Offering a faint echo of the moving telefilm Brian’s Song (1971), this formulaic but moderately effective picture is another male tearjerker based upon the tragic circumstances of a real-life professional athlete, with the bromance between two players front and center. In this case, the real-life figures depicted onscreen are Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman, two NBA stars who played for the Royals during the period when the team switched its home base from Rochester to Cincinnati. Stokes, who was black, emerged as a top power forward during the 1955–1956 season (his professional debut), only to suffer a debilitating health crisis two years later. A blow to the head put Stokes in a coma, and when he emerged, he was completely paralyzed. Twyman, a white player who was merely a casual friend of Stokes’ until the accident, stepped up to oversee Stokes’ care and to raise money for Stokes’ astronomical medical bills, eventually becoming his former teammate’s legal guardian. Maurie tells the story of the bond these two men formed while Stokes battled his way back to limited mobility, although the movie ends before Stokes’ death at age 36.
The best thing Maurie has going for it is Bernie Casey’s performance in the leading role. Not only is Casey uniquely suited for playing athletes, having been a wide receiver in the NFL for several years, but he’s also a sensitive player with good dramatic instincts and wry comic timing. He maximizes every opportunity for creating connections with the audience, even when his character is confined to a hospital bed. Playing Twyman, Bo Svenson does adequate work, though he never quite overcomes the inherent acting problem of playing a one-dimensional saint, even though, in Svenson’s defense, that’s as much a problem of storytelling as it is of performance. And storytelling, really, is where Maurie underwhelms. The film starts awkwardly, intercutting the evening when Stokes fell into his coma with episodes from his life beforehand. The implication that Stokes’ life flashed before his eyes—as if he knew what was about to happen—is questionable. Later, once the picture segues to a long series of hospital scenes, the filmmakers generate a bit more dramatic momentum, though they struggle to invest the storyline with conflict.
The major source of friction is Stokes’ relationship with Dorothy (Janet MacLachlan), a woman he was courting before his medical troubles. He resists her support out of pride and shame, castigates her for pitying him, and then plays matchmaker between Dorothy and various teammates. As with the Twyman characterization, it’s the saint problem again. Other noticeable flaws include the film’s unimaginative visual style and its cloying undeerscore. (In the original release prints, Frank Sinatra sang the closing-credits theme song, “Winners,” though video versions feature a Sinatra soundalike.) Ultimately, however, the story of Stokes’ and Twyman’s friendship is so heartening and uplifting that it compensates for the film’s weaker elements, and Casey anchors the movie with his amiability, sincerity, and toughness.