If the documented history of professional basketball is to be treated as gospel, then Nate Thurmond existed only in the shadows of Russell and Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar, if he existed at all. Yet, it is when viewing his career through the lens of contemporary approval that we gain the keenest insight into just how great a player Thurmond was. It is those who were pitted against him during his career, which spanned 14 seasons, that fiercely insist he was, simply, an absolute nightmare to try and score on. Thurmond took the routine act of 'opponents trying to put the ball in the basket' as a personal insult, an attack on the very character on which his game was built. Tread anywhere near the paint with which he lurked and you shall be met with his overwhelming length -- limbs that were trained to protect the basket at all costs.
Thurmond was not only a physical specimen of the highest order (with barrel chest and hulking biceps he was one of few from his period who didn’t look completely overmatched next to Chamberlain’s physique), he too was a deep thinker when it came to perfecting his craft. Need proof? Here’s Thurmond telling the story of his whereabouts on the night of Friday, Oct. 24, 1969 -- the evening before his first professional matchup with the then-Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Let’s stick on the subject of Abdul-Jabbar. For reasons only known to Thurmond, it was Abdul-Jabbar’s mere presence that brought out his very best. In that aforementioned head-to-head clash, Thurmond pressured Abdul-Jabbar into missing 13 of his 20 field-goal attempts. Over the course of six glorious seasons in Milwaukee, one that included the 1971 title and three MVP awards, Abdul-Jabbar’s two worst playoff series came against Thurmond and the Warriors, shooting 40.5% in 1972 and 42.8% in 1973. This in an era when players would be pitted against one another for the full duration of a contest.
If you think Thurmond’s greatness was confined to one end of the floor, then how would we account for this: Who is the only center in the decade of the 1970s to outscore Abdul-Jabbar head-to-head in a playoff series? Thurmond in the 1972 Western Conference semifinals. Though it ended in a 4-1 Bucks rout, something most unusual happened on the road in Milwaukee in the clincher when Thurmond exited the contest with 34 seconds left: He got a prolonged standing ovation, such was his performance against the mighty Kareem.
The very next postseason these two giants clashed again in the Western semis, and there’s no better way -- well, really, it’s the only way -- to take a look at how it unfolded than this super-rare Warriors film from 1973. And while we’re here, a deep look at Thurmond’s 10th professional season.
We know what you’re thinking: “You mean to tell me that there was once a player who regularly held down basketball’s all-time leading scorer, and I’ve never heard of him?” That’s OK -- we are here to educate. Consider this your 60-second crash course.
In 1963 the Warriors’ leading scorer played center and averaged 44.8 points per game, and yet San Francisco still went ahead and selected Thurmond No. 3 overall in the Draft. Yes, Wilt Chamberlain was on the roster when Thurmond arrived, and by the end of their one full season together, Thurmond was a fixture at forward alongside "The Big Dipper" and the Warriors were headed for a championship showdown with the Celtics.
At the All-Star break the following season, Chamberlain was sent back East to his native Philadelphia, and Thurmond took residence at the center position in the Bay -- a place he would spend the next decade. The math on this one is pretty simple. Before the Chamberlain trade: 13.5 points and 16.7 rebounds per game. After the Chamberlain trade: 20.4 points and 19.9 rebounds a game.
The wonderful thing about these old films is they not only paint a picture of a player we otherwise wouldn’t see, but they teach us things the numbers don’t. We are going back to 1965 here, to the period immediately following the Chamberlain trade. Watch for Thurmond’s agility, for the athleticism, for the spectre he commands over the painted area, even the understated offensive game that belied his all-defensive reputation. This is never-before-seen Thurmond and his coming of age as a professional.
Thurmond’s advocates have on occasion presented him as such: A better scorer than Russell; a better defender than Chamberlain. While that resides in the category of conjecture, what can’t be argued was how strong his Warriors career was. Five-straight seasons he averaged more than 20 points per game, topping out at 21.9 in an injury-hit 1970 season. His 1968 season, on the heels of a championship-series loss to the Sixers and suddenly without running mate Rick Barry, was perhaps Thurmond’s best: 20.5 points and 22 rebounds per game.
As is the case with Russell, the statistic that likely best captured his essence and presence -- the blocked shot -- wasn’t tracked until he had completed 10 professional seasons, and the evidence in proving just how good he was as a shot blocker/changer is minimal. However, consider that in 1971 he was named center on the league’s All-Defensive First Team, this in a season where both Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar were fit and healthy with perfect attendance. It’s a factoid so good it belongs on Thurmond’s business card.
Thurmond the shot-blocker was not merely a destructive force who got by on sheer physical ability. He too understood the psychological damage that a blocked shot had on those who dared challenge him, and if that sounds familiar to you, it’s because it was an approach not dissimilar to that of a certain 11-time champion from Thurmond’s generation -- Bill Russell. Here, Thurmond outlines his defensive philosophy.
No one knew it at the time, but Oct. 31, 1971, was a historic night in The Forum. The Warriors beat Los Angeles 109-105 as both teams moved to 6-3 on the season. However, it proved to be the final game of Elgin Baylor’s career and the Lakers’ last loss for two full months, as they remarkably went on to claim their next 33 contests. What on earth does this have to do with Nate Thurmond? Not a great deal, but it was Thurmond who led the Warriors past the Lakers in that now-famous game, and this footage from the original broadcast was just too good not to share.
Traded to Chicago before the 1974-75 season at age 32 (in his Bulls debut Thurmond registered the league’s first recorded quadruple-double), Thurmond found himself in Cleveland early in the 1975-76 season. The Cavs were last in the Central Division on the day Thurmond played his first game following the trade; by season’s end, they had claimed their first division title and were headed somewhere the franchise had never been before -- the playoffs.
Ask any Cavaliers devotee what the team’s most memorable moment was in the age before LeBron, and the answer can usually be supplied in three words: Miracle of Richfield. Dick Snyder’s game-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bullets capped a wild back-and-forth series. Thurmond’s play during that postseason was the chief reason that, despite only spending a small part at the back end of his career in Cleveland, the Cavs would eventually retire his No. 42 jersey.
In the Eastern Conference finals, Cleveland eventually fell to the powerful Celtics, who went on to claim banner 13. Yet the series wasn’t without its highlights. In the fourth game, with the Cavs trailing in the series 2-1, Thurmond turned in this vintage, throwback performance.
Perhaps they are right. Perhaps Nate Thurmond now as he was then is destined to be an afterthought when compared to his contemporaries at the center position, those with the titles and accolades with which we anoint greatness. But he remains a fascinating case study, especially in the pre-film era. He was universally respected, darn tough to play against, and when peeling back the layers of his career beyond the bare statistics, there’s enough evidence there to make the conclusion that he is one of the greatest centers to ever play this game. Now, with the tour of the Thurmond vault complete, there’s the video evidence to prove it.