We'll never know for sure since tragedy cut short his career after three sparkling seasons in an era when triple-threat stars like Mo were virtually unheard of. Just as rare was the relationship between Stokes and teammate Jack Twyman, a relationship that persisted for nearly four decades after Mo took his final breath.
Maurice Stokes was born on June 17, 1933, in Rankin, Pennsylvania. His dad worked in the steel mills around Pittsburgh; his mother worked as a domestic. Although Stokes grew up in a racially segregated, poverty-stricken neighborhood, he found refuge on the public basketball courts at nearby Mellon Park where black players outnumbered white players by a two-to-one margin.
Since the best players from Pittsburgh congregated at Mellon Park, it was logical that Stokes - a two-year starter on the George Westinghouse High School basketball team that won back-to-back city championships in 1950 and 1951 - would test his skills there.
There Stokes was able to go one-on-one against Pittsburgh basketball legend Chuck "Tarzan" Cooper. Cooper, who was a full seven years older that Stokes, was the first black player drafted into the National Basketball Association when he was taken by the Boston Celtics in 1950. He also went toe-to-toe with a skinny white kid from Central Catholic High School who was struggling to make his high school team, Jack Twyman.
Stokes received 10 college basketball scholarship offers but chose tiny Saint Francis College in Loretto, Pa. In his third collegiate game, Stokes scored 32 points and pulled down 28 rebounds against powerful Villanova. After Saint Francis went 23-7 in Stokes' freshman season, many teams refused to schedule the team the next season. Coach Honey Russell of Seton Hall bluntly explained why his team wouldn't play Saint Francis: "We won't play until you lose Stokes."
Stokes and Saint Francis played just 18 games in Stokes' sophomore season, but that number increased to 31 games for his junior year in which he averaged 23 points and 22 rebounds a game. Saint Francis was fourth in the 1955 NIT even though Stokes scored 43 points in a semifinal loss and was named the tournament's MVP.
Stokes was offered a then-huge $15,000 to play for the Harlem Globetrotters after graduation, but Stokes opted for the NBA, whose Rochester Royals made him the No. 2 pick in the 1955 draft. It was something of a Pittsburgh reunion at Rochester after that draft. The Royals took Twyman, who played college ball at Cincinnati, in the second round and opted for Niagara's Ed Fleming - a high school teammate of Stokes - in the third round.
Stokes wasted little time making his mark in the NBA - scoring 32 points to go with 20 rebounds and eight assists in his first game. He went on to average 17 points and a league-best 16 rebounds while claiming Rookie of the Year honors,. He would go on to be an all-league pick for all three of his NBA seasons.
On March 12, 1958, the playoff-bound Royals (now based in Cincinnati) were wrapping up their season in Minneapolis against the Lakers. During action under the rim, Stokes tumbled over the back of Vern Mikkelson and crashed to the floor, where he was knocked unconscious. Stokes later returned to the game where he shared scoring honors with Mikkelson, scoring 24 points in a 96-89 Royals' win.
Three days later, prior to the playoff opener against the Pistons in Detroit, Stokes became nauseated and vomited. Although he was ill, Stokes still managed to score 12 points and snare 15 rebounds in a 100-83 Royals loss.
While boarding an airplane for the return flight to Cincinnati, Stokes collapsed while walking with teammates Dick Rickets and Dave Piontek. "I need some help here, Something's wrong with me," Stokes pleaded to his teammates.
A few minutes into the flight, Stokes became ill again, telling Ricketts, "I feel like I'm going to die." Before landing, Stokes had a seizure and began sweating profusely, "as if someone had dipped his head in a swimming pool," Twyman recalled.
Upon landing Stokes was rushed to the hospital and packed in ice. He lapsed into a coma and was paralyzed from the neck down. The diagnosis was initially encephalitis but was later changed to post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that damaged his motor control center. When it became clear Stokes would require expensive, around the clock care, Royals owners - who had bought the team after the 1957-58 season - declined to renew Stokes' contract, leaving him without income or medical insurance.
"We played our last game. Everybody had their suitcases packed," Twyman said. "I was the only player who made his home in Cincinnati. So here was a guy without a team, without teammates, his family in Pittsburgh. He was a man in limbo. I was the only one there."
So Twyman, a 23-year-old who had an off-season job with an insurance company, kept tabs on his stricken teammate. For 10 weeks, as Stokes remained on the critical list, Twyman visited his old friend. Then Stokes' family ran out of money and couldn't access Stokes' bank account. When Twyman discovered that Ohio law allowed him to become Stokes' legal guardian and manage his care, that's what he did.
He filed a workman's compensation claim and arranged for an NBA all-star fund-raiser game in Monticello, N.Y., that drew the game's biggest names and became an annual affair.
Although permanently paralyzed, Stoke was mentally alert and communicated by blinking his eyes. He adopted a grueling physical therapy regimen that eventually allowed him limited physical movement. He spent three years typing his own autobiography, which was never published. He never missed voting, even for minor local elections. Saint Francis' field house was named the Stokes Athletic Center in his honor.
But Stokes' condition deteriorated through the 1960s. He was transfered to the Good Samaritan Hospital where Tyman continued to be a regular visitor. On March 31, 1970, Stokes suffered a massive heart attack. He died a week later, on April 6, at the age of 36 and was the first layperson to be buried in the on-campus cemetery at Saint Francis.
Twyman, who was voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, was a persistent supporter of the Stokes legacy. Each year he nominated his old friend for hall membership. In 2004, his persistence was rewarded when Stokes was finally added to the Naismith hall. Twyman died on May 30, 2012, at the age of 78.
Born: June 17, 1933
Died: April 6, 1970 (age 36)
Photo courtesy of NBAE/Getty Images
Although technical limitations prevent viewing the video directly, you can click on these links to check out an excellent three-part video about Maurice Stokes. You might want to skip through the ads. Sorry. Total running time is about 20 minutes. Part One Part Two Part Three