Hall of Famer's jersey retired by both teams in NBA finals
POSTED: Jun 6, 2015 10:42 PM ET
In an era that featured such legendary big men as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond was a 7-time All-Star who earned a reputation as a dominant force in the middle, and is also the first player in NBA history to have recorded a quadruple-double.
OAKLAND, Calif. — These NBA Finals got off to a fun, fluky start with the discovery that LeBron James and Stephen Curry, the respective All-Stars of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, were born in the same Akron, Ohio, hospital 39 months apart.
Well, get a load of this: Forty-three years before James was born at Akron City Hospital and 47 years before Curry arrived in the same maternity ward, that city's greatest player in the NBA's first half-century also was born there. Nathaniel (Nate) Thurmond, the son of a Firestone Tire factory worker and a beauty salon owner, made his debut on July 25, 1941.
Thurmond never won a Most Valuable Player award like James (four times) or Curry, and his teams fell short of the NBA championship the two active stars are chasing. But as a sinewy 6-foot-11 center in the 1960s and '70s, he excelled at both ends of the court well enough to be elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and -- in what he considers his greatest achievement -- to be named as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest players when that squad was chosen for the league's golden anniversary in 1997.
Thurmond also holds the rare distinction of having his jersey retired by both the Warriors and the Cavaliers, and hanging in the rafters of Oracle Arena in Oakland and Quick Loans Arena in Cleveland.
"I think I was born in Akron City Hospital," Thurmond said in a phone interview the other day. "I wish I could tell you for sure, but it's been almost 74 years ago so excuse me for not remembering."
Relocated from his native Ohio since the Warriors drafted him with the No. 3 pick in 1963, Thurmond wasn't nearly as fuzzy on his current allegiance, while reserving a small space in his heart for the other side.
"I'm a Warriors guy," he said. "I played for them for 11 years, I've been out here for 53 years. I still work for them. But if the Cavs happen to win, it would certainly be easy to take. It would be hard to take if the opponent was Detroit or anybody else."
This conversation took place before Game 1, when Cleveland had hopes that point guard Kyrie Irving might team with James to counter Curry and Golden State's marvelous depth. But Thurmond was committed to the Warriors long ago, while noting that this season has been different from any in the past 40 years.
This team is special. You don't go through the regular season going 67-15 and not be special.
– Nate Thurmond on the 2014-15 Warriors
"This team is special," he said. "You don't go through the regular season going 67-15 and not be special. We have a bunch of guys who were drafted here, the core, young guys. And among the 15 we have, there's not a knucklehead among the bunch. There's not too many teams you can say that about in the NBA.
"And then they all wanted to get better, every one of them, from the team that won 51 games last year. Steph got better, Klay [Thompson] got better, Draymond [Green] got better and Harrison Barnes got better. They didn't do it by standing around on the sidewalk -- they was in the gym. It's an unbelievable group of guys led by a superstar who doesn't act like a superstar."
Thurmond kept going, lauding head coach Steve Kerr and his staff, along with the boisterous, basketball-savvy fans at Oracle. His recollections of his time with the Warriors -- he spent 11 of his 14 NBA seasons with the franchise, before one season in Chicago and two in Cleveland -- are more sweet than bitter, despite missing out on the magical 1975 championship year.
"We had some good teams," Thurmond said. "We were the youngest team ever to be in the Finals in '67 against Philadelphia when they had that fabulous team. Then Rick Barry left. That was a down point for me, because we was young, up-and-coming and good.
"I love so many of the guys I've been associated with: Al Attles, Barry, Jeff Mullins, guys that I still keep in touch with. Those are special times -- we didn't get it done but we have some good friendships that will last forever."
Thurmond is more of a seize-the-day gentleman than a back-in-my-day grump. He loves the Bay Area, he says, for its people, its weather, its restaurants, the home he has made in San Francisco with his beloved wife, Marci, and, of course, for every new edition of Warriors that comes along.
Thurmond admits he was caught by surprise when (in a simpler time for the NBA Draft, too) his coach at Bowling Green University told him he had been selected by the San Francisco Warriors, as they were known then. The great Wilt Chamberlain was even more surprised, since he was the team's dominating-on-his-way-to-legendary center.
"It took a little while for Wilt to swallow that one. And I understood it," Thurmond said. "We became good friends, but I don't think he was elated with their choice -- he was a center who never came out of the game.
