[The name Wells Twombly may no longer register for many sports enthusiasts. But back in the 1970s, Wells Twombly was all the rage in the Bay Area for his erudite, 1,000-word columns in the San Francisco Examiner that called out the bad sports and hailed the good ones. Twombly wrote, and the Bay Area consumed his elegant prose, discussed it, dissected it, but most of all delighted in his turn of phrase and mastery of his craft.
Jon Carroll, a fellow newspaper columnist and admirer at the San Francisco Examiner, wrote, “Twombly would wander discursively through paragraphs of metaphor, delightedly drawing your attention to this or that correlation, playing with the clank and hum of verbs bumping up against nouns, expanding, digressing, tinkering with the melody like Ornette Coleman. Wells Twombly wrote too long because he didn’t want the music to stop.“
In May 1977, the music stopped. Wells Twombly, just age 41, left this earth. But before the music stopped, Twombly penned this article about Nate Thurmond, published in the January 1973 issue of SPORT Magazine. It’s probably the best profile written about Nate The Great, whose memory lives on as one of the NBA’s 75 greatest of all time. Here’s to Thurmond, here’s to Twombly, and here’s to the power of a well-considered metaphor.]
The face of Nate Thurmond is sad in an enormously pleasant sort of way. It could easily belong to a shopkeeper or a traveling salesman or a circus clown trying to create laughter through his own unspoken sorrow.
There are numerous young ladies who would testify that the face of Nate Thurmond is downright handsome. Chances are their testimony would be prejudiced. Beauty does not always come in artistically perfect packages. Nate Thurmond’s features make up a fascinating study of one dependable man’s inner worth.
The hairline has been retreating for the better part of a decade. The eyes are neither filled with passion, nor empty from indolence. They tell of a man who does his duty. The nose is broad. The chin is firm. If this were a face from antiquity, Nate Thurmond would be a king in Senegal or a great general in ancient Ghana.
Nate Thurmond is an athlete in the finest sense of the term. The muscles are clearly outlined. So are the veins and the sinews. Nate Thurmond is a workman, a basketball center who tests the very best. He does his job. He is neither graceful nor spectacular. There are other centers who are uncut and pure. They do their work with an uncommon grace. They slip and slide, never losing balance. They look like something sent over by Sadlers-Wells ballet. They leap into the air and return to planet earth with a style only God could envision.
But Nate Thurmond does his job. He isn’t clumsy. He doesn’t make a serious tactical mistake. He places his muscles underneath the basket and puts his body to work against your beautiful reflexes.
Study, in your mind, a photo of two centers. Immediately, you see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, smooth and without error, dominating the scene. But beneath him, pushing him away from a simple layup, is Nate Thurmond.
Thurmond’s entire being is visible, right down to the smallest nerve. His heart seems to be beating right there in the photo. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is superior in natural ways. But Thurmond is more prosaic, more closely tied to the earth. One performs brilliantly because God meant him to. The other has to struggle. It is always been that way.
The late afternoon sunshine has gilded the waters of San Francisco Bay. In his temporary apartment on Diamond Heights Boulevard, nestled between the cleavage of the Twin Peaks, Nate Thurmond can see Oakland on a clear day.
Once upon a golden time, Thurmond played for a team that called itself the San Francisco Warriors. He lived in a shimmering tower on Russian Hill in those days, 30 stories up. His apartment cost $750 a month, and he had a view of gloriously expensive Tiburon across the water. His salary was $95,000 then, pretty big stuff in those pre-basketball-war years.
Things have changed. The Warriors, weary of moving their games between the Cow Palace and the San Francisco Civic Auditorium while waiting for the construction of 20,000-seat Yerba Buena Gardens, shifted across the Bay Bridge to mundane Oakland, where the arena is nicer than the city that built it. The Warriors now insist that they represent something called Golden State, wherever that may be.
