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In the franchise’s 40-plus years of existence, only six Cavalier players – and one legendary announcer – have been immortalized in the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena.
Most fans easily recall three of those players – Mark Price (25), Brad Daugherty (43) and Larry Nance (22) – from a golden era of Cavaliers basketball: Lenny Wilkens’ squad from the mid-80s and early-90s. The other trio dates back to the mid-70s and the storied “Miracle of Richfield” season.
Bobby “Bingo” Smith (7) is still a fixture on game nights at The Q and was the organization’s all-time games-played leader before Danny Ferry surpassed him. And the great Austin Carr (34) is so entrenched in the fabric of the franchise that his nickname is “Mr. Cavalier.”
But for some fans, the number 42 – Nate Thurmond’s number; the first-ever retired by the Cavaliers – remains a bit of a mystery.
Thurmond, an Akron native, was already a sure-fire Hall of Famer by the time he returned to Northeast Ohio at age 35. When he arrived in Cleveland, Thurmond played in just 114 games with the Wine and Gold – averaging 5.0 points and 6.3 boards in those games.
But Thurmond wasn’t canonized by the Cavaliers for the stats he posted during two seasons in Richfield. It was the battle-tested Hall of Fame attitude that he brought to a young team, propelling an organization into the NBA’s upper echelon.
Thurmond starred at Akron Central Hower and went on to earn All-America honors as a senior at Bowling Green in 1963. He was drafted with the third overall pick by the San Francisco Warriors where he would apprentice for a season under Wilt Chamberlain.
The 6-11 Thurmond was named to the All-Rookie team after one year by the Bay and the following year, Chamberlain was dealt to Philadelphia. (Later, both Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would credit Thurmond as their toughest defender.)
With Chamberlain in Philly, Thurmond flourished – earning seven NBA All-Star nods and being named to the NBA’s All-Defense first or second team on five occasions. He also made two Finals appearances with San Francisco.
After 11 seasons with the Warriors, Thurmond was traded to Chicago – where he recorded the NBA’s first quadruple-double in his first appearance with the Bulls. And after two seasons in the Windy City, Thurmond was sent to the Cavaliers (in exchange for Steve Patterson and Eric Fernsten) 17 games into the 1975 campaign.
Thurmond gave Bill Fitch’s young squad something they were desperately missing – a veteran leader and a seasoned big man in the middle. Thurmond not only changed the complexion of the team on the floor, he gave them the confidence to complete a “miracle.”
The 1975-76 Cavaliers began that season at 6-11 without Thurmond and went 43-22 the rest of the way, winning the Division for the first time in team history. They would go on to top the Washington Bullets in dramatic fashion before bowing out to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The following season in Cleveland would be his last. Thurmond retired after the 1976-77 campaign. In 1984, he was officially enshrined in the Naismith Pro Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1997, commemorated with the All-Star Game in Cleveland, he was named to the 50th Anniversary team.
Cavs.com caught up with the NBA legend, who now lives in San Francisco with his wife, Marci. Thurmond reflected his early days in Ohio, his career with the Warriors and the Miracle years with the Wine and Gold …
What are you up to these days?
Nate Thurmond: Well, I’m retired. I sold my restaurant – Big Nate’s BBQ – two years ago. I sold it the next week after the 20 years was up.
So I’m kind of retired and my wife Marci is also retired. So we’ve been doing more traveling. I recently took her to my favorite city when I was playing – New Orleans – just for the food. And we were there a week and ate our way through New Orleans. And we were back in Ohio for a golf tournament – the Ben Thurmond Memorial Golf Tournament benefitting Cleveland Clinic Hospice and Homecare. This was the fifth year for that. And then we were in New York for a week.
So we’ve been just moving around and relaxing and enjoying the Bay area.
What went into your decision to bypass Ohio State for Bowling Green?
Thurmond: I was recruited to go to Ohio State, and when I was down there on campus looking around, I met Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and (Larry) Sigfried and Mel Nowell and all those guys.
But (attending Bowling Green) was the best decision for me, it turned out. When I went to Ohio State they were stocked with players, as I mentioned. And I felt that I wouldn’t be able to play right away. So I didn’t want to do that – although you still had to play freshman ball. (In those days you couldn’t just play varsity.)
