Original Old School: Best Defense

As we watch a certain Ohio native attempt to lock down his first NBA championship with the Miami Heat, we thought it’d be timely to run a feature we did years ago on Akron O.G. Nate Thurmond. A Hall of Famer and one of the NBA’s Top 50, Thurmond is a true NBA legend. From SLAM 23 (January 1998), here’s an interview with Nate about his NBA journey.—Ed.

by Ken Shouler

The name has always been synonymous with defense. As a player, Nate Thurmond measure himself by his performance against great centers like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They have called him the finest defensive center they ever competed against. The mere mention of his name should also conjure thoughts of a thoroughly balanced game, of a guy who scored, rebounded and defended. For his career, he averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds per game. In October ’74, against Atlanta, he had the first recorded quadruple double, posting double-digits in points, rebounds, blocks and assists. In ’96, he was voted one of the top 50 players in NBA history, a crowning achievement for a guy who felt overshadowed by his era’s high-profile pivots.

Born July 25, 1941, Thurmond grew up in Akron, OH. He started playing ball as a 5-7 seventh grader, and later starred at Central Hower High School in Akron. Eventually growing to 6-11, 235 pounds, Thurmond made the ’63 The Sporting News All-American team at Bowling Green, and was dubbed “Nate the Great” by a sportswriter. What made him stand out in college?

“I played both ends of the court,” he shrugs.

In the first round of the ’63 draft, Thumond was picked third by San Francisco, behind undistinguished players Art Heyman and Rod Thorn. Clearly, someone underestimated him. Signing for $15,000, he joined the Warriors in ’63 and found the pivot already filled with a fairly talented guy named Wilt Chamberlain. They banged bodies in practice, and Thurmond accepte that he would play behind the awesome scorer, who averaged 44.8 points and 24.3 rebounds that year.

Playing just 26 minutes per game during his rookie season, Thurmond still averaged seven points and 10 rebounds per game and was selected to the All-Rookie team. On January 15th, ’65, in Nate’s second season, Chamberlain and his $200,000 salary were traded to Philadelphia for paul Neumann, Connie Dierking, Lee Shaffer and cash. The pivot now belonged to Thurmond, who began a run in which he averaged 15-plus rebounds eight times and 15-plus points nine times.

The benchmark of Thurmond’s 14 year career was his ability to contain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Playing against Thurmond in the ’72 and ’73 playoffs, Jabbar’s shot percentage plummeted from regular season averages of 57 and 55 percent, respectively, 40 and 43 percent. Said Kareem, “A lot of people beat me up and said they played good defense against me. Nate really did. Nate was first and [Bill] Walton second.”

While deservedly proud of that distinction, Thurmond won’t brag about it.  He isn’t given to talking about himself. He played hard; he scored, defended and rebounded, and was rewarded with entry into the Basketball hall of Fame in 1984.

And he moved on. He owns Big Nate’s Barbecue restaurant in the South Market section of San Francisco, and sells “Big Nate’s Hall of Fame Barbecue Sauce,” made from his mom’s recipe. For the last 14 years, he has been the community relations ambassador for the Colden State Warriors.

SLAM: Who has been the greatest influence on your life?

NT: My father. He was a laborer for the Firestone Rubber Company. As I got older, it was Walter Dukes (a center for several teams, ’55-63). He was my first influence in the NBA.

SLAM: You once said Wilt treated you well as a rookie.

NT: I had come from a small school, and I saw all the attention that he was giving what and me a gregarious guy he was. He wasn’t friendly with opponents, but he was friendly with me. He bought meals for me, took me to (actress) Kim Novak’s house for a party.  For a young man from Akron, this was an eye-opener.

SLAM: Was it intimidating coming to a team where a Chamberlain was already a star in the pivot?

NT: I wasn’t intimidated, because I knew I wasn’t going to start. I took it as an opportunity to practice against the best center in the league. I guarded him in practice. He was overpowering, because he had weight. I went from Bowling Green to the NBA and practiced hard against Wilt. There was a little incubation period, and everyday it was like, “Go to sleep at night, rookie.” I averaged seven points per game and was second in rebounds on the team my rookie year.

SLAM: he shot the fadeaway then?

NT: When he was scoring all the points, it was the fadeaway.

SLAM: Five times in your first six years you were in the top five in the league in rebounding. Do you think you’ve been given due credit for this?

NT: I was in the background. Things like that happen. Wilt and Russell were dominant on the court and dominant in the newspapers, and then Kareem came along.

SLAM: Was it frustrating being compared to Chamberlain and Russell all the time?

NT: I wasn’t always compared to them. Wilt was offensive; I was defensive. Muhammed Ali needed Frazier to show his greatness, you know? I held them down, and that was good enough for me. I was different from either one; Russ was more defensive than offensive, but he could score too.