"Maybe if we had stayed together longer. ... What I needed to do was develop a corner jump shot, which I started working on the next year. It would have kept the pressure off Wilt and definitely would have helped us."
Thurmond averaged 7.0 points and 10.4 rebounds in 25.9 minutes, mostly at power forward, to make the all-rookie team. Chamberlain put up 36.9 points and 22.3 rebounds, while playing 46 minutes nightly. The Dipper also noticed a rookie in Baltimore who was averaging 17.3 points and 13.6 rebounds, a bruising, 6-foot-6 natural forward who would have complemented Chamberlain far better than Thurmond.
That guy? Future Hall of Famer Gus Johnson. Another Akron kid and, in fact, Thurmond's teammate at Akron Central High.
He was LeBron before LeBron. He couldn't handle it as well as LeBron but he could handle it. He could pass. He tore the basket down. He could play defense. He was a bad boy.
– Nate Thurmond on Gus Johnson
"Wilt fell in love with him," Thurmond said. "Gus Johnson and Wilt? Oh. They would have won a championship. He was LeBron before LeBron. He couldn't handle it as well as LeBron but he could handle it. He could pass. He tore the basket down. He could play defense. He was a bad boy."
By Thurmond's second season, 1964-65, he was showing enough that Warriors management began considering options. "I was averaging 20 points a game and I was blocking shots," Thurmond said. "And one other thing; I was making $14,000 a year and Wilt was making $75,000. Plus, we were not drawing big crowds. Wilt was a draw on the road but he wasn't a draw here."
"Here" was a saga in its own right. The Warriors in those days played in four different locations: the Cow Palace, the Civic Auditorium, on the USF campus and at an arena in Oakland. "I'd be looking at the schedule to see not when we played but where we played," Thurmond said, laughing. "I could show up to the wrong place and the lights would be out.
"The present Warriors don't know what rough beginnings we had. Now they enjoy 19,000 screaming maniacs every night."
After the Warriors traded Chamberlain to the Philadephia 76ers in January 1965, Thurmond settled into the groove of his career, racking up seven All-Star selections and five all-defensive berths. He became, for a lot of NBA purists, the league's best two-way center from the mid-1960s into the early '70s. If Bill Russell was superior as a defender and Chamberlain still was more potent offensively, Thurmond was a sort of "Goldilocks" choice: Just right.
"I wasn't a good shooter but I had stretch there where I averaged over 20 points for [five] seasons after Rick left [for the ABA]," Thurmond said. "But I liked playing both ends of the floor. It's demoralizing when you can score on your opponent but your opponent cannot score on you.
What I tried to do was tighten up the defense first [against an opponent], then go down and see what I could do on him. You can absolutely frazzle a guy if you're right in his face, getting blocked shots.
– Nate Thurmond
"What I tried to do was tighten up the defense first, then go down and see what I could do on him. You can absolutely frazzle a guy if you're right in his face, getting blocked shots."
Both Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who arrived for the 1969-70 season, praised Thurmond as the most effective defender they ever faced. Thurmond's dedication to his craft was such that, the night before he had to face Abdul-Jabbar for the first time, he flew down to L.A. to see how the young giant fared against Chamberlain. His scouting trip was successful, because 24 hours later, Thurmond held Abdul-Jabbar to 16 points. Six weeks later, he limited him to 13.
"When you're able to play against Kareem as good as anybody did, when you're able to play against Wilt as good as anybody did, that's utopia as far guys who can put the ball in the hole at your position," Thurmond said. "When I had to play Russell, it was a different thing -- nobody played me better, as far as shutting me down."
That was a time when giants, a.k.a., Hall of Fame big men, roamed the NBA landscape. "We haven't talked about Willis Reed," Thurmond said. "We haven't talked about Wes Unseld. We haven't talked about Walt Bellamy. Bob Lanier. I'll give you another one: Bob McAdoo. If you didn't have some lateral speed to come out to guard McAdoo, he'd drop 40 on you without sweating. I used to like to run down the court, set up and see what was coming at me. Against Bob, I'd run down and say, 'Whoops.' Bob would be out there at the free-throw line."
Thurmond's individual excellence never did get him or the Warriors where they most wanted to go. So a month before the 1974-75 season, he was traded to Chicago for a 25-year-old center named Clifford Ray.
