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Nate the Great: Thurmond was BG's best and among elite in NBA

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Nate Thurmond points to a photograph of him and some of his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates at his restaurant in San Francisco, Big Nate's Barbeque. He played for the Warriors originally.

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Nate Thurmond was surrounded by superstar centers throughout his career, yet he is considered one of the very best.

Still, nothing has ever come easy for the 6-11 gentle giant.

From Akron's Central High School to Bowling Green State University to the NBA, Thurmond's play often was overlooked.

In high school, Thurmond wasn't even considered the best center in Ohio. He took a back seat to Middletown's Jerry Lucas, who led his team to back-to-back state championships in 1956 and 1957. Thurmond eventually was offered a scholarship to Ohio State, but he passed on it to enroll at Bowling Green.

The reason was simple. He didn't want to be Lucas' backup.

"I figured if I wanted to play at all, I better go someplace other than Ohio State," the 63-year-old Thurmond said recently from San Francisco, where he has owned and operated a restaurant, Big Nate's Barbeque, since 1990. "Lucas was a great player, and he proved it."

Lucas, a three-time All-American, is regarded as one of the best players in Big Ten history.

From 1960-62, Lucas, along with John