Legends profile: Nate Thurmond
A genial giant of a man, Nate Thurmond was one of the all-time great NBA centers, with a rugged, in-your-face style of play that frequently intimidated even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.
The Hall of Famer played 14 professional seasons in the 1960s and 1970s, posting career averages of 15.0 points and 15.0 rebounds per game. Among the all-time NBA leaders in career rebounds and rebounding average, Thurmond was selected to play in seven NBA All-Star Games and was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First or Second Team five times. He still holds the NBA record for most rebounds in a quarter with 18, and he owns the distinction of being the first player ever to record a quadruple-double.
Some basketball observers have suggested that the 6-11 Thurmond provided the best mix of offense and defense in basketball history. Many say that his defense was better than Chamberlain’s, and that his offense was better than Bill Russell’s. With quickness and long hands, a smooth outside shooting touch, tenacious rebounding, classic shotblocking ability, and a total team attitude, Thurmond offered a perfectly balanced package.
Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1941, Thurmond starred at Akron’s Central Hower High School, where he teamed with future NBA star Gus Johnson. He then enrolled at Bowling Green State University, where he averaged 17.8 points and 17.0 rebounds over three varsity seasons, earning All-America honors as a senior in 1963.
The San Francisco Warriors selected Thurmond with the third overall pick in the 1963 NBA Draft, behind Art Heyman of Duke and Rod Thorn of West Virginia. Thurmond played 11 seasons for the Warriors, becoming nearly as familiar in the Bay Area as the Golden Gate Bridge.
Thurmond spent his rookie season as an apprentice to Chamberlain, who had come into the league with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959 and then moved with the franchise to San Francisco in 1962. While Chamberlain was averaging 36.9 points and 22.3 rebounds in 1963-64, Thurmond put up modest numbers in limited playing time. Still, his 7.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per contest earned him a berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team.
The Warriors advanced all the way to the 1964 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in five games. As the season and postseason wore on, Thurmond spent more and more time alongside Chamberlain in the team’s frontcourt. His playing time increased from 25.9 minutes per game in the regular season to 34.2 in the playoffs, and Thurmond responded with 10.0 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.
Perhaps encouraged by Thurmond’s development, the Warriors traded Chamberlain to the Philadelphia 76ers midway through the 1964-65 season, giving Thurmond the center position all to himself. With the increased playing time, Thurmond’s numbers grew to All-Star proportions. He finished with averages of 16.5 ppg and 18.1 rpg in a workmanlike 41.2 minutes per game.
In a contest at Baltimore on February 28, 1965, Thurmond set an NBA record that still stands decades later. He grabbed 18 rebounds in one quarter against the Bullets, breaking the previous record of 17 shared by Russell and Chamberlain. His season rebounding total of 1,395 placed him third in the league behind Russell and Chamberlain.
Despite Thurmond’s impressive campaign, Chamberlain’s departure had a devastating effect on the Warriors. One year removed from playing for the championship, San Francisco finished the 1964-65 campaign with a 17-63 record, the worst in the NBA by 14 games. Rick Barry arrived for the 1965-66 season and helped lead San Francisco back to respectability at 35-45, though the Warriors missed the playoffs for the second straight year. By 1966-67, however, San Francisco was back on track. Barry’s league-leading 35.6 ppg propelled the Warriors back into the NBA Finals, where they lost to a powerful Philadelphia 76ers squad led by Chamberlain.
Meanwhile, Thurmond developed into a consistent star. He played in three straight All-Star Games between 1965 and 1967 and averaged at least 18 rebounds each season, including a monstrous 21.3 in 1966-67. Thurmond’s offensive skills began to take shape as well. He poured in 18.7 ppg in 1966-67 and then 20.5 ppg in 1967-68, beginning a string of five consecutive seasons above 20 points per game. Early in the 1965 season, Thurmond hauled down 42 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons, the best single-game rebounding effort of his career and the seventh-best performance in NBA history.
Thurmond’s finest statistical season came in 1968-69, when he averaged 21.5 points and 19.7 rebounds. His rebounding average ranked second only to Chamberlain’s 21.1. The Warriors, by then settled into a seven-year run of mediocrity, finished 41-41 and fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Division Semifinals.
After struggling for the next couple of years, the franchise was renamed the Golden State Warriors and put together a winning season in 1971-72, finishing in second place in the Pacific Division with a 51-31 record. Thurmond, then in his ninth season, spearheaded the drive by ranking fourth in the league in rebounding (16.1 rpg) and 19th in scoring (21.4 ppg). Golden State advanced to the playoffs but met the Milwaukee Bucks and Abbdul-Jabbar in the conference semifinals. Milwaukee took the best-of-seven series in five games.
By now Abdul-Jabbar had been in the NBA for three seasons, and Chamberlain for a decade longer. It was an era of supercenters, big men who could dominate games by scoring nearly at will, and by defending with long arms, quick reflexes, and sheer intimidation. Thurmond, while never reaching the rarefied level of Chamberlain or Abdul-Jabbar, was nevertheless one of the elites of his era.
But not everyone felt that way. It was a source of considerable anguish to Thurmond that some fans and and members of the media often overlooked him because he wasn’t flashy and didn’t produce huge offensive numbers.
