Yesterday, NBA legend Nate Thurmond passed away at the age of 74. He had been battling leukemia. Thurmond was one of the greatest centers of all time, though he’s a bit overlooked, since he was a contemporary of the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Nevertheless, he more than held his own amongst those dominating players, and earned a place alongside them as one of the most talented and dominant big men ever to play the game.
Thurmond first hit the NBA scene when he was drafted by the San Francisco Warriors with the third pick in 1963. This teamed him up with Wilt Chamberlain, and the Warriors would go on to make it to the Finals in Thurmond’s rookie season. It being the 1960s, they ended up losing to the Boston Celtics. Midway through the next season, the Warriors traded Wilt, providing Thurmond an opportunity for a more prominent role, and he did not disappoint. His numbers increased from 7 points and 10.4 rebounds a game as a rookie to 16.5 & 18.1 in his second season. He never looked back, and by 1967, the Warriors were back in the finals, with Thurmond averaging 21.3 rebounds a game, making him one of only five players to ever average over 20 boards a game in a season. Unfortunately, the Warriors, led by Thurmond and the incredible scorer, Rick Barry, would once again lose in the Finals, this time to Wilt’s Philadelphia 76ers.
After that Finals loss, Thurmond enjoyed the best stretch of his career, averaging 21 points and 17.4 rebounds over the next five seasons, which saw Rick Barry jump to the ABA, leading to an uptick in Thurmond’s scoring. He also eclipsed 20 rebounds per game again in the 1967-68 season, averaging a career high 22 a game. Eventually, Barry returned from the ABA, and Thurmond’s scoring numbers dropped, but his rebounding and defense were always brought to the table.
In 1974, Thurmond’s time with the Warriors came to an end after he was traded to the Chicago Bulls for center Clifford Ray. In his Bulls debut, Thurmond made NBA history, recording the league’s first official quadruple-double by springing for 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks in a 120-115 overtime victory against the Atlanta Hawks. Somebody get that game on Hardwood Classics on NBA TV! Despite not averaging double digit scoring for the first time since his rookie season, Thurmond helped a talented Bulls team make it to the Western Conference Finals, where they would lose in seven games to none other than his former Warriors, who would go on to finally win a championship.
The next season, Thurmond was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, which was a bit of a homecoming for the Akron, Ohio native. At this point, he was coming off the bench, but he did step up when starting center Jim Chones was injured in the Playoffs to lead the Cavs to an improbable appearance in the 1976 Eastern Conference Finals, where they were finally defeated by the Boston Celtics. After that, he played one more season before retiring with career averages of 15 points and 15 rebounds a game.
Unfortunately, the NBA didn’t start officially counting blocks until the 1973-74 season, but it’s safe to say that Thurmond would rank high on the list of all time leaders if we knew just how many he had over the course of his career. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he notched one or two more quadruple-doubles during the 1960s. As I mentioned earlier, Thurmond isn’t exactly mentioned when people discuss the greatest centers of all time, but his accomplishments speak for themself. Only three other players have accomplished a quadruple-double (Alvin Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson), and he’s one of only five players to average 15 rebounds a game for their career, and 20 in a season, joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit and Jerry Lucas. His career high of 42 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons in 1965 makes him one of four players to haul in at least 40 in a game, along with Russell, Wilt and Lucas. He’s also got the record for rebounds in a quarter: 18 against the Baltimore Bullets, also in 1965.
But there’s more! He was an All Star seven times, he made five All Defensive Teams, he was amongst the legends assembled for the 50 greatest players of all time during the NBA’s 50th season, and his number 42 is retired by both the Warriors and Cavaliers. There’s no doubt that Thurmond was one of the greatest of all time, but he ends up getting underrated a bit because of the sheer amount of dominating big men the league has seen over its history. When their time comes to ascend to the great basketball court in the sky, Thurmond will be waiting for them, ready to make things difficult for them once again with his great defense. With his death, the NBA has lost a legend, but he won’t be forgotten, because it’s impossible to forget someone who made such a great imprint on the game.