My stepson, Logan, loves sports.
Like many young people, he admires his favorite players. LeBron James is one of them. We have watched almost all of the Miami Heat's playoff games over the last month. He has a LeBron poster hanging on his bedroom wall.
Do I mind that he admires LeBron? Not at all. He recognizes that James is a talented player, and he admires his abilities on the basketball court. LeBron is not his hero, but rather a wonderfully gifted athlete who he enjoys watching compete.
Far too often, however, many young people (and adults) place star athletes on a pedestal. We assign them hero status because they can put a ball through a hoop or hit one coming at them at 90 mph.
Athletic ability does not make someone a hero.
But every once in a very long while, a truly special sports figure comes along - someone who is deserving of hero status. Not for what they can do between the lines, but because of their contributions beyond the athletics arena.
We lost one of these heroes Wednesday when Jack Twyman died in Cincinnati from complications from an aggressive form of blood cancer. He was 78.
Twyman was a star player in the NBA's early years. A member of the Rochester/Cincinnati Royals from 1955-66, the Pittsburgh native finished his professional career with 15,840 points and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983. His best season came in 1959-60, when he averaged 31.2 ppg, second in the league behind Wilt Chamberlain (37.6 ppg).
Twyman and Chamberlain were the first two players in NBA history to average more than 30 points a game in a season.
It was who he was off the court, however, that makes him a hero.
I first met Twyman in November 2000. I was the sports information director at St. Francis University, and we were retiring Red Flash legend Maurice Stokes' uniform number 26. Twyman was on hand for the ceremony. I saw him again in September 2004, when Stokes was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. Jack accepted the award on Stokes' behalf.
The last time I spoke with Twyman was a little less than a year ago. I am currently writing a biography on Stokes, and I called Jack and pitched my idea to him. He reminded me that Stokes did far more for him than he ever did for Maurice. And he insisted that my book focus on Stokes' life, not the lives of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman.
I tactfully attempted to explain to him that it would be impossible to tell Stokes' story without detailing the relationship between the two of them. After some convincing, he agreed to cooperate with me on the project.
Twyman literally changed the trajectory of Stokes' life. For those of you unfamiliar with Stokes' story, here's an abbreviated version: Stokes led the St. Francis basketball program to unprecedented success. The Rochester Royals selected him in the first round of the 1955 NBA Draft (Rochester's second-round pick was Twyman, who had starred at the University of Cincinnati.) Stokes earned NBA Rookie-of-the-Year honors and all-star honors in each of his three seasons in the league.
Stokes' career ended abruptly in March 1958.
He fell awkwardly in a game and his head struck the court violently, knocking him unconscious. Three days later, he lapsed into a coma, the result of swelling on his brain believed to be caused by the fall. Stokes emerged from the coma, but the swelling had caused extensive damage to his brain's motor control center.
While his mind was not affected, Stokes' body could no longer respond to commands delivered from his brain. He was paralyzed from the neck down and could not speak. He worked hard to regain limited speaking ability and physical mobility, but his improvements were negligible. Stokes spent the final 12 years of his life under hospital care in Cincinnati before dying in April 1970 at age 36.
The costs of Stokes' medical care were significant, and Twyman came to his aid, becoming Maurice's legal guardian so he could make financial decisions on Stokes' behalf. He successfully sued the state of Ohio, arguing Maurice was entitled to worker's compensation benefits. The state picked up the costs of Stokes' hospital, nursing and therapeutic care.
Twyman organized numerous fundraising ventures to help defray the costs of Stokes' other expenses, which included the medicines he needed following his accident. He organized an annual benefit game that was played at Kutshers Country Club in the Catskills. The game drew many of the NBA's top players each summer.
Closer to home, he cut a deal with Fred DelGrosso, the founder of DelGrosso Foods in Tipton. Twyman helped DelGrosso get his company's spaghetti sauce into Cincinnati-area stores, and profits from the first 700 cases of sauce sold in Cincy went toward Stokes' medical bills. Twyman was as creative as he was tireless in drumming up ways to raise money for his fallen friend.
Stokes was black, and Twyman was white, but their story transcended race.
"Jack is a rare individual," Stokes' brother, Terro, told me. "In that period of time, things were very interesting in the United States [regarding race relations]. The average person doesn't make the kind of commitment he made to Maurice."
Maurice became an extended member of Twyman's family. In addition to his regular visits to see Maurice, on the rare occasions that Stokes' doctors allowed him to leave the hospital, Jack shuttled him to and from his Cincinnati home.
He was with Stokes on Maurice's two trips back to St. Francis following the accident - in 1965 and '68. He brought Stokes' body back to the Loretto campus in 1970 when Maurice was laid to rest in the school's Franciscan Community Cemetery.
Twyman always insisted that he simply did "what anyone would have done" in a similar situation, but this is not true. To say he went above and beyond "what anyone would do" is a gross understatement. Twyman helped provide Stokes with the opportunity to continue living his life.
To me, this makes him a hero.
Farabaugh is an assistant professor of communication arts at St. Francis University and served as the school's sports information director from 1999-2005. His book, titled "The Rise and Fall and Rise of Maurice Stokes," will be released in 2013.