The Bulls, who had strung together four 50-victory seasons, felt Thurmond would be the star center they were missing. He certainly looked like that on opening night, when at age 33 he posted the NBA's first quadruple-double (22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks). Yet it was Ray who proved to be the pivotal pivot man for Golden State in its championship run, blending into an ensemble squad led by Barry (since returned from the ABA).
"You don't want to leave a team and have them win a championship right after you left," Thurmond said. "I was able to console myself with the fact that, if you remember that year, Phil Smith was Rookie of the Year -- I didn't play with him. Jamaal Wilkes came over, dynamite forward -- I didn't play with him. There were some lean years there, but I didn't have pieces like that there."
I'm proud of my career. I just didn't put the cherry on the top.
– Nate Thurmond on never winning a championship
Thurmond, neglected in the Bulls' forwards-focused offense, averaged 7.9 points and 11.3 rebounds in his lone Chicago season. Then he struggled in a seven-game playoff loss to, sure enough, Golden State.
"That was on me," Thurmond said. "We should have beat Golden State but I didn't handle going back to Golden State as an enemy after being loved for 11 years -- I didn't handle that well. They were booing and heckling -- hey, you're forgotten when you're fighting for a championship. I don't blame 'em for that."
Thurmond wound up as one of the NBA's many great players who never quite broke through on a championship team. "I'm happy with my career except for the fact that, I would never say like Dwight Howard said, 'I'm still a champion' because I'm not," Thurmond said. "I'd like to have that on my resume, but there are quite a few people who could play a little bit that don't have it."
Like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dominique Wilkins and a few more.
"I'm still happy. I'm proud of my career. I just didn't put the cherry on the top," Thurmond said.
The Bulls traded Thurmond a month into the 1975-76 season to Cleveland, making him the first NBA star from Akron to "go home." The Cavaliers at the time were 17 games into their sixth season, going a cumulative 137 games under .500 since entering the league via expansion.
After the trade? Cleveland went 43-22 the rest of the way for coach Bill Fitch. Teaming with players such as Jim Chones, Campy Russell, Bingo Smith, Jim Brewer, Dick Snyder, Jim Cleamons and franchise icon Austin Carr, Thurmond helped the Cavs reach the playoffs for the first time and upset the Washington Bullets in seven games before losing to Boston in the East finals. Chones, in a practice during the run, had broken a bone in his foot.
I refer to him as The Great One. I call him that because of the way he's carried himself all these years. He had such a great career and when he got to Cleveland, Nate brought that belief, that inspiration we needed.
– Campy Russell on Nate Thurmond
That season, known as "The Miracle of Richfield," planted a flag for the franchise, giving it its first bit of credibility. Thurmond played backup to Chones at center but was a leader from the side and in the locker room. "I refer to him as The Great One," Russell told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer recently. "I call him that because of the way he's carried himself all these years. He had such a great career and when he got to Cleveland, Nate brought that belief, that inspiration we needed."
Said Thurmond: " That's the only reason my jersey's hanging up in the rafters there. I feel a little squeamish being up there with Bingo Smith and Carr, Mark Price and the others, because they did the bulk of their work in Cleveland. I did the bulk of my work in Golden State. I appreciate the honor but I feel a little funny because my numbers are not there.
"I wish that I had come directly from Golden State, because I had a lot more gas that first year in Chicago."
Thurmond still has a lot of gas. Retired again after selling the barbeque restaurant he and Marci ran for 20 years, Thurmond works as a Warriors "ambassador" and participates in their postgame broadcasts. He has some physical limitations -- his eyes and his knees bother him as he approaches his 74th birthday -- but it hasn't slowed him down much, with Marci doing his driving these days.
"I have the best wife in the world who takes me everywhere I need to go," Thurmond said. "Never anything but a smile on her face."
That's how Thurmond will look, too, if his first and favorite NBA team is able to close out his third and last in these Finals. There's a friendly family bet involved, with sister-in-law Barbara -- who lives back in northeast Ohio -- favoring the team back there.
"She's a diehard Cavs fan, so we keep the banter going," Thurmond said. "She's a LeBron and Kyrie and Delly [Matthew Dellavedova] fan all the way. If Golden State wins, she's going to send us some cinnamon rolls. Barbara bakes some wonderful cinnamon rolls. If we lose, we send here some nuts from out here -- walnuts and other kinds of nuts. She likes them because she makes nut rolls also."
In a sense then, it's a win-win, not unlike Thurmond's status with the two franchises.
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