Maurice Stokes was on his way to becoming one of the best basketball players of all time. But a tragic accident changed everything. One player became a hero.
He was probably the best NBA player whose name many basketball fans have never heard: Maurice Stokes.
Ex-players and coaches who have seen him compare him to Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Karl Malone.
Stokes died 50 years ago on April 6, 1970, at the age of only 36 – preceded by a tragic accident 12 years earlier, which probably changed not only his but also the history of the NBA.
Stokes creates history at the college
But one by one: Stokes, who grew up in poverty in Pittsburgh, first came to prominence in college. In only his third game with the small St. Francis College he scored 32 points and 28 rebounds against the Villanova Wildcats. In his junior year he scored 23 points and 22 rebounds on average.
At the National Invitation Tournament held at Madison Square Garden, Stokes led his team into the final four and achieved historic results. Even though his college failed in the semi-finals, he was named MVP of the competition, so unique were his performances before.
The Harlem Globetrotters wanted to sign Stokes, but he chose the NBA. In the draft, the 2.01 meter tall power forward was selected by the Rochester Royals (predecessors of today’s Sacramento Kings) in second place.
One of the best NBA debuts ever
Right at his NBA debut, the 22-year-old astounded everyone and laid down 32 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. The athletic big man even managed 38 rebounds in one game. No wonder Stokes was voted Rookie of the Year at the end of the season.
In his second NBA season, Stokes snatched 1,256 rebounds (17.4 per game), a feat never before achieved by a player. After the Royals’ move to Cincinnati, Stokes led his team into the playoffs with an average of 16.9 points (top 15), 18.1 rebounds and 6.4 assists.
This put him second in the rebounds behind NBA legend Bill Russell and third in the assists behind guards Bob Cousy (last year’s MVP) and Dick McGuire. To date, only one player in NBA history has achieved these scores in combination: Wilt Chamberlain.