The death of former NBA All-Star Jack Twyman in Cincinnati late last week brought back a lot of distant memories. Twyman was one of my childhood heroes, and not necessarily because of his outstanding skills as a forward. What connected me to Twyman and the Cincinnati Royals, his team throughout his 11-year pro career, was a much more important story about friendship and the kind of humanitarian activities that are commonly referred to in the Jewish world as hessed.
I am referring to his connection to his former teammate Maurice Stokes, one of the best to play the game of basketball, but whose career was abruptly cut short by a devastating injury he suffered during the last game of the 1957-58 season. While going for a rebound in a game against the Minneapolis Lakers (today of Los Angeles fame), Stokes fell hard on his head and lost consciousness. He continued to play, but three days later went into a coma, from which he later woke up with severe brain damage,totally paralyzed and unable to speak.
To complicate matters, as Twyman found out, Stokes was virtually broke and in no position to cover his enormous medical expenses. (Keep in mind that in those days, even stars like Stokes were still earning peanuts compared to the astronomical salaries of today’s NBA players and were not covered by full medical insurance.) In addition, in order to get any sort of compensation, he would have to stay in Cincinnati, where he had no family. So Jack Twyman became Stokes’s legal guardian and assumed the trying burden of caring for his disabled teammate.
One of the biggest challenges was financial, and Twyman organized an All-Star basketball game every summer in the Catskills to raise money to help Stokes. That is where, as a young boy of about 11 or 12 who was already passionate about basketball, I first heard the story. My father explained to me the terrible tragedy that had befallen Stokes, one of the first African-Americans to star in the NBA, and how the game had been organized to help pay his bills. In response, I decided to root for the Cincinnati Royals, which for a kid growing up in Brooklyn was almost incomprehensible. But this story of the compassion of a white star for his black teammate at a time of far less racial equality and tolerance than there is today, so appealed to me that I was hooked for a few years on the Royals. Years later, after Stokes died at the young age of 36, Twyman continued his charitable work on behalf of other destitute former NBA players.
IN THAT context, I was reminded of an important lesson in Hebrew, which I learned on a visit to Auschwitz from veteran Israeli journalist Noah Kliger, himself a survivor of that death camp. We were speaking about a non-Jew who had passed away, and I used the term niftar, which is commonly used in Hebrew to denote someone’s death. Kliger, however, immediately corrected me, noting that the term only applied to Jews who had died, since it indicated that the deceased was niftar mehamitzvot, or freed from his obligation to perform the mitzvot (commandments) of Judaism – something that was not the case for non-Jews. Having learned the distinction, I was always careful to correct those people, including my family members, who used the term inappropriately.
Thus three days ago, when I learned of Twyman’s death and tearfully recounted to my wife the story of his dedication to his teammate, she gently asked me whether Twyman was niftar. For the first time, I felt I could answer in the affirmative, even though Jack Twyman was not a member of the tribe.
The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel office. He played varsity basketball for Yeshiva College and was a player-coach for Elitzur Gush Etzion.