But maybe at OSU I wouldn’t be able to play as a sophomore – or start as a sophomore. So my coach – my high school coach – was a (BG) graduate, and when I went to the campus I fell in love with it. It was a sunny afternoon, and I fell in love with BG and that’s where I went and I’m happy about it.
What was it like being drafted on a team that already Wilt Chamberlain?
Thurmond: I was totally shocked by being drafted by the then-San Francisco Warriors. I knew that they already had Wilt and I was really surprised.
I had had no contact with them. It was really different in those days than it is now. I really didn’t know the Draft was going on. I was sitting in the lunchroom and somebody came in and said ‘You were drafted by the San Francisco Warriors.’
I thought that was erroneous, because like I said, I knew they already had Wilt. But once I got back to my dorm, my coach had left a message for me and it was true.
So Draft day was a little bit different back then?
Thurmond: (laughs) Everything is so much more magnified today – going to New York with your family, knowing you’re going to be drafted in the first round and so forth.
When I went to sign my contract, I had to take a cab in from the airport. They didn’t have a limo. These guys don’t make a move today until they have a limo.
But hey, they’re having some good times and I had some good times when I played also.
What was your rookie season with Wilt like?
Thurmond: Well it was a little bit distracting for me because I had never listened to the National Anthem and then went over to the bench in my career. And I was like, ‘Man this is really different. You’re not going out on the floor for the tip-off.’
But I got used to that and I was able to pick up some skills playing the power forward – lateral movement and footwork, which was very helpful; it helped my outside shot a bit. And then I was very fortunate that they saw enough in me during that rookie year that the next year by the All-Star Game they traded Wilt.
So I had what I wanted – I wanted to be in San Francisco and I was the starting center.
Was it a big culture shock – going from Akron and Toledo to the Bay Area during the ‘60s?
Thurmond: There was a definite culture shock. San Francisco is not a huge city, population-wise, but it’s a huge city in difference of the Bowling Green-Toledo area and certainly the Akron area. It’s a very cosmopolitan city, lots of difference races and creeds.
But I enjoyed it right away. The food was great. I had some great teammates: Al Attles, Wilt, Guy Rogers, Wayne Hightower – who was my roommate and who broke me in.
And I loved the fact that it didn’t snow out here; I was getting tired of that snow back in Ohio. So it was a godsend for me.
You played during the golden era of NBA centers and two of them – Wilt and Kareem – credit you as their toughest defender. How did you earn that praise?
Thurmond: First of all, it’s like for Muhammed Ali to be recognized as great, he had to have Joe Frazier. If I wanted to be known as a great defensive ballplayer, then I had to be able to stop other big men who liked to score. That was my attitude.
So any time I played against Wilt, any time I played against Kareem, it was a full night’s work, it was attention to detail, not let them get tip-ins or easy shots.
And I will say that with Wilt, I had an advantage because I practiced against him for a year-and-a-half. I was a kind of guy who liked to study his opponents. So I knew what he liked to do, what he didn’t like to do, etc.
With Kareem, when he first played against Wilt in L.A., I took a flight down to Los Angeles to see him play in person because I wanted to see his footwork on the hook shot. And once I saw that, I got back on the plane and the next night and that was the least amount of points he’d scored all season.
Studying great offensive players was the key to my game.
So, skipping WAY ahead – how did you feel when you heard you’d been traded to the Cavaliers?
Thurmond: I felt great about it!
I remember it vividly because I wasn’t fitting in well in the scheme of things in Chicago, and I didn’t really like that set-up because it was really forward-oriented and I had to do some passing that I hadn’t really done in my career.
But to come home is always great. Especially, I think, it’s a little easier at the end of your career. When you’re younger, you might try too hard to impress people at home, you have too many distractions. But at that point in my career, I knew I was coming in to back up Jim Chones. And to be around my brother and my parents and some of the people I went to high school with was tremendous.
And the first game I played – it was on Thanksgiving evening – and it was great. We played against Kareem and the Lakers at the Coliseum, and I never will forget that game.
What was the team like when you arrived? You’re often seen as the “final piece to the puzzle” and “last line of defense.”
