Larry Nance proved there was much more to his game than just dunks

Catch-22

Larry Nance swoops in for a dunk during his last All-Star Game in 1993.

IT IS INEVITABLE.

Unfair, but inevitable.

When someone hears the name Larry Nance, the first thing that person invariably thinks of is the 1984 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk contest. It was in the league's inaugural dunk competition that Nance first received nationwide attention. It was during that "throwdown showdown" that Nance, now a special assistant coach in Cleveland, established himself as a great dunker.

But he was much more than just a dunker, there was so much more to his game.

"The only thing that most people remember about him is him dunking the ball in the slam dunk contest," says Phoenix Suns center John "Hot Rod" Williams, a teammate of Nance's in Cleveland. "But he did some fantastic things in games that other players couldn't do. He was just an exciting player. You needed a big shot? He'd come up with it. He would block shots with his left hand, with his right hand, he just had a great all-around game."

Since he was not selected for that season's NBA All-Star Game, Nance participated in the slam dunk contest so he could see the All-Star festivities up close. He spent time before the competition with teammates Walter Davis and Dennis Johnson working on his dunks.

"I think Dennis Johnson and Walter Davis got the most fun out of it," Nance recalls. "Those guys were really pumped up about it because I think they really thought I could win. I was just doing it to have some fun and see what the slam dunk contest and All-Star Game were all about. I just pretty much did the stuff we practiced in the gym before and I did pretty good."

Pretty good? It's hard to imagine more of an understatement. Few, if any, of the spectators who witnessed the contest can forget the image of Nance slamming home two basketballs on the same dunk. In fact, he did so well that the thing that stands out in most people's minds about Nance still today is his slams.

His monster jams somehow overshadow the fact that he spent 13 years in the NBA putting up numbers today's players would love to have. His strength was his consistent play. After his rookie season in 1981-82, he averaged more than 20 points per game twice and, until his final year, never averaged under 16. And, aside from his first and last seasons in the league, he never averaged fewer than eight rebounds a game.

But that doesn't even take into account his defense. A two-time selection to the NBA's All-Defensive second team, Nance still is the league's all-time leading shot-blocking forward with 2,027 career blocks. He blocked a career-best 243 shots in '91-92 and eclipsed the 200 mark on three other occasions.

"You knew that you couldn't lay the ball up soft," Williams says. "You knew if you did lay it up soft, it was going back the other way."

Suns President and CEO Jerry Colangelo took a chance on Nance in 1981. Colangelo, then the Suns' general manager, selected Nance with the team's first pick (20th overall) in the collegiate draft. After a standout career at Clemson, during which he led the Tigers in rebounding each of his last three varsity seasons, there was still some skepticism when he was drafted by the Suns. In the end it turned out to be one of the team's shrewdest moves.

"My first recollection of Larry Nance is that he was a tall, lean, very athletic young man with a great court disposition and demeanor," Colangelo says. "I saw him do some extraordinary things with the ball his senior year. When he came to us he certainly was very green as a rookie. He made tremendous strides during the offseason between his first and second years and he became a terrific basketball player. He never lost his temperament, I mean he was the same person, a solid individual, just good people to be with."

After averaging just 6.6 points and 3.2 rebounds per game in limited minutes during his rookie season, Nance blossomed in '82-83. He started all 82 games and averaged 16.7 points and 8.7 rebounds while blocking 217 shots.

From that season on, Nance became a fixture on some pretty good Suns teams as he spent six and a half seasons with the organization, averaging 17.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

Despite solid numbers year in and year out, Nance made the NBA All-Star team just once during his tenure in Phoenix. He made the most of his lone appearance in 1985, though, as he scored 16 points (seven of eight from the field) and grabbed five rebounds in just 15 minutes.

While Nance's all-around game may never have gotten the recognition it deserved from some, the people inside the NBA - players and coaches, alike - recognized what a special talent he was.

Always congenial, Larry Nance shows off some of the flair that made him an instant media and fan favorite.

" Gosh, what a player Larry Nance was," says Notre Dame Coach John MacLeod, who coached Nance in Phoenix. "He was a shot-blocker, a runner, a dunker, he had a real soft touch on his jump shot. He could catch any pass that Alvan (Adams) or anybody else would throw to him."

"He had become one of the outstanding forwards in the league at a time when there were some outstanding forwards," Colangelo says. "And the fact is, for a guy who was picked as low as he was in the draft, he was one of the most outstanding draft picks we've ever had here."

Nance's stint in Phoenix came to an end on Feb. 25, 1988, when, with the Suns struggling to a 16-35 mark, he was traded with Mike Sanders and Detroit's No. 1 pick in 1988 to Cleveland for Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin and Cleveland's first and second round picks in 1988 and the Lakers' second round pick in 1989. The Suns then turned around and drafted Dan Majerle with the Cavs' first round pick in '88, helping to form the nucleus of a team that would win 50 games the next season and for many seasons to come.

But, for Nance, the trade was tough to take at first. Phoenix was his home, the only team he had ever played for and he thought he would finish his career with the Suns.

Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens, who was Cleveland's head coach at the time of the trade, remembers the difficulties Nance faced in coming to the Cavs.