“I’m just not a tricky basketball player,” he once told Sport magazine. “Being flashy takes unnecessary effort. Once I got cute and tore up a leg muscle that kept me off the court for four weeks.. I suppose I could make a reputation for myself by dunking the ball and other stuff. But what would it get me?”
He took solace in the fact that his opponents respected him, which meant more to him anyway. “The other players think I’m the best defensive big man in professional basketball,” Thurmond added. “They’re always coming up to me and saying that. I get the same reaction from other players that Bill Russell used to get.”
Both Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain have gone on record saying they felt Thurmond was their toughest adversary. “He plays me better than anybody ever has,” Abdul-Jabbar told Basketball Digest when he was in his prime. “He’s tall, has real long arms, and most of all he’s agile and strong.” In an article in Sport, Abdul-Jabbar also said, “When I score on Nate, I know I’ve done something. He sweats and he wants you to sweat, too.”
Others praised Thurmond’s consistency, work ethic, and balanced, all-around game. In Basketball Digest, former teammate Walt Hazzard said: “Night in and night out you can depend on him doing his job. His statistics aren’t overwhelming, but his presence on the court is unbelievable. As for blocking shots, I’ve seen guys get offensive rebounds and then go back 15 feet to make sure they can get a shot off. They know Nate is there.”
It seemed that Thurmond was determined to play tough defense almost as a way of making up for his lack of a dazzling offensive game. It was also a source of pride. “I never want to walk off a court where my opponent did not have respect for me,” he once said.
Thurmond’s production began to drop as his career entered its second decade. By 1973-74 his scoring output had dropped to 13.0 points per game, though he still posted an impressive 14.2 rebounding average. But the Warriors wanted an infusion of young energy at the center position, so after the season they traded Thurmond to the Chicago Bulls for 25-year-old center Clifford Ray, a draft pick, and cash.
It marked the end of a sensational 11-year run for Thurmond in San Francisco. During his time with the Warriors, he had become the club’s all-time leader in games played, rebounds, and minutes played. He had made two trips to the NBA Finals but come away both times without a championship ring. Ironically and sadly, a Golden State team without Thurmond finally won the title in 1975.
Meanwhile, Chicago Bulls Coach Dick Motta hailed the trade for Thurmond as the best in the team’s history. Chicago had logged four straight 50-win seasons under Motta but had fallen short of a division title each time. Motta believed Thurmond’s veteran leadership was just what the Bulls needed to propel them over the top.
On the first night of the 1974-75 season Thurmond gave the Bulls everything they had hoped for — and then some. Making his Bulls debut against the Atlanta Hawks on Oct. 8, 1974, Thurmond scored 22 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, dished for 13 assists, and blocked 12 shots. It was the first quadruple-double in NBA history, a feat that would only be matched three times since.
Thurmond didn’t quite keep up that pace for the rest of the year, although his assists numbers were the best of his career. Motta’s system in Chicago emphasized scoring from the forwards, with the center acting primarily as a passer. As a result, Thurmond averaged a career-best 4.1 assists, but his point production dropped considerably. He suffered through a horrid offensive slump at midseason and averaged only 7.9 points on .364 shooting from the field. Though Thurmond remained solid defensively (11.3 rpg, 2.44 blocks per game), his lack of offensive production caused Motta to remove him from the starting lineup for the postseason.
Chicago did win a coveted division title, finishing with the best record in the Midwest Division at 47-35. The Bulls then advanced deep into the postseason, coming within one game of reaching the 1975 NBA Finals. But their opponent in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals was Golden State, Thurmond’s former team, and the Warriors prevailed, 83-79, to advance. Thurmond then watched painfully as Golden State swept Washington in the Finals to claim the NBA crown.
Thurmond opened the 1975-76 season with Chicago, but after 13 games the Bulls sent him to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Steve Patterson and Eric Fernsten. The deal brought Thurmond home to his native Ohio, where he was warmly received by Cleveland fans, and where he seemed to revitalize a Cavaliers team that had struggled in the early part of the season. Having gone 6-11 before Thurmond’s arrival, the Cavs went 43-22 the rest of the way and, in what has been called “the Miracle of Richfield,” won the Central Division and reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The team didn’t stop there, eliminating Washington in a seven-game conference semifinal series before falling to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.
His year at Cleveland was a huge personal redemption for Thurmond, although his statistics were unremarkable (4.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg). “That team didn’t just excite me at a stage when my career could have been ending, it excited the whole town,” Thurmond reflected in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “To come back home and to have the team reach the playoffs for the first time, to have 20,000 people jammed in there screaming your name.. What could compare to it?”
The following season, Thurmond’s 14th and final year in the NBA, was anticlimactic. He saw limited action, though his point production was roughly what it had been the previous year. Cleveland again had a winning record and made it to the playoffs but was stopped by Washington in the first round. To the cheers of his appreciative hometown fans, Thurmond retired at the end of the season, without a championship ring but knowing that his name would not be forgotten.
Both Cleveland and Golden State retired his number, and in 1984 he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1996, his 14 years of NBA service earned him a spot on the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. After leaving basketball Thurmond settled in San Francisco, where he opened a restaurant and served as director of community relations for the Golden State Warriors.
Thurmond passed away at the age of 74 on July 16, 2016.