Quick, name the greatest NBA centers ever.
I’m pretty sure that Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain were mentioned, along with Shaq and Hakeem Olajuwon. Other names might have been tossed around, but unless you were around during the ’60s and ’70s, or are a historian of pro basketball and the Warriors franchise, the name Nate Thurmond probably slipped through the cracks.
Some have suggested that he was one of the best combinations of offensive and defensive skills that the game has ever seen. Jabbar once referred to him as the toughest center for him to play against.
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If you want a quick glimpse into how special Thurmond was here are a few examples:
* He recorded the NBA’s first official quadruple-double with 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocked shots against the Atlanta Hawks in 1974.
* Against the Detroit Pistons in 1965, he grabbed 42 rebounds. Earlier that year he snagged 18 rebounds in a quarter against the Baltimore Bullets.
*Between 1965 and 1967, he averaged 18 rebounds per game during that three-year stretch.
Thurmond played his high school ball in Akron, Ohio, a teammate of future NBA star Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson at Central Hower High School. He apprenticed under Chamberlain as a rookie with the Warriors, who were located in Philadelphia during his rookie year in 1959.
During the 1966-1967 season, he averaged 21.3 boards per game to go along with 18.7 points. The next year, he averaged 20.5 points per game, starting a run of five straight years where he averaged over 20 points per game. He reached his apex in the ’68-’69 season while posting 21.5 points and 19.7 rebounds per game. And mind you, this was in the era of the great center, which was anchored by Wilt and Russell.
A member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame who was also named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players squad in 1996. Because he wasn’t flashy, didn’t put up huge numbers like Wilt or win championships like Russell, most fans of the modern game have no idea who he is, other than hearing that he passed away this weekend.
But the true barometer of respect is the one bestowed by peers, and Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Willis Reed and all of the greats of that bygone era would have told you that Thurmond was an elite patroller of the paint. The Big Dipper went so far as to call him his toughest adversary.
During his tenure with the Warriors, he had become the club’s all-time leader in games played, rebounds, and minutes played.
He never won a ring, though he played in two NBA Finals. But Nate’s brilliance could never be defined by the lack of a championship. His legacy wasn’t about flash, highlights and numbers. It was actually summed up simply and succinctly by Jabbar, who once said, “When I score on Nate, I know I’ve done something.”