Now Thurmond is making $250,00 a season, up from $125,000 a year ago. His contract has been signed, sealed, and placed in club-owner Franklin Mieuli’s safe. So, Nate is living with a friend while construction progresses on a suburban mansion that he is building down the peninsula in Woodside. It will not have a sliding roof over the master bedroom, nor will there be a bedspread made from the noses of slaughtered wolves.
Nate Thurmond loves the good things that life brings him. He is not necessarily interested in ostentation. It is not his style. Nate Thurmond’s style is hard work. Only a few weeks earlier, the Carolina Cougars were around offering him $2 million over a five-year period. It would have been easy to take it and run. But Thurmond isn’t made that way.
“I’m loyal,” he explains. “I’ve had all kinds of chances to play in the American Basketball Association. I know those offers are good only while I can play basketball. Nobody is going to pay $2 million for Nate Thurmond the retired basketball player. I’ve only got a few more years to make big money. I know that. But I like it here. I want to stay around San Francisco-Oakland the rest of my life.
“I told the people from the ABA that even though I could get rich, I wouldn’t feel right. It would be like taking a five-year jail term in order to get to keep the money I stole that got me arrested. That would be dishonest. I’m nothing if I’m not absolutely loyal.”
The money is beautiful. So is the Rolls-Royce with “Nate-42” on the license plate. Very shortly, he is opening his own restaurant—a lifetime ambition. Only one thing nips at Nate Thurmond’s magnificently well-hidden vanity.
“It’s wonderful to be in the Bay Area,” he says, slowly because a show of pride disturbs him. “But it has cost me something in national recognition. You know what I mean?”
Somehow it seems that ego gratification is always for other basketball centers. There is a cult around each of them. Nobody ever played defense better than Bill Russell, he of the deep wit and the forceful political thoughts. No man ever seemed so lordly or possessed so much naked talent as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Nobody ever had such a commanding presence on the court as that dedicated bachelor Wilt Chamberlain. And what about this new young giant, Artis Gilmore, who grabbed over $2 million and signed with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA?
What is there to say about Nate Thurmond except that he works very hard and always gets his job done? It’s in his genes. His father has a good job in an Akron tire plant. His mother owns a beauty parlor. The two Thurmond children, Nate and Ben, did not grow up in a shabby ghetto. They were expected not only to go to college, but to pay attention in class and graduate.
In a sense, Nate Thurmond is as formal in his taste and his behavior as an Ohio banker. His silver Rolls-Royce is luxurious without being ostentatious. So are his clothes, which run to tailored suits, usually with vests. He never appears in public without a jacket or a tie. He can go nearly two months without wearing the same outfit twice. He frets about his image, which is curious, because he doesn’t really have one.
It is been said that Thurmond could be the only seven-footer (he is taller than his listed 6-foot-11 ½ ) in a room full of midgets and still not be obtrusive. He is that way on the court.
“I’m just not a tricky basketball player,” he says. “Being flashy takes unnecessary effort. Once I got cute and tore up a leg muscle that kept me off the court for four weeks. I’ve had too many injuries to risk that sort of thing again. I suppose I could make a reputation for myself by dunking the ball and other stuff. But what would it get me?
“I’d love to be recognized for what I can do, not what others do to get themselves attention. I wish the writers would give me credit. The other players think I’m the best defensive big man in professional basketball. They’re always coming up to me and saying that. Why would they lie? I’m sure they don’t. I get the same reaction from other players that Bill Russell used to get. They acknowledge what I can do.”
In Thurmond’s temporary apartment there is a clipping taken from the April 8, 1972, edition at the San Francisco Chronicle. The headline has a wistful quality about it. “Milwaukee Ovation—Recognition Finally Comes to Nate Thurmond.” That may or may not be an accurate appraisal. At least one night of his life, somebody other than the opposition’s players gave Nate Thurmond credit.
