Nate Thurmond was one of the first truly great players for the Golden State Warriors in their early years in the Bay Area. Since he was drafted third overall in the 1963 Draft, Thurmond set a standard for centers in the NBA and became one of the game’s greatest rebounders. Unfortunately, he also played against some of the greatest ever and has been largely overshadowed. During his era, the Warriors were talented but struggled against the great Lakers and Celtics teams which dominated his time. He never did win a championship but his struggle to make a name for himself against the game’s great players made him a great player. This is his story.
Nate Thurmond was born on July 25, 1941 in Akron, Ohio. He starred at Akron’s Central High School where he was teammates with future NBA star Gus Johnson. He passed on a scholarship to Ohio State where he would have been a backup to Jerry Lucas, a rival in high school. Instead, Thurmond went to Bowling Green State University. He scored 17.8 points and recorded 17.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore while the Falcons went 10-14. The following year was better for Bowling Green as they went 21-4 while Thurmond recorded 15.7 points and 15.8 rebounds per game. They lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Butler 56-55.
In Nate Thurmond’s senior year, the Falcons went 19-8 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Illinois 70-67. After recording 19.9 points and 16.7 rebounds per game as a senior, Nate Thurmond was drafted in the first round of the 1963 NBA Draft by the San Francisco Warriors.
When Nate Thurmond first arrived in San Francisco, Wilt Chamberlain still commanded the stat line as the Warrior’s biggest star. As a result, Thurmond spent much of his rookie year backing up the great center and soaking up any knowledge that he could. The Warriors made the NBA Finals that year but lost to the Boston Celtics in five games. When Chamberlain was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in the middle of the following season, Nate Thurmond was ready to lead the team to victory.
Beginning in the 1964-1965 season until his second to last year with the team, Nate Thurmond never averaged less than 16 points per game. In his first year as the starting center, Thurmond averaged 16.5 points and 18.1 rebounds per game while earning his first All-Star appearance. He was an All-Star the next three years as he scored 16.3, 18.7 and 20.5 points per game respectively. It was during this time that he became one of the best rebounders in the game, averaging more than 18 per game each year from the 1964-1965 season to the 1968-1969 season.
Despite his greatness as a rebounder, Nate Thurmond could never get past Wilt Chamberlain who consistently beat him for the most rebounds in the NBA year after year. Their rivalry came to a head in the 1967 NBA Finals when Thurmond’s Warriors faced off against Chamberlain’s 76ers. Thurmond proved to be a steady presence in the Warrior’s attack but was not their highest scorer, averaging just 14.2 points per game while his teammate Rick Barry averaged an astonishing 40.8 points per game. However, Thurmond proved to be even more vital for the Warriors, averaging 26.7 rebounds per game. Unfortunately, Wilt Chamberlain had the last laugh, averaging 28.5 rebounds per game as the 76ers won the series in six games. It would be Nate Thurmond’s last chance at an NBA championship.
The following year was, statistically, Nate Thurmond’s best, averaging 20.5 points and 22 rebounds per game. In the four years that followed, Thurmond would averaged more than 20 points per game and reach another All-Star game. After the 1971-1972 season, he would never again average more than 20 points per game but he still had value as a rebounder, averaging 17.1 and 14.2 rebounds per game in the 1972-1973 and 1973-1974 seasons respectively. After making the All-Star game in each of his final two years as a Warrior, Nate Thurmond was traded to the Chicago Bulls for the 1974-1975 season. After averaging 11.3 rebounds in his only full season as a Bull, Thurmond was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the middle of the 1975-1976 season.
Nate Thurmond retired after the 1976-1977 season with 14,437 points and 14,464 rebounds and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. As of this writing, he is now ranked 11th all time for rebounds in a career. Following his retirement, he returned to San Francisco where he opened a restaurant, Big Nate’s BBQ. After 20 years of service, he sold the restaurant and lived the rest of his life in the City by the Bay. Sometime later, the Warriors gave him the title “Warriors Legend & Ambassador” and retired his jersey number 42. He passed away from leukemia on July 16, 2016 at the age of 74. The Warriors continue to pay homage to one of their legends by featuring a Big Nate’s BBQ kiosk in their new home, the Chase Center. Though he is no longer alive, his legacy lives on within the Warriors organization.