June 3, 2012

Jack Twyman, R.I.P.

Jack Twyman, the NBA Hall of Famer and former analyst for ABC's Game of the Week, died last week. Now, Jack Twyman wasn't the greatest analyst that TV has ever known, nor was he the most famous Hall-of-Famer the NBA has ever produced. Not that he didn’t deserve to be in the HOF, for his stats suggest that he most certainly does. For years I thought he should be in the Hall; I would watch the names each year when they were announced, looking for his, and then when he was inducted in 1983, I missed it. I always thought that if anyone ever deserved to be in a Hall of Fame, it was Jack Twyman. And his greatness on the court was only part of the reason why.  

He was a star at the University of Cincinnati before going on to a stellar career with the hometown Royals (who once were in Rochester, then Kansas City-Omaha, and now – for the time being – in Sacramento). He once scored 59 points in a game. He was a six-time all star, was (along with Wilt Chamberlain) the first player to average 30 points a game for an entire season, and when he retired in 1966 only Chamberlain had scored more points in a career than Twyman. But if anyone remembers a star from the Cincinnati Royals, it’s probably Oscar Robertson.

After he retired, Twyman became an analyst for ABC, working with Chris Schenkel. His most famous call, one of the great calls of all time: Willis Reed's dramatic appearance prior to the 7th game of the 1970 finals. (After that, the Lakers didn't have a chance.) But if anyone remembers an announcer from ABC’s coverage in the 60s and 70s, it’s probably Bill Russell. It’s not that Jack Twyman didn’t do things well – but, like many quiet and unassuming people, it seems as if someone else always got more attention. But there was one thing that Jack Twyman did very, very well, and it’s why he’d belong in the Hall of Fame even if he didn’t have the stats for it. He also probably wished he’d never had to do it.

In 1958 the Royals had a player named Maurice Stokes, a gifted young man who looked every bit as if he were poised to become a superstar. He was the 1956 Rookie of the Year, his potential seemed limitless – and can you imagine a Royals team with Stokes, Twyman and Robertson? Had they played ever together, that team might still be calling Cincinnati home – and with a few championships to boot.

But in the last game of the 1958 regular season, against the Minneapolis Lakers, Stokes fell and struck his head on the floor. He was temporarily knocked out, but appeared to recover with no after effects. Three days later, following a playoff game, he suffered a seizure on the plane trip back to Cincinnati, and then fell into a coma. The diagnosis was “post-traumatic encephalopathy” – a brain injury that would leave him permanently paralyzed and unable to talk.

It was shocking enough that the vital, powerful Stokes would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair – if he even survived. Add to that the fact that, in an era when professional athletes generally had to work off-season jobs to make ends meet, Stokes was almost broke, with his only source of income now gone. His family lived in Pittsburgh, but he would have to remain, alone, in Cincinnati in order to qualify for workman’s compensation.

“Something had to be done,” Twyman, who lived in Cincinnati, would say years later, “and someone had to do it. I was the only one there, so I became that someone.” He would add that any teammate would have done the same thing, but nobody will know for sure because he was the one who did it.

Jack Twyman became Maruice Stokes’ legal guardian. He visited him every Sunday. He helped him to get workers’ compensation. He helped teach him to communicate by blinking his eyes to indicate individual letters. He organized a benefit basketball game, in which many of the NBA greats played, to offset the medical bills; it raised $10,000 in its first year. Along with his wife, he started a foundation to help not only Stokes but other needy former players. One donation included a note that said, “Where else but in America could I, a Jew, send money to you, a Catholic, to help a Negro?” It’s as good a definition of America as any that exists.

When Stokes recovered enough flexibility in his fingers to type, he wrote, “Dear Jack, How can I ever thank you?” But Twyman said that it was he who benefitted; whenever he felt down he would visit Stokes, who “never failed to pump me up.”

Stokes died of a heart attack in 1970, but Twyman’s work continued. The foundation raised several hundred thousand dollars, and the charity basketball game, which evolved into a golf tournament (insurance concerns, don’t you know) continued for decades. And there was one other thing important to Twyman – that his friend be remembered for what he loved, playing basketball. After years of campaigning, Stokes too was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2004. Twyman was there to accept the induction.

It’s probably no surprise that Twyman was a success in business as well; after working at ABC he ran a food wholesaler for 24 years, quintupled its earnings, and made more than $3 million when he sold it.
Jack Twyman died on Wednesday of blood cancer, 78 years old. His death – and life – should have merited saturation coverage on networks like ESPN, but I suppose he wasn’t colorful or controversial enough. But he did pretty well, didn’t he? Basketball star, successful announcer and businessman, world-class humanitarian.

Yeah, he was a hall of famer, all right. TV  

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