It is late in the winter—actually spring, but basketball is a winter game—and the Golden State Warriors are in the fifth-and-final game of their playoff round with the Milwaukee Bucks. The ice on Lake Michigan long ago broke up, but the wind is wolfish, and the temperature outside the Milwaukee Arena is still redolent of Christmas and sleigh bells.
This is Nate Thurmond’s finest hour, and he is losing, an anomaly which he is getting used to. For five games he has been playing Abdul-Jabbar with a beauty that passeth understanding. He seems to have discovered some flaw that nobody else has previously noticed. When Abdul-Jabbar goes to his right for a hook, there is Thurmond with his hand in the young genius’ line of vision. When Abdul-Jabbar goes back for a jump shot, he wears Nate Thurmond like an extra T-shirt. In desperation, Abdul-Jabbar moves to his left for a hook. There waiting to slam the ball back in his face is Nate Thurmond, whose name speaks of the Midwest, not the Middle East.
Even though Milwaukee wins the series, Abdul-Jabbar is held to 12 points in the final game. Before the buzzer rasps, Nate Thurmond ambles off in that floppy sneaker walk of his. His face is even sadder than usual. It makes a body want to cry. Instead, 10,000 citizens of Milwaukee stand up and give him an incredibly long ovation. The coach of the Bucks, Larry Costello, in a rarely-seen gesture comes over to grab the center’s hand.
“You had a great series,” Costello says. “You were absolutely fantastic. There’s nobody quite like you, Nate.”
That is recognition. If Nate Thurmond were the center for the New York Knickerbockers, there wouldn’t be enough space in the nation’s magazines to cover his adventures fully. But, by choice, he lives in San Francisco-Oakland, a cozy, self-contained metropolitan area that loves him, treats him with the same respect it has for the Bay Bridge and lets him pursue any lifestyle that feels comfortable to him. But, alas, for all its beauty, the area does not have much clout in the communications business. There is no mystique about the Warriors. They are owned by a funny little guy named Franklin Mieuli, who has a white-tie-and-tails champagne dinner for his ticketholders and can’t seem to sign first-found draft choices.
“Even at age 31, I still have to improve certain aspects of my game,” says Thurmond. “I have been working extra hard on going to the hoop from my left. Maybe it’s better that nature made me imperfect. I get better because I work for what I need. My knees are so scarred up from operations, they look like roadmaps.”
The physical punishment was so severe that Thurmond summoned the press to his room at St. Mary’s Hospital on January 21, 1970, and announced, “As of now, I definitely have retired from basketball.”
“Those injuries run in cycles,” he says. “At the time of my retirement speech, I was so low I could hardly get up. Pride dictated that I quit before I became a hobbling cripple on the court.”
In interviews, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar does not freely exchange viewpoints. But he will discuss Nate Thurmond: “Of all the players I have ever faced, he is the toughest. When I score on Nate, I know I’ve done something. He sweats, and he wants you to sweat, too.”
When Nate was young, he made a friend of Wilt Chamberlain. They were colleagues at first. The Warriors drafted Thurmond out of Bowling Green and tried to make a forward out of him, mostly because Chamberlain had moved West from Philadelphia with them, and he was their center. He worked very hard with the young Thurmond. It became a source of pride, as if he were building something for the future.
During Thurmond’s rookie year, the Warriors won a divisional championship. The next winter, Chamberlain came down with pancreatitis just before the season started, and Nate became the starting center. It was a weird, weird year. In order to save money, management traded Chamberlain to Philadelphia when he recovered his health. Everything collapsed. The Warriors fell to last place. Thurmond played well, but the club ended with a 17-63 record.
There were other agonies ahead. The Warriors drafted Rick Barry, and Nate and he became one of the classic center-forward combinations in the game. Then came the formation the American Basketball Association, and just as the Warriors were getting good, Thurmond’s new friend left him, jumping to the Oakland Oaks.