"Trades are always tough," says Wilkens, the NBA's all-time winningest coach. "Coming to a new situation, he didn't know about us. Then when he came in, two things happened. One, we put him through a training program and he realized he wasn't in shape. Second, we lost three players in the trade and we ended up losing like seven or eight games in a row and he thought it was because of him. It wasn't. When we got home (the trade happened on a long road trip) we got a chance to work and change some things and then we won something like 21 out of the next 23, so he felt better."

Cleveland finished the '87-88 season with a 42-40 record. The next year, Nance appeared in his second All-Star Game and averaged 17.2 points and eight rebounds per game to go with 206 blocks, helping lead the Cavs to a 57-25 campaign. Cleveland's title drive stalled in the first round of the playoffs, however, when Chicago's Michael Jordan hit his infamous 16-foot jumper at the buzzer in the fifth and final game.

Cleveland won 57 games again in '91-92, the year Nance blocked 243 shots, and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals where they again fell to the Bulls. The Cavs followed up that season with a 54-28 campaign, but were again be-deviled by Jordan and the Bulls as they fell in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Nance retired from basketball after the '93-94 season with a career scoring average of 17.1 points to go with 8.0 rebounds a game. Cleveland retired his No. 22 on Jan. 30, 1995. Fittingly, the Cavs were playing the Suns that night.

"Now that I'm older and much smarter, I understand the trade and I'm really thankful for it because I came here (Cleveland) and met friends and the people back here really accepted me," Nance says. "I played with some great guys and, in my opinion, the best coach there's ever been (Wilkens). They retired my jersey and really have made me feel at home. (Cleveland owner Gordon Gund) and (General Manager) Wayne Embry are definitely the class of the league. I'm really fortunate to be able to still work with this team and be around like they let me."

While with the Cavaliers, Nance got to play with some great players such as Brad Dougherty and Mark Price. And, oh yes, he got to play with a person who would turn out to be one of his best friends - Williams.

It's ironic that the two got to be such good friends considering Nance didn't have that high an opinion of Williams prior to becoming his teammate.

"Before I came to Cleveland, Hot Rod was a guy in the league that I really just didn't like," Nance says with a laugh. "I didn't like playing against him. I didn't like the way he looked, I just didn't like anything about Hot Rod. Then we both ended up in Cleveland and we became best friends and we still talk on the phone quite a bit now."

Williams laughs when told Nance didn't like him at first.

"The reason he didn't like me was I used to hold him and 'D' him up," Williams explains. "He never had anybody play defense on him like I did. These days you can't grab and he probably likes these new rules, but the old rules were to my favor. I used to grab him. It seemed like he could jump right out of the gym, so I used to hold him to keep him from jumping."

Nance's current role with the Cavs includes some work at practices as well as scouting, participating in summer league activities, evaluating NBA talent and representing the Cavs at various civic and charity events.

"My exact role right now?" Nance echoes the question, laughing. "I don't think anyone knows. But right now I'm doing some scouting, looking at some young players and hanging around the team and just talking with the players."

The flexible schedule with the Cavs is necessary for Nance. It allows him time to pursue his other passion - drag racing. It was while with the Suns that Nance got the itch to race.

Along with doing some work for the Cavs, Larry Nance is now following his new passion, drag racing.

" I went out to Firebird Raceway and fell in love with a Camero out there," he recalls. "Ever since than, I've been around racing a lot. I owned a couple of cars and now I drive my own car in the NHRA."

Typical of Nance, he has put whatever desire he has to be a full-time coach on hold while he pursues racing.

"Right now it's not fair for me to say I want to coach because I don't have 100 percent of my heart in that," he explains. "I want to go race, so it's not fair for me to tie up a team like that. Right now my goal is to try to find a sponsor for my race car. But if nothing happens there, my goal may turn into being a head coach someday."

Williams, for one, is shocked that Nance is having such a hard time lining up a sponsor for his car.

"If I had a big company he would be a great person to sponsor," Williams says. "He's always talking to kids about saying no to drugs. On his car it says, 'Say no to drugs,' so that tells you right there that he wants to do good for kids. He's a good role model for kids, so I don't understand why no one would want to sponsor him."

In fact, one of the first things people who know Nance well say about him is what a tremendous person he truly is.

"He was a consummate professional," says Wilkens. "Larry was a great guy, very team oriented. He was great in helping the younger players. He's just a tremendous person as well as athlete."

Or, as MacLeod contends, "If you didn't like Larry Nance you had something wrong with you."

Nance will never forget his time in Phoenix. He still recalls the battles with the Lakers and how the Suns always seemed to come up just short. And he recalls the teammates he had in Phoenix with great fondness.

"That's where I started my career off and that's where I made a bunch of friends," Nance says. "We had some good teams there and I had some great teammates. I could not have started off in a better place. And the weather, you just couldn't beat that." While Williams may not understand why Nance is having a hard time lining up a sponsor for his race car, he has a theory about why, except for the dunk contest, Nance didn't get the attention he deserved.

"He was one of the quiet guys and sometimes when you're quiet you don't get the publicity," Williams says. "He got a lot of respect when he played in the league, just not publicity. Players knew what he could do. A lot of people don't know the game. A lot of people don't understand that you can do a lot of things on the court that don't always show up in the boxscore, and Larry Nance did those things."

And, oh yeah, he could dunk.

Reprinted with permission of Fastbreak magazine.

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