Original Old School: Best Defense
NBA Legend Nate Thurmond was a true defensive force.
SLAM: In six of your seven pro seasons, the Celtics were the NBA champions. How did you and your teammates deal with this?
NT: I don’t think anybody liked the Celtics. They were a hated team. They won any way they could; they would even tug on your pants. They had eight or nine (quality) players—we could go through the list—everyone else had three or four.
SLAM: And you reached the finals against Boston during your first season.
NT: It was a classic year. We got to the Finals, and when you were not playing, you were watching the two greatest centers of all time. It was the place to play. They filled it up in Boston for the playoffs, while we were drawing 5,000 a game in San Francisco.
SLAM: What do you remember best about Boston?
NT: It was intimidating. Boston had all the banners on the wall and dead spots on the floor and too much heat in the locker room. Still, Boston Garden was what you dreamed of.
SLAM: You once said the Wilt was the best all-around player of all-time. In your estimation, was he?
NT: No, the greatest all-time is Michael Jordan, and there are no ifs ands or buts about it. Number two is Oscar Robertson.
SLAM: When Wilt was traded to Philadelphia early in ’65, what were your feelings?
NT: I had played forward for more than a year. I still wanted to start, having before then started my whole life, and now I was going to get the chance (in the NBA). I was elated. I was self-serving—I figured, “I got a shot here.”
SLAM: How would San Francisco have done with both of you together in a twin-towers situation?
NT: I would have had to work on my facing-the-basket offense. I was OK defensively, because I was blessed at 6-11. I didn’t want to play forward, because it wasn’t my natural position.
SLAM: Wilt was making $200,000. What were you making at the time?
SLAM: You averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds for two seasons, one of only four 20-20 men in history, along with Bob Pettit, Wilt and Jerry Lucas. This must have given you great pride.
NT: I didn’t realize that. I think that if you’re a big man, that’s your job. That comes with your territory: you must defend and you must rebound. If you can do those two things, you can win.
SLAM: And there are only four guys in NBA history to grab forty or more rebounds in a game—Wilt, Russell, Jerry Lucas and yourself.
NT: Yes, some NBA photographer sent me a picture of the four of us at All-Star weekend. We were great rebounders.
SLAM: Despite all those early accomplishments, it seems like you’re best known for stopping Kareem. What was your first game against him like?
NT: I had watched Kareem in college, right? And then he was playing against Wilt in Los Angeles, and I was going to be playing him the next night in San Francisco, so I took a $20 flight from SF to watch their first game against each other. I held him to 13 or 14 points (the following) night. The importance of that trip was immeasurable for the next 10 years.
SLAM: How did you play him?
NT: You had to try to take away what he was best at, the sky hook. Make him go a little further away and let him take a baseline jumper. I played him to go left and forced him to go right and take the jumper. The hook was 70 percent successful, while the baseline jumper was only about forty percent successful. You don’t let the guy who’s the high scorer get tip-ins and get easy points.
SLAM: Between ’65 and ’73 all nine league MVPs were won by centers. Did the influx of best centers occur between ’60 and ’70?
NT: Yes. First of all, there were only about 10 teams. They had Russell, Wilt, Kareem, McAdoo, Lanier, Reed, Bob Rule (with Seattle)— every team had a guy who was a good center who you had to work against. No question the talent was less diluted then.
SLAM: What do you remember of Walt Bellamy’s game?
NT: Bells was a good all-around player. He was very determined on the offensive end. He could blow by most guys on the drive with that first step. He could shoot the foul-line jumper and hook shot, and he was tough. He averaged 31.7 points in his rookie year! (Second only to Chamberlain’s 50.4.) I recently saw him in Vegas.
SLAM: Who was the toughest center for you to guard?
NT: Kareem had more of a repertoire and was harder to stop. He had a little more versatility when he set up on the floor. Wilt liked the left side, but Jabbar set up on either side. Wilt would rely on the fade-away 70 percent of time; Kareem’s hook was in the same range. I couldn’t stop him from shooting the hook; I could make him take awkward hooks or baseline jumpers. You really couldn’t keep Wilt from taking the fade-away, but you could try to him shoot it a step further out. He was a great fade-away shooter. If you got in close, and he had you out of position, then you could foul him and save yourself one point.
SLAM: After ’73 series when you beat Jabbar and Milwaukee, your teammate Jeff Mullin said you were the best center in the game.
NT: We really played well together. We won four games to two, and in Game Six we won in Milwaukee. We felt good about ourselves. They were favored to win, heavily favored.
SLAM: What was it like teaming with Rick Barry?
NT: Rick was a great teammate, a very talented player who wanted to win. Every time we stepped on the court together, we had a chance to win. He was going to make the free throws. I loved to play with him.
SLAM: It must have hurt being traded to Cleveland in September of ’74, with the team so close to a title and having played 11 years in Golden State. What happened for them to trade you for Cliff Ray?
NT: Well, I don’t know. It’s part of the business. Golden State won the championship in ’75. I had some good friends on the (Warriors) team, and in the playoffs they beat us in six games. After I lost to them, I was pulling for them. Al Attles was a friend of mine, and he was the coach.
SLAM: Can you rate Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar?
NT: I’m going to say that Kareem was the best all-around, and with Wilt and Russell, it depended on what team you needed them for. I just happen to think that all the way around, Kareem was the best. His height, his versatility, his desire and gracefulness. Those three were so close— how they dominated, how they won, how they scored. With Russell, throw in the defense. You could put them all in a bag and take your pick. Wilt was the best scorer ever and Russell the best defensive center. What made Russ the best was that he never blocked the ball out of bounds. I liked to block it in the third row to let the guy know that I didn’t just tip it! I was making a statement.
SLAM: How did you feel having Jabbar and Chamberlain describe you as the best defender ever to play then?
NT: You know, I made the effort, and it was appreciated. I can only tell you it was a lot of effort, and it was gratifying. If you think of yourself as a good defender, you must stop the greatest. Anybody can stop the also-rans.
SLAM: In Terry Pluto’s book Tall Tales, you say that “If Wilt Chamberlain had been on the Boston Celtics, they would have won the same amount of titles.”
NT: That’s right. That’s not taking anything away from Russell’s talent, but he was surrounded with great players.