“I never blamed him for going. I missed him because I liked him personally and because he was great at getting the ball into me. We had this unofficial union. Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax had done it, you know, holding out on the Dodgers together. Rick and I decided to stick together. We were going to play together regardless.
“But the Oakland club signed Rick’s father-in-law Bruce Hale, as coach,” Thurmond continues. “They promised Rick $250,000 over three years with a piece of the club. They made a big noise about signing me, too. But I guess they didn’t have the money. It was okay. I didn’t want to leave the Warriors anyway. I got a three-year contract at $285,000, and that was okay, too. I think that was the best deal I could have received. I wanted to be to San Francisco what Willie Mays or what Mickey Mantle was to New York.”
When Barry was forced to return to the Warriors this winter, Thurmond welcomed him warmly. “That’s the thing about him,” says his coach, Alvin Attles. “He’s a very decent, understanding man. He wants so badly to be known as the best man who ever played the game.”
So much for pride and passion. The first World Series game ever scheduled for Oakland has brought people down out of the Alameda Hills. Traffic is thick on the Nimitz Freeway. The weather above the stark concrete form of the Oakland Coliseum jolts the nerve endings. Sunshine is pouring down through a horseshoe of towering thunderheads that arch upward like so many black knights on a chessboard.
Nate Thurmond is edging along, riding in the front seat next to a writer from one of the San Francisco newspapers. Nate is a baseball freak, pure and unrelenting. At the moment, he is talking about his business and social life.
“I used to be a swinging bachelor. At least that’s what they called me. Now I stick to one girl. At my age, that’s best. That running around after games is tough on a man. You can feel the late hours in your legs once you pass 30.”
A few years ago, Thurmond opened a place called the Celebrity Club. Because he moves effortlessly through a biracial social life, he expected both his Black and his white friends to patronize his establishment. It didn’t work out that way. Whites wouldn’t go there because it was too close to San Francisco’s nearly all-Black Fillmore District. Blacks wouldn’t go because they figured it was a white man’s hangout run by a Black athlete.
“The new place,” he explains, “will be a soul food restaurant called The Beginning. It’s [artist] Barnaby Conrad’s old place. I hope whites will come, too. I don’t make any differentiation in my friends because of artificial things like race. I wish other people wouldn’t either.”
He has been hired by the San Francisco Chronicle to write a story on the third Series game between Oakland and Cincinnati. It thunders, hails, and eventually rains so hard the game cannot be played. Thurmond is disappointed, but he climbs back into the car.
“I’m not worried about injuries anymore,” he says. “They used to have me pretty well freaked out. Not anymore. I don’t dive for loose balls anymore. It’s true. I can’t risk going out for a full season. Once I hit a bench in Philadelphia and smashed up my knee. It’s tough playing somewhere between 80 and 100 games a year. That’s too much traveling.”
Travel is boring during the season, even though Thurmond is an unrelenting tourist during the summer. Seeing new cities is exciting. Sleeping in the same old beds in the same old cities is not. He tours Europe, the Orient, the Caribbean to forget Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago. He listens to good jazz. He takes care of his parents.
“I was brought up in a hard-working, religious environment. I’m Black, but I’m also Middle America. I never heard a racial slur in my whole life. I bought my parents a new home and a car, just like it says you’re supposed to do when you hit it big in America. I own some real estate, and I have investments. I like to shoot pool, and I don’t drink much. I’m sort of a swinging square. I like solid things, you dig?”
The rain cloud has passed over the Coliseum. Nate Thurmond laughs softly. “There goes my chance to be baseball writer,” he says ruefully. “I guess I’ll just have to find another career.”
The clouds are suddenly gone. Stars appear. On either side of San Francisco Bay, towers of lights begin to crackle in the cold night air. This is Nate Thurmond’s kingdom, where he pursues recognition so relentlessly. It will either come or it won’t. But if it does, it must come here. It is a wise man who knows his own turf and stays on it.