OAKLAND, Calif. — Warriors legend Nate Thurmond, the Hall of Fame center who went toe-to-toe with some of the NBA’s most fearsome big men, died Saturday. He was 74.
Thurmond played for the Warriors from 1963-74 and stands as the franchise’s all-time leading rebounder. Affable off the court, he worked for more than 30 years as a Golden State ambassador, a role he maintained even as his health faltered.
Thurmond privately battled leukemia over the past few months but also began calling friends to say goodbye.
“All you need to know about him as a person is that he called me recently — could barely speak — and said he just wanted to tell me thank you for everything,” said Raymond Ridder, the team’s longtime vice president of communications.”
Rick Barry, his longtime Warriors teammate, visited Thurmond’s bedside last weekend in order to pay his respects.
“It was a sad time, obviously. It’s never an easy thing to say goodbye to a friend,” Barry said in a phone interview Saturday. “But he was at peace with himself.”
Thurmond, a seven-time All-Star, was an intimidating 6-11, 225-pound force in the era of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, said Thurmond was the toughest center he ever faced.
“When I score on Nate, I know I’ve done something,” Abdul-Jabbar once said. “He sweats and he wants you to sweat, too.”
Thurmond had 12,771 rebounds in his Warriors career, 2,003 more than the next man, Chamberlain. Thurmond is also the franchise’s all-time leader in minutes played.
“Nate played during the era when there were actually were centers — good centers,” Barry said. “But if you ask any of them who the toughest defender was that they had to play against, Nate Thurmond’s name was going come up every time. He was one of the best defensive centers ever to play the game, no question.”
Thurmond was selected to the NBA 50th Anniversary team in 1996, much to the delight of a player who spent much of his career overshadowed by bigger names.
“Being flashy takes unnecessary effort,” Thurmond once told Sport magazine. “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?”
Nicknamed “Nate the Great,” he averaged exactly 15.0 points and 15.0 rebounds over his NBA career. That rebounding average still ranks fifth in NBA history, trailing only fellow Hall of Famers Chamberlain (22.9), Russell (22.5), Bob Pettit (16.2) and Jerry Lucas (15.6).
Defense was always Thurmond’s game, though, and he took great pride in demoralizing his opponent.
Still, Thurmond was a genial giant after the whistle. He lived in San Francisco in retirement and remained a frequent visitor at Oracle Arena. He was a fixture at home games with his wife, Marci — midcourt, about 15 rows up — and appeared at numerous community events each year.
His official job title was “Warriors Legend & Ambassador.” Among his duties last season was joining other Warriors greats to speak to the current players at the request of Coach Steve Kerr.
Thurmond’s gentle side may have left him under-appreciated compared to his more menacing peers, something he acknowledged as he neared retirement.
“You wait and see, I’ll be forgotten quick. Five years from now, when the great centers are mentioned, I’ll be forgotten,” he told The New York Times in 1976. “Maybe I was too nice, but that’s all down the drain. I know what I’ve done. I’d just like to finish my career with people saying, ’He can play.’ “
Thurmond made the NBA All-Defensive First or Second Team five times. He once grabbed 42 rebounds in a game for the San Francisco Warriors, on Nov. 9, 1965, against the Detroit Pistons.
Thurmond also owns the distinction of recording the first official quadruple-double in NBA history, with 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocked shots as a member of the Chicago Bulls in 1974. He might have accomplished that feat earlier, but blocked shots were not an official statistic until 1973-74. That’s a pity for a player who would have racked them up by the truckload.
In the Warriors’ statement announcing Thurmond’s death, Jerry West, a Hall of Famer and Warriors executive board member, called Thurmond “someone whom I admired as much as any player I ever went to battle against on any level. . 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.”
Thurmond was born July 25, 1941, in Akron, Ohio. He starred at Central Hower High School, where his teammates included future NBA star Gus Johnson.
After a prolific career at Bowling Green State University, Thurmond went to the Warriors as the third overall pick in the 1963 NBA draft. He fell in love with the Bay Area almost immediately because, for one thing, it didn’t snow.
“After I was out here for about 4-5 months, I called my mother and said, ’Hey, Mom, that bedroom you’re saving for me? Rent it out. I won’t be back,’ “ Thurmond told the Bay Area News Group last year.
Thurmond was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985.
As a rookie, he served as an apprentice under Chamberlain, playing sparingly for a team that reached the NBA Finals before losing to the Boston Celtics.
Midway through the following season, the Warriors traded Chamberlain to Philadelphia and moved Thurmond from power forward to center.
He stayed there for the next decade. Only Chris Mullin (807) played more games in a Warriors uniform than Thurmond (757).
After being traded by the Warriors to Chicago before Golden State’s 1974-75 championship season, he played a year and change with the Bulls before being dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Both the Warriors and Cavs have retired his No. 42 jersey.
“He was just a terrific human being who I loved and respected more than words can describe,” former Warriors coach Al Attles said in a statement. “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.”