Nate Thurmond, an NBA Hall of Famer and seven-time All-Star who was a dominant force in the middle for most of the Warriors’ first decade on the West Coast, died Saturday after a battle with leukemia. He was 74.
The 6-foot-11 Mr. Thurmond, voted one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1996, played 11 of his 14 seasons with the Warriors and had been a Community Ambassador for the team for decades. He also worked as an analyst on postgame broadcasts for KGO (Channel 7) in recent years, but his health had deteriorated in recent weeks and, according to people close to him, Mr. Thurmond recently began calling friends to say his final goodbyes.
“We lost one of the most iconic figures in the history of not only our organization, but the NBA in general,” Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob said. “Without a doubt, he is one of the most beloved figures ever to wear a Warriors uniform.”
Hall of Famer Rick Barry said “Nate was one of the greatest centers to ever play the game and I was privileged to call him a teammate and dear friend. He battled his illness until the very end, like a true Warrior. His legacy is one of passion, fierce competitiveness, a love of basketball and selfless devotion to others. My heartfelt prayers go out to his family, friends and fans.”
Al Attles, the Warriors’ executive who had known Mr. Thurmond since the early 60s, said he was “devastated” by the news. “Although I had prepared for this for the past several days, I was heartbroken when I was informed of his death. In typical Nate fashion, he did not let many people know about his illness and how serious it was and, unfortunately, it proved to be one of the few things in life tougher than him.
“Looking back,” said Attles, “he was as ferocious as any player in the history of the game on the court, but one of the kindest and nicest souls in his everyday life. He was just a terrific human being who I loved and respected more than words can describe and, fortunately, I was blessed to spend a great deal of time with as a teammate, coach and, most importantly, a friend for a good portion of our adult lives. For that, I am extremely thankful.”
One of only six players to have his number retired by the Warriors (42), Mr. Thurmond remains the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds (12,771) and minutes played (30,279) and is second to Chris Mullin in games. He had career averages of 15 points and 15 rebounds, but while with the Warriors scored 17.4 points and grabbed 16.9 rebounds per game.
In addition to his All-Star selections, Mr. Thurmond was a five-time All-Defensive Team selection. He was a first- or second-team choice in 1968-69 and then four consecutive seasons beginning in 1970-71.
In an 2013 NBA.com article, Mr. Thurmond said that off-the-court acclaim wasn’t as important as the appreciation from his contemporaries.
“I’m just not a tricky basketball player,” he told Sport magazine. “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 suppose I could make a reputation for myself by dunking the ball and other stuff. But what would it get me?
“The other players think I’m the best defensive big man in professional basketball. They’re always coming up to me and saying that. I get the same reaction from other players that Bill Russell used to get.”
In the same article, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was quoted as having told Basketball Digest: “He plays me better than anybody ever has.”
Warriors executive board member Jerry West, who faced Mr. Thurmond during the prime years of both men, called it “an extremely difficult day for me. We have lost an incredible person and someone whom I admired as much as any player I ever went to battle against on any level. Nate Thurmond was, without a doubt, one of the fiercest competitors that I played against during my entire career. He played with unbelievable intensity and was simply a man among boys on most nights, especially on the defensive end. On the other hand, off the court, Nate was about as caring and loving as they come, extremely kind and gentle. He was the total package as an athlete and as a man and someone we should all aspire to emulate. I’ll miss him dearly.”
Mr. Thurmond was the third overall pick out of Bowling Green by the then-San Francisco Warriors in 1963. Wilt Chamberlain was the team’s center in Mr. Thurmond’s rookie season and led the team into the 1964 NBA Finals (where they lost to the Celtics in five games). Coming off the bench, Mr. Thurmond averaged 7 points and 10.4 rebounds and was named to the All-Rookie team.
But when the Warriors began the 1964-65 season 11-33, Chamberlain was traded to Philadelphia and Mr. Thurmond moved into the starting lineup.
In the team’s first post-Chamberlain game, Mr. Thurmond scored 21 points and went on to average 16.5 points and 18.1 rebounds per game — the first of 10 consecutive seasons he would average at least 13 points and 13.8 rebounds. In a February 1965 game against the Baltimore Bullets, he had an NBA-record 18 rebounds in one quarter – breaking the record set by Chamberlain and Russell (17).
He was named an All-Star that season, the first of four consecutive such honors. He was at his most dominant in 1967-68 when he averaged 20.5 points and 22 rebounds.
Led by Mr. Thurmond and Rick Barry, the Warriors returned to the Finals in 1967, but lost to Chamberlain and the 76ers in six games.
He and the Warriors reached the playoffs in five of the next six years, but Mr. Thurmond never again reached the Finals.
After the last of his All-Star seasons in 1973-74, Mr. Thurmond was traded to Chicago in September 1974 for Clifford Ray and a 1975 first-round draft pick. The Warriors won the NBA title — their first on the West Coast — the next season.
While with the Bulls, Mr. Thurmond posted the first record quadruple double in league history when he had 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks in an Oct. 18, 1974, game against Atlanta. But his time in Chicago was limited to 93 games and he was traded to Cleveland 13 games into the 1975-76 season. He retired after the 1976-77 season. His No. 42 jersey became the first ever retired by the Cavaliers.
He returned to San Francisco with his wife, Marci, after his retirement and was the longtime co-owner of Big Nate’s Barbecue restaurant in the city.