Original Old School: Best Defense

by June 04, 2011

SLAM: You made the NBA All-Defensive First Team twice—but they didn’t start giving the award until ’69. How many of those do you figure you would have won if they’d been giving that award your whole career?

NT: I’d say a good eight times.

SLAM: When you finished playing in ’77, what was your salary?

NT: $200,000.

SLAM: What was your finest night in the pros?

NT: The games against Jabbar. When you played against Jabbar, there was more important to the game. I think the playoff series we won in ’73, I had a game where I had 27 or 28 (points), and he had 23. Everything was clicking. The outside shot was working for me.

SLAM: And you had a quadruple double in one game?

NT: It was in ’74, my first game in Chicago. I wanted to show Chicago that they made the right move in the trade. I was playing for them for the first time. I had a lot of emotions and energy that night. No one realized that I had the quadruple double until a day or two later. It was the first recorded. (Block and steal statistics weren’t kept until the ’73-’74 season) Alvin Robertson and Olajuwon did it later.

SLAM: If they had kept blocking statistics in the beginning of your career, how would you have stacked up?

NT: Russ No.1 and me No. 2.

SLAM: Russell also inspired you with something you said?

NT: After his career, I heard Paul Westphal mention him while he was coaching. Westphal was on television and quoted Russell as saying, “The game is on schedule, we have to play the game, so we might as well win.” It’s true. You gotta play the game ‘til you’re dead, so why not win? It applies to all of life; it’s a beautiful statement.

SLAM: Was Russell the greatest competitor you ever saw?

NT: Yes, he had great intensity and will to win. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird—those guys come to mind. There have been other great players, but these were great players who died to win.

SLAM: What were your feelings about retiring?

NT: It’s always sad—the greatest job you ever had is going to end. The money, the travel—I liked the travel. There are a lot of players who don’t want to face that day when no one knows them. To have your name in the papers and be on the show, everyday; I love attention, but I’m not going to go out and seek it. There are guys now who can afford to retire, but they won’t get the attention. I’m sure that Magic misses it. I had three knee operations, and that was before they were using the arthroscope.

SLAM: How satisfying was your Hall of Fame election in ’84?

NT: That was great news. You always want to be known as a great center. I was not on championship teams, and I was judged by that. I was glad to (finally) be rewarded. I called my wife Marci right away.

SLAM: You don’t talk much about yourself.

NT: It’s my way. But people don’t want to write about you after you’ve performed a feat or whatever. I’ll give you an example: when I was selected to the Top 50, no reporters in San Francisco called me, not one. That hurt. I mentioned this on a radio show I was on. If Nate Thurmond had been caught with a joint, it would have been in the papers, or if I was caught DWI. That’s the only mention that I made of it. But I’m in the Top 50.

SLAM: Speaking of that, how did it feel to be recognized by the NBA as one of the top 50 players of all-time?

NT: That was a great feeling, too. Being in Cleveland (for the ceremony)—my brother was there. My mother still lives there. I ran into a lot of friends from high school. I met some of the younger guys (in the league). Barkley was a nice guy. It’s always nice to see Wilt; he’s always doing some interesting things. I think the consensus of a lot of the conversations was over the ways the game has changed. There’s less teamwork, more one-on-one play, and the game is played more in the air.

SLAM: Did you see Kareem?

NT: Yes, he’s very intelligent, very studious. With him you get into intelligent conversations that don’t deal with basketball. He wrote a book black history, about people who made a difference. It deals with politics and religion, not just X’s and O’s.

SLAM: Elvin Hayes spoke critically about some of the young players like Allen Iverson during All Star weekend. What are your opinions?

NT: I think it depends on the individual. Some young players have great attitudes. Some players estimate their self-worth by their paycheck.

SLAM: Was anyone unjustly left off the NBA’s Top 50?

NT: Bob McAdoo was left off, and he won three scoring titles in a row. Lanier and Bells, too. Alex English was another one; he scored but played no defense. Bernard King was left off.

SLAM: Is there anyone playing now who’s close to Jordan?

NT: No one remotely close to him. (Anfernee) Hardaway is a great player, Garnett is a great player, Iverson is going to be a fantastic player if he gets straightened out. But after Jordan they broke the mold. God said, “Let me give him all the skills.” That’s what happened on the day of his birth. He’s got the fire. He carried that team last year—he willed them to another title.

SLAM: Are any centers now in the same class as the Big Three—Jabbar, Chamberlain and Russell?

NT: Hakeem is in that class, the fourth-best of all time. You can’t disregard Patrick either. He has so much heart. It’s amazing, when the Knicks need baskets, how he performs, I really am a Patrick Ewing fan. You want him to take the fade-away and you want to pressure him. When he takes the fade-away, they don’t extend and jump. You have to jump and lean out toward him and make him fade away even more. Robinson and Shaq are young, agile and fast. Shaq is the most powerful person to ever play the position. He comes to the basket; Wilt faded. Shaq is going to be a great player, but his accomplishments don’t compare to Wilt yet.

SLAM: What would you like to be remembered for?

NT: I’d like to be remembered as the guy who put offense and defense together and tried to excel at both, I played with an attitude that said, “Hey, it’s gonna be tough for you to score tonight. You’re going to have a tough job this game.”