Thurmond: Well, they were young, but they were good. They had talent.
You look at Bingo, you look at Austin, Campy, Jim Chones, Footsie Walker. And throw a couple veterans in there like Dick Snyder and Jim Brewer. They had a great team, no question about it.
Defensively, I knew I could help with rebounding and knowledge of some of the people in the league. And Bill Fitch was great to me. He told me what he wanted from me. He told me, ‘You’re going to get 18-20 minutes a game.’
But the main thing, the guys that I just mentioned, they accepted me right away. I love those guys.
I was just with Chones and Austin and Campy doing this Tournament. I talked to Bingo Smith last weekend. I just love those guys. I’ve never been on a team where I fit in more than with those guys. We came together and we had the best record after the All-Star Break that year. We were rolling. We knew we were good but we weren’t overconfident.
We were one broken bone away from winning the NBA Championship.
Some of the players on that club – Campy Russell, Austin Carr, Jim Chones – are still integral members of the Cavaliers family. What were they like back in the day?
Thurmond: Let me start off with Campy. Campy was one of the most talented players I’d seen in a while. He had some skills that were a little ahead of his time, in terms of being 6-6 and being able to handle the ball, get his own shot, pass off the dribble and things like that. Just a talented, talented guy and an integral part of what we were doing.
Austin Carr is one of the prolific scorers in the history of the NBA and especially in college. The guy could shoot it from the locker room; a big strong guard who could overpower people and get to the hole. Just a tremendous shooter.
And Jim Chones – a guy with a lot of talent and a lot of, what I would call, ‘off-speed’ moves.
When I came to the team, I said to myself, ‘I know I’m going to be backing up this guy, but let me take care of him a little bit in practice and put a couple shots in his face just to let him know I’m still alive.’ Well, I never did do that. Never did block his shot. I wanted to! But he had a herky-jerkiness about him that didn’t allow me to time him up right. Of course, I was 11 years into my career, but I think I could have got him if I was six years younger. The point remains: I couldn’t touch Chones’ shot.
You’ve had so many individual accomplishments – the first player to record a quadruple double, seven-time All-Star, five-time All-Defense, etc. Which one are you most proud of?
Thurmond: Well, I didn’t win a championship. I was close twice – once with the Cavs and once with a six-game series against Wilt with Rick Barry and I.
But I’m going to say not winning a championship as a center and still being voted into the Top 50 was a great thing to me. That narrows it down from the Hall of Fame – that there are only 50 of us.
And another thing I’ll always hold dear is the crowd at the Coliseum, bringing a whole area together in Northeast Ohio and everybody talking about the Cavs and the screaming and the stomping of the feet before the games. I’ll never forget that. That Washington series lives in my mind to this day.
Being a part of that with those guys and waking up the city of Cleveland for that brief period of time was just magnificent.
Are there players you enjoy watching today and what are your thoughts on the league in general?
Thurmond: Well, I don’t like the way players put it in their mind: ‘Well, I’m going here’ of ‘I’m going there.’ I hate that. The Dwight Howard fiasco. The way LeBron did his thing – I didn’t like that. What Carmelo did in Denver.
But that’s the league and that’s the way things are going.
But as far as the individual talent of the players, I love watching a guy like Kyrie – who has his own style. I love watching LeBron, Rose, Durant. We have some good players out here in San Francisco: Curry is amazing, Klay Thompson’s going to be a great player. So I do like watching the NBA, there’s no question about it.
You have a lot of individual talent and they say teamwork isn’t like it was in the old days, but they still get it done.
Do you still follow the Cavaliers?
Thurmond: Yes I do. It’s a little bit more difficult and I’m just getting to know my iPad so I can bring up things a little quicker than I used to.
But I had a conversation with Campy and he was telling me about Kyrie. And you have a real gem with that kid. You have to build on him. You have some younger players who are going to come in and make a difference. I’m looking for them to take a step up this year.
You have a good base, because everybody needs a good point guard. You can see what Rose did for Chicago. And I’m sure that Kyrie will be OK by the time Training Camp starts, as far as his broken hand. So you should be looking up for a great season. But you have to keep looking to add some big people, because this is the NBA and you have to be big.