Nate ‘The Great’ Thurmond, 1968

[The NBA’s recent 75th Anniversary Team included a few unexpected, though certainly deserving, names. High among them is Nate Thurmond. Nate the Great. When he was healthy with Golden State, Thurmond ranked right up there with the greatest.

Over the years, I’ve read countless homages to Russell and Chamberlain. The high praise, of course, is deserved. But try suggesting that Nate Thurmond was then as respected among his NBA peers as Russell or Chamberlain. Radio silence. Or frequently, “Well, I’ve never heard that.” Maybe. But it’s the truth, first brought to my attention by NBA great Archie Clark. Since then, I’ve noticed that almost every top 1960s or early 1970 center answers “Thurmond” when answering questions about the toughest big man in the game. It’s uncanny.

That’s why I’ve transcribed this brief article from Pro Basketball Almanac, 1968. As a piece of journalism, the article by Dave Sendler is pretty average—except for the high praise for number 42 in Warrior gold and blue at the top of the article. It should silence any doubters, and maybe even prompt more people to include Thurmond’s name in the same sentence as Russell and Chamberlain. After all, Nate the Great is now one of the NBA’s 75 best of all time!]

Wilt Chamberlain sat in the airport terminal in San Francisco awaiting a flight to Boston. “He’s the toughest center I have to play,” he said. “He can rebound, play defense, and you’ve got to worry about him scoring, too. He’s a helluva center, and I don’t think he gets the recognition he deserves.”

Without realizing it, Wilt had just summed up the career of Nate Thurmond of the San Francisco Warriors. Take last season’s All-Star game in San Francisco. Nate, playing more minutes than anyone on either team, scored 16 points and pulled down 18 rebounds. His 12-point first quarter got the West team off to a 39-22 lead, paving the way to a 135-120 upset win. 

Player sentiment was unanimous after the game. Jerry West said, “We controlled the boards, and you can give Nate the credit. To me, he’s the finest all-round center in the league.”

Elgin Baylor chimed in: “I haven’t seen Thurmond play a bad game yet. I don’t think most people have any idea how valuable he is.”

But who was the game’s MYP? Rick Barry, who scored 38 points. And even Barry said Thurmond was more deserving of the MVP award. 

Second billing is nothing new to Thurmond. When he first came to the Warriors, he was moved into a forward spot. Why would a 6-foot-11 center be forced to play forward? The Warriors had a 7-foot-1 center named Wilt Chamberlain. As soon as Nate became accustomed to his forward slot, Wilt was traded and Nate returned to his natural position, center. At last he would become the big man. But along came Rick Barry a year later and back into the shadows retreated Thurmond. Not too far in the shadows, though. 

Last year, Nate averaged 19 points and 21 rebounds per game . Even though it was Barry who led the league in scoring, it was Thurmond’s rebounding and defensive play that made the Warriors into the NBA championship finals against Chamberlain and the 76ers. 

Entering the fifth game, the 76ers led three games to one, and a victory would prevent the long trip back to the West Coast. The TV cameras had been set up to the bring the national audience the victory celebration from the 76ers’ dressing room. But Nate Thurmond saw to it that there was no celebration in Philly that night. 

He outplayed and outrebounded Wilt (35-24), completely dominating the game. In the fourth quarter, Nate pulled down two crucial offensive rebounds, which resulted in six points, and gave San Francisco a four-point bulge they never lost. 

After his performance in the playoffs, Nate finally began getting some of the recognition he deserved. He may get a lot more this season if Rick Barry does indeed play in the ABA. But what if someone comes along and puts him back in the shadows again? How would he feel?

“I’ve led my team in scoring only one or two years ever since I was in high school,” Nate says. “I’ve never been all-anything. I’ve always been behind someone. I’d like to be No. 1 for a change. I’d like my team to be No. 1, too. I guess I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

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