Emerging from Wilt's shadow, Nate Thurmond became an all-time great

Nate Thurmond began his career with the Warriors in 1963 and ended it with the Cavaliers in 1977. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

When San Francisco Warriors' owner Eddie Gottlieb was asked why he drafted Nate Thurmond in 1963 when he already had Wilt Chamberlain, he answered "because Thurmond is the best man available." He was. But it was a dicey move in 1963. Chamberlain had just averaged 45 points and 24 rebounds the previous season. What's more, he played 47.5 minutes a game. Thurmond, a 6-11 center out of Bowling Green, didn't figure to get much court time.

Thurmond, who passed away Saturday at the age of 74, was a defensive center and excellent defensive rebounder in the tradition of Bill Russell, managing to get about 27 minutes a night playing forward and center behind Wilt. It was very much like Thurmond to make the best of the situation. It's what he always did.

When Thurmond was laboring with an ailing back in his third season, he paid a visit to Dr. Robert Kerlan, a Los Angeles doctor who treated the left arm of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. "He discovered I had one leg a half inch shorter than another," Thurmond said. "The vertebrae were getting out of alignment and the muscles in between them were softening. He gave me a tennis shoe with a lift in it."

The story is typical of Thurmond. Make do. Deal with the situation. Play through injuries. If you're not the focal point of the offense, clog the lane, block shots, and get rebounds. It was San Francisco coach Bill Sharman, one of just three men to make the Hall of Fame as a player and a coach, who said during that 1966 season, "Nate is knocking on the door of greatness." Other coaches, noticing how Thurmond would always get the short end of the comparisons with Russell and Chamberlain and later with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, voiced similar opinions.

No one was more democratic toward offense and defense than Nate Thurmond. His career line is the quintessence of balance: 14,437 points and 14,464 rebounds, 15 points and 15 rebounds per game. When blocked shots started being recorded by the league in his eleventh season, he showed what he could do in that department. It is his very even attention to all facets of the game that might have prevented him from getting his just recognition. Thurmond enjoyed stardom, but never superstardom. In his 14 NBA seasons, a title eluded him. He made it to the Finals in his rookie season and in 1967, when Rick Barry and the Warriors attempted the upset the 68-13 Philadelphia 76ers.

The respect of his peers did not elude him. He was selected for the NBA's 50th Anniversary Team in 1996.

Born on July 25, 1941 in Akron, Ohio, Thurmond had sprouted to 6-foot-1 by the time he graduated grade school. By then his older brother Ben was leading him away from baseball and toward basketball. As a sophomore at Akron Central High he was 6-foot-4 and the tallest kid on the team. His coach, Joe Siegfirth, put him at forward. "I wasn't too strong then," Thurmond recalled, remembering how smaller, wider bodies muscled him under the basket. He thus developed a shot from 15 to 18 feet. By the time he was a junior, he had risen to 6-foot-8, but stayed at forward, giving way at center to his stronger teammate (and future Baltimore Bullets great), Gus Johnson. By his senior year Thurmond had bulked up a little and began playing in the pivot.

Fielding some 20 scholarship offers, Thurmond settled on Bowling Green nearby. He had to learn how to use his height on offense. "I didn't know how to take a guy to the hoop," he said. "I was used to playing forward, so instead of going to the hoop, I'd stand back and shoot over my man's head." He played a gentle game, as if he was afraid of hurting anyone, so coach Harold Anderson reminded him to be aggressive. In 1963, his senior year, he was chosen as an All-American.

The San Francisco Warriors grabbed Thurmond third, behind Art Heyman and Rod Thorn in the 1963 draft. He was offered a $2,000 signing bonus and a salary of $14,000. At 6-foot-11 Thurmond was big for his time, but in training camp he met a bigger teammate -- the 7-foot-1 Wilt Chamberlain. "I couldn't sleep that night," Thurmond recalls. "I kept wondering -- how could I possibly play against this man in practice? How could I handle him?" But Wilt became a mentor, teaching Thurmond how to exploit his height. Wilt played the pivot, Thurmond forward, and the Warriors won 48 games, won the Western Division before Boston drubbed them in five games in the Finals for the Celtics' fifth consecutive title.

At the All-Star break in 1965, the Warriors unloaded Chamberlain and his $200,000 salary to Philadelphia. The duo had the Warriors in last place. Thurmond moved to the pivot and posted 17 points and 18 rebounds per game. But his liberation was hardly San Francisco's: The Warriors won 17 and lost 63, 14 games worse than any other team in the league and the worst record in league history.

Starting in 1965, Thurmond, then in his third season, drew greater attention for his individual achievements. He appeared in the top five in rebounding every season from 1965 through 1969. When he snatched 42 rebounds against Detroit in a November 1965 game, he became one of only four players -- the others are Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Jerry Lucas -- ever to get 40 in a game.

In 1966, Rick Barry joined the Warriors, giving the team more scoring punch. In the 1967 All-Star game, played at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, a pair of Warriors stole the show. The West won for the first time in five years, 135-120. Nate Thurmond had 18 rebounds to go with 16 points -- as many points and Chamberlain and Russell combined logged for the East -- while Barry scored 38 points. Coach Red Auerbach was whistled for two technicals and got tossed out.

Barry won the scoring title in 1967 -- after Chamberlain had won it seven years in a row -- and the Warriors won 44 games and the Western Division. Now Thurmond had to face Chamberlain and the 76ers, who finished what was then an all-time best 68-13, in the Finals.

Thurmond played decently. He had 24 points and 23 rebounds in a losing effort in Game 1. But Chamberlain posted a quadruple-double in a 126-95 Game 2 trouncing, getting 38 rebounds, 10 points, 10 assists, and 10 blocks. Thurmond's 17 points and 25 rebounds and Barry's 55 points in Game 3 gave San Francisco its first win.

In Game 4, Thurmond and his mates were badly outplayed again. Thurmond scored eight points, while for Philadelphia, Hal Greer scored 38 points, Chet Walker had 33, and Chamberlain grabbed 27 rebounds. Barry logged 43 points in Game 4 as the Warriors faced down a 12-point fourth quarter deficit to stay alive, 117-109. But in Game 6, Philadelphia, trailing by 12 points with four minutes left in the third quarter, had Billy Cunningham come off the bench to score 13 points. The Sixers shot 64 free throws to the Warriors' 29 in Game 6, and despite Barry's six-game Finals average of 41 points, Philadelphia won the title.

Thurmond would run off five consecutive 20-point seasons. He honed his all-around game. He once explained that he had to play Chamberlain "not by trying to block every shot, but by positioning myself to keep him from his best percentage shots." On Nov. 4, 1967, he became the first player ever to hold Chamberlain scoreless for a game. Still, Thurmond's coaches -- first Alex Hannum and then Bill Sharman -- said that his game was too soft. Said Sharman, "It's not that he's afraid of contact; it's his nature not to be rough." Thurmond acknowledged the criticism, admitting that the centers were getting bigger and that he'd have to get rougher. "I'm very mild on the floor," he said. "I only get mad at officials."

The following year Thurmond hurt his leg and missed the final 31 games of the season and all of the playoffs. The Lakers blew out San Francisco four straight in the Division Finals. At the time of his injury, Thurmond was enjoying his best season, averaging 21 points and 22 rebounds a game. Only three others had ever accomplished the 20-20 feat -- Chamberlain, Bob Pettit and Jerry Lucas.

He started the 1968-69 season by receiving a three-season, $95,000 per-year deal from the Warriors. Again, he posted gargantuan numbers of 22 points and 20 rebounds per game. The Warriors won the first two against Los Angeles in the playoffs before losing four straight.

The following year presented new challenges for Thurmond, as Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) entered the league. "The first time Kareem came to the West Coast, he was playing Wilt down in Los Angeles the night before he was coming to San Francisco," Thurmond remembers. "So I got a flight and flew down and watched that game. I could see the moves that he tried or didn't try against Wilt, and what he liked to do best. The next night, the first time I played against Kareem, he got only 13 or 14 points. And that one game helped me for the next eight years."

It's not like Thurmond's defense began and ended with the job he did on Jabbar. "I scored my fewest points against him," said Willis Reed. "When the ball went away from most guys, you were usually open. When the ball went away from Nate, he went with you." The 18-footers that Reed got off against other centers weren't open against Thurmond.

In two crucial spots Thurmond brought Jabbar's sky-hook back to earth. In the West semifinals in 1972, Milwaukee beat Golden State (which had changed its name from San Francisco in 1971), 4-1. The San Francisco Chronicle said, "Thurmond went into the series expecting to hold Jabbar to 25 to 30 points per game. He held him to 21 on a poor percentage of 40. When Kareem went to his right for a hook, Thurmond was there; when Kareem fell back for a jump shot, Thurmond was there. And, finally, when he went to his left for a hook, Thurmond was not only there but slapped the shot back in his face." The next year in the semis, Thurmond held Jabbar to 22.8 points on 43-percent shooting as San Francisco downed Milwaukee in six.

But in 1974, Barry saw problems with the Warriors and aired his views in the press. "All our guys are in a slump," he announced in January. "The Warriors lack the killer instinct," he said two months later, adding that "the big happy family atmosphere" on the team was not conducive to winning. In September, Chicago coach Dick Motta traded Clifford Ray for Thurmond, a six-time all-star. "He's the greatest player available from another team in my six years coaching the Bulls," said Motta, explaining that he might win the 1975 title with Thurmond.

But Thurmond, now 33, was not the same player in 1975. He dipped to 7.9 points per game on 36 percent shooting. Soon he would be subbing for Tom Boerwinkle -- the pivot combo came to be known as "Thurwinkle" -- and unhappy about coming off the bench at $300,000 a year.

Meanwhile, Golden State broke out of the gate with a 17-6 record. Barry finished second in scoring, sixth in assists, and first in free throw shooting. In Motta's forward-oriented system, Thurmond was left to clog the middle. Still, Chicago won a franchise record eight in a row and 22 of 27 games. They won the Midwest Division with 47 wins. They sold out all seats. "Stormin" Norman Van Lier and Jerry Sloan played hyper-aggressive defense.

With Golden State and Chicago playing for the Western Conference title, the turning point came when Chicago, leading the series 2-1, blew a 19-point lead in Game 4. They lost the game and won Game 5, needing only one win to reach the Finals against the Baltimore Bullets. But suddenly no one could score, as the Bulls tallied just 72 and 79 points, respectively, and lost Games 6 and 7. Barry averaged 30 points for the series and led an almost single-handed sweep of the Bullets in the Finals.

In November 1975 Thurmond was traded to Cleveland, and helped that team to a franchise-best 49 wins in 1976 before retiring after the 1977 season.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985. His well-rounded game is still esteemed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "He was agile and quick and played aggressive defense really well," said his old rival. "He positioned himself well. At the beginning of my career, Nate Thurmond played great defense on me. A lot of people beat up on me and said they played great defense. Nate really did. Nate was the first and Bill Walton second."

It isn't easy to find anyone who didn't respect Thurmond's game.

Basketball historian Ken Shouler has served as managing editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia."