaster for the Indiana Pacers, told me this week.

Because it was Minneapolis’ season finale, Leonard, a native of Terre Haute, Ind., flew out with the Royals after the game as a quicker way home. “I remember Maurice had a big boil on his neck, I think it was,” he said. “But he seemed fine.” From great performance to weeks in a coma

John Kundla, the Lakers’ coach, curiously mentioned the boil on Stokes’ neck, too. “We thought it was something to do with that,” said Kundla, now 91. “We had a hard time guarding him. He was very active, at that time, for someone his size.” Actually, Stokes played two nights after his fall, scoring 12 points in the Royals’ 100-83 loss at Detroit. On the team’s flight back to Cincinnati, Stokes looked ill and supposedly remarked to a teammate, “I feel like I’m going to die.” He lost consciousness and, when the plane landed, was rushed to a hospital in Covington, Ky. He lay in a coma for weeks.

On March 17, 1958, the St. Paul Pioneer Press carried the new story moved by United Press International: “Stokes … was reported in critical condition with an undisclosed illness… . Stokes had a boil treated last Friday, [team publicity director Lloyd] Wilson told newsmen. He wore a large patch under his chin Saturday.” That explained the boil story. Stokes’ illness initially was diagnosed as encephalitis, but it later was attributed to post-traumatic encephalopathy resulting from his injury in Minneapolis. The marvelously gifted big man was left a quadriplegic, unable to speak or move, living the next six years of his life behind hospital walls.

The gap between what Stokes had been, physically, and where he was after his fall hardly could have been greater. In three NBA seasons, the product of St. Francis University had averaged 16.4 points and 17.3 rebounds, with 5.3 assists. On the open market today, Stokes’ earning power would rival Kevin Garnett’s. Back then, just getting started, he already was a gold standard.

Celtics great Bob Cousy often has referred to Stokes as “Karl Malone with finesse.” The late Red Auerbach, the architect of Boston’s championship dynasty (11 titles in 13 years), claimed Stokes was Magic Johnson before Magic Johnson.

Jack Twyman, a teammate and so much more to Stokes over his tragic lifetime, said: “Had Maurice lived and stayed healthy, people wouldn’t be talking about the Celtics dynasty as they do now.” With Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Wayne Embry and myself — with Maurice — the Cincinnati Royals would have been much more of a factor.”

Then there was this from Leonard: “If you move it up a few years, Maurice Stokes was very comparable to Elgin Baylor. Mo could score. He was a big-time rebounder. He could take the ball down the middle on the break. He was something else.”

Teammate Twyman’s care and concern echoes ‘Brian’s Song’

Leonard asked me if Stokes ever made it into the Naismith Memorial Baketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Yes, I told him; Stokes was inducted in 2004 — 34 years after his death in 1970, at age 36, of a heart attack. “That’s good. If you don’t have Maurice Stokes in it, you can’t have a Hall of Fame,” Leonard said.

They did for a long time, though, Stokes finally getting in, at least in part, through the cajoling, wearing down and gradual persuading of the electorate by Twyman.

A six-time NBA All-Star in 11 seasons with the Royals, Twyman averaged 27.4 points over his best three seasons (1958-61), 19.2 for his career and went into the Hall of Fame in 1983.

All of which pales, considering what Twyman did as a man and as a friend to Stokes. The two had grown up together in Pittsburgh, attending different high schools but competing in gyms and on playgrounds. They were rookies together with the Royals, carpooling to their first training camp when the team still was based in Rochester.

Stokes’ family couldn’t provide the care or money he needed. Twyman knew it and, though 11 months younger than Stokes, took over as his legal guardian. It was Twyman who argued successfully for work-injury compensation to cover some of Stokes’ initial medical bills.

It was Twyman, with the assistance of a resort hotel owner in the Catskills, who organized a charity basketball event in his friend’s name, raising $10,000 for more of Stokes’ expenses. He lobbied the league’s biggest stars — Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Baylor — to play in the annual exhibitions.

Twyman, while attending to his own family, spent hundreds of hours with Stokes, helping him regain small bits of his speech and mobility. Later, he took Stokes, in a wheelchair, to some of the benefit games.

On June 11, 1970, 10 weeks after Stokes died, Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo lost his battle with brain cancer. Barely a year later, “Brian’s Song,” starring James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers, became a made-for-TV classic, showing the depth of friendship and love between two teammates, one black, one white.

It took until 1973 for Hollywood to get around to filming Stokes’ story. The low-budget movie “Big Mo” was released theatrically to lukewarm reviews and isn’t commercially available on tape or DVD. Bernie Casey and Bo Svenson played Stokes and Twyman, respectively.

The caliber of the production couldn’t touch the bond between the two teammates, one black, one white.

Pivotal game marked beginning of end for Lakers in state

The end of Stokes’ meteoric career, in that season finale of 1957-58, was the beginning of the end for the Lakers in Minneapolis, too. For the first time since their inception 10 years earlier, they failed to make the playoffs.

Attendance was down, complicated by schedule conflicts that bounced the team from the Auditorium to the Armory or into St. Paul for home games. After this 19-53 finish, the Lakers would go 33-39 in 1958-59 and 25-50 the following year before owner Bob Short leveraged a deal with the NBA to move to Los Angeles.

As Kundla absorbed the setback in March 1958, his team scattered too soon for the summer, he told the Tribune’s Canton of his hopes for reviving the team: “Tomorrow, I will leave for the NCAA tournament in Lexington, Ky., where I will have another look at Archie Dees of Indiana. We have the first and ninth draft choices, and we are after two big forwards. We need a man who can stop the other team’s good man and give us 15 points a game. Dees is 6-8.” The memory of what Stokes, less than 24 hours earlier, had done to his club was fresh in Kundla’s mind. Twenty-four points. Nineteen rebounds. Moves of a point guard. On draft day, the Lakers gambled on an underclassman from Seattle making noise with his own size, strength and agility.

Over all or parts of the next 14 seasons — two in Minnesota, the rest in California — Elgin Baylor averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds. He went into the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible, has a reserved spot on every all-NBA anniversary team that gets named and still is an icon around the league, spending the past 22 years as vice president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Things might have gone something like that for Maurice Stokes, but for that night 50 years ago in Minneapolis.