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Nate The Great: The Forgotten Greatness of Nate Thurmond


The game of basketball has always been dominated by individual players. A single player can transform the entire makeup of a team, as we saw just recently with Kevin Durant leaving OKC to join the Warriors. Traditionally, a few great big men have dominated the league. Giants like Shaq, Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem could patrol the paint on defense, block shots, and then run the floor and score with ease against the toughest defenses. I want to bring attention to one of the most forgotten great big men of his era, the great Nate Thurmond, Center for the Warriors from 1964-1974.

Thurmond was a giant of a man, standing 6’11” and 225lbs, built like a freight
train with the swagger to match. Consistently wearing a gold chain around his neck, Thurmond was an imposing sight to see running the floor or taking his place on the block. Drafted in 1963 out of Bowling Green by the Warriors, Thurmond would sit behind Wilt Chamberlain his rookie year while only playing  25 minutes per game all the while impressing his coach with his tenacity, toughness, and his otherworldly rebounding ability.

The 1964 season would see Thurmond blossom into a star, while the rest of the team crumbled around him. The season began horribly, with Wilt Chamberlain unhappy in San Francisco and forcing his way back to Philadelphia through trade. Thurmond immediately seized Wilt’s throne as centerpiece of the Warriors, and the numbers he posted for the next decade are nothing short of magnificent. Per 36 minutes, Thurmond averaged 15.5 points and 15 rebounds during his decade-long tenure with the Warriors, with highs of 17.9 points in 1972 and an amazing 18.2 rebounds in 1968. However, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Thurmond’s game was his defense. We only have data from Thurmond’s last year with the Warriors, his age 32 season, but his defensive rating per 100 possessions was 95, which is a phenomenal number. It is reasonable to assume that his defensive rating was similar during his prime.

So why is Thurmond always forgotten when we think about the great big men? Is it because he was the man who replaced Wilt in the middle for the Warriors, and it was assumed that the next player could never live up to the legacy left before him? Was the shadow of Wilt going to be too much to overcome in the annals of NBA history? No. Instead, Thurmond would become a worthy successor to Wilt, Russell, Mikan, and all the other great big men who came before him.

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