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Remembering Nate Thurmond
Former Bull Nate Thurmond has passed away at 74
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By Sam Smith | 7.17.2016 | 11:30 a.m.
Nate Thurmond was the missing piece, the final brick for the Bulls first NBA championship tower. Everyone was sure of it, and certainly Bulls owner Arthur Wirtz, who agreed to include the then stunning amount of $500,000 to the Golden State Warriors along with center Cliff Ray and a No. 1 draft pick in trade for Thurmond.
The Bulls had been just seven feet away from perhaps two or three NBA titles in the previous four years, eliminated each season by either Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bulls had arguably the best offensive forward tandem in the league in high scoring Bob Love and Chet Walker. They had the most feared defensive backcourt in the league in Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier.
Just get me a center, coach Dick Motta lamented again and again.
Wirtz in 1974 went all in, first making a determined effort to coax Chamberlain out of retirement. When that failed, the Bulls turned to Thurmond, whom Abul-Jabbar always said was his toughest opponent. The Warriors once even traded Wilt to keep Thurmond, who then helped the Warriors to a pair of NBA Finals appearances, who was one of five players in NBA history to both average at least 20 rebounds in a season and at least 15 rebounds per game for his career.
And Nate the Great, as he was known then despite his humble nature and easygoing demeanor, both belying his ferocity on the court, delivered in his first game as a Bull.
The city was excited about the trade, and it was a thrilling opener as the Bulls defeated the Atlanta Hawks in overtime. Thurmond recorded the first quadruple double in NBA history with 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks.
Chet Walker added 25 to offset exciting Atlanta rookie John Drew with 32 points.
The statistical achievement wasn’t much noted then as newspapers reported Thurmond with 22 points and 14 rebounds. That was the first season the NBA recorded blocks as an official statistic. By then, both Chamberlain and Bill Russell had retired, and they might have had season long triple doubles with blocks. Still, Nate showed he could be a force and had almost five times as many blocks that season as any teammate and was third overall in the league.
And that was even with losing his starting job to Tom Boerwinkle midway through the season.
Thurmond ended up a reserve as the Bulls suffered their most devastating playoff loss that season, falling to the Warriors and Ray in the Western Conference finals after leading 3-2 with Game 6 at home. It was the famed Mother’s Day Massacre for the Bulls in losing an early lead at home. The Bulls then lost Game 7 in Oakland.
It was the end of that great Bulls run without much to show.
The Bulls were 24-58 the next season when after 13 games Thurmond was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, his home state team. He did help the Cavs in their Miracle of Richfield run to the conference finals in 1976 and then retired after the 1976-77 season.
Thurmond, a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, died Sunday. He was 74.
“Great guy,” said former Bull Walker. “Just a terrific person. Great basketball player. Motta just didn’t know how to use him. He couldn’t make the adjustments to get Nate in our system.”
It was a lost opportunity for the Bulls and for Thurmond, who also believed he was that final piece of the championship puzzle for that great Bulls team.
They’d averaged 53 wins the previous four seasons, either second or third to powerful Lakers and Bucks teams winning at least 60 games each season, and even a record 69 for the Lakers. But Motta reasoned the Bulls had won 57 games with Tom Boerwinkle and Ray splitting center one season. Imagine what they could do with Nate Thurmond? Motta predicted a title.
Thurmond grew up in Akron, Ohio and played on a high school team with future Hall of Famer Gus Johnson of the Bullets. Even as the Warriors had Chamberlain, they drafted Thurmond, who played forward with Wilt in the first dual towers of a pair of NBA seven footers.
Wilt was traded back to Philadelphia and Thurmond became a seven-time All-Star, five times all-defense, and that was at a time with the likes of Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Bob Lanier and Abdul-Jabbar playing center. It was the greatest NBA era for big man, and Thurmond was as dominant as any, though lesser known, in part, because of his general decency and avoidance of headlines and bold pronouncements. He just played.
Even when Motta benched him that season, and even going on to blame Thurmond, Thurmond remained dignified and professional. Thurmond told the Chicago’s Tribune’s Bob Logan, “The last thing I would do is rock the boat with a team trying for a championship.”
Thurmond did what he was asked to start that 1974-75 Bulls season, scoring in double figures in 11 of the first 12 games to go along with his rebounding and blocks numbers. But with Van Lier and Love contract holdouts and starting the season late, the Bulls were 5-7. Thurmond took the brunt of the blame.
Thurmond never complained as Boerwinkle returned to start during the season and in the playoffs. Thurmond averaged 7.9 points and 11.3 rebounds in limited time with the Bulls in his only full season with the team. Abdul-Jabbar had broken his hand that season smashing a basket support in anger and Wilt had retired. It seemed there for the Bulls.
They put things together late to win their Midwest Division, though with just 47 wins and one game behind Western Conference regular season leader Golden State with 48 wins. The Bulls defeated Kansas City in six games, and then lost to the Warriors in seven in the conference finals. The Bulls would not return to the conference finals until 1989.
The next season the Bulls made a bid for Abdul-Jabbar, who had asked the Bucks to trade him to Los Angeles or New York. They offered Thurmond, Boerwinkle. Love, Van Lier and two reserves. But as older players, the Bucks and Abdul-Jabbar weren’t interested.
Thurmond was traded back home to Cleveland, where he was warmly welcomed and replaced the injured Jim Chones to lead the team to the 1976 conference finals. The Cavs along with the Warriors retired his number.
So Thurmond became a footnote in Bulls history, but his class, professionalism, dignity and civility were a credit to him and his career. He gave Chicago basketball hope for perhaps the last time until Michael Jordan came along. And he always was a man to admire.