Nate Thurmond: He Can’t Get ‘Up’ for Every Game, 1970

What kind of a player was Nate Thurmond? Here’s a quick look into his competitive psyche. Early in the 1969-70 NBA season, Thurmond’s San Francisco Warriors hosted the Milwaukee Bucks, featuring the larger-than-life rookie Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Thurmond had yet to face Alcindor. But he noticed the Bucks were scheduled to play the Lakers in Los Angeles the night before their game in San Francisco. 

Thurmond, the NBA veteran, could have easily kicked back and waited for the celebrated rookie to come to the city by the bay and prove his worth. Not Thurmond. On his day off and on his own dime, he flew to L.A. to scout Alcindor in person against the Lakers, taking note of his strengths and searching for his exploitable weaknesses.  

The scouting trip paid off. The next night, Thurmond’s Warriors downed the Bucks, 118-104, with Alcindor collecting just 16 points (7-20 from the field) and five rebounds against his well-prepared counterpart. As the San Francisco Examiner summarized the evening, “Lew Alcindor came, saw, and was conquered . . . “ Thurmond finished with 17 rebounds and, trying to impose his will on the rookie, stumbled a bit on the offensive end, scoring just 10 points (4-11 from the field).

Bad offensive nights weren’t the norm for Thurmond. While working on the book Shake and Bake with Thurmond’s contemporary Archie Clark, I asked about the NBA centers of the late 1960s. Archie, who always tells it like it is, mentioned Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain first. He raised all the established points about their greatness, then he paused and said, “But the toughest center back then was Nate Thurmond.” Archie explained that Russell and Chamberlain, as talented and revolutionary as they were, had “little holes in their games that you could exploit.” No so with Thurmond. “Nate did everything well, and you knew you’d be in for a tough night every time you faced him.”  

The main reason that Thurmond’s name isn’t mentioned today in the same breath as Russell and Chamberlain is a typical one: injuries. Thurmond, or “Nate the Great” as he was known, just couldn’t stay healthy. All of his chronic dings are a focus of this brief article with a slightly unflattering headline, explained in the text. Another is just how great Nate the Great was. The article, which ran with no byline, appeared in Basketball Sports Stars of 1970. 

Thurmond (right) shutting down Big Lew in their first matchup.

It was back in 1965, and the San Francisco Warrior coach Alex Hannum was discussing one of his favorite subjects—Nate Thurmond—his young giant pivotman. “He‘s the key to the club’s future,” said Hannum. “I have tremendous faith in this man’s ability. My only question about him is whether he can take the pounding under the boards you get in the NBA night after night and still retain his efficiency.”

Hannum wasn’t the only one to wonder about Nate the Great’s physical frailties. Hannum’s successors, Bill Sharman and George Lee, have since spent many a sleepless night fretting about their injury-prone giant.

The fact is that Thurmond has been injured in each of the five years he has performed as the Warriors’ starting pivotman. In 1965, strained back muscles benched him. The following year, a nagging backache again sent him to the sidelines for an extended stay. In 1967, a broken hand removed him from the lineup, and, in ‘68, it was a torn ligament in his right knee.

Last year was no different for the Warrior star as he missed 11 games, mainly due to a sore right knee. It cost him a spot in the annual All-Star game. “It hurt me to miss it,” said Nate, “but I’ll make it again. I just hate for my streak to be broken.”

He had a ready sympathizer in his present coach, youthful George Lee. “I think Nate is the best in the game of basketball,” said George. “He’s fabulous. You talk about All-Star teams. You don’t have an All-Star team until you have him.”

Despite his streak of bad luck, Thurmond is still earning approximately $100,000-a-season, and Lee is certain he’s worth every penny of it. “There is little doubt now that Thurmond is the best all-around center in pro basketball,” the coach says. “He’s more than a 50-point difference in every game if you figure how many points he scores and how many he takes away from the other team with his shotblocking.”

Last season, Nate averaged 21.5 points and was fifth in rebounds with 1,402. A rap against Thurmond is that he needs a special stimulus to bring him into his playing peak. And Nate doesn’t really argue the point.

“When I play the best—guys like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Wes Unseld—I get inspired. You know how great Russell was. I wanted to play my best against him. It’s a combination of a few things—timing, jumping ability, blocking out, and desire.

“But you just can’t play 82 games and get ‘up’ every night. You don’t do it on purpose, but when you play the weaker teams, you just don’t get mentally ready and sometimes you have an off-night. 

“Sure,” Nate adds, “playing 48 minutes of every game is a good argument at contract time. But it hurts me in other ways. I figure it will cut down on my longevity. Russell slowed down last season, and I figure the same thing will happen to me after I’ve been playing 10 or 12 years. It will probably cost me two or three years off my career. It also hurts my shooting average. When I get tired, my shooting falls off. With more rest, I’d be a much better shooter.”

Still, just about every coach in the league will take Nate Thurmond just as he is. As Baltimore coach Gene Shue says, “When you start out a team with Thurmond at center, you can fill in around him rather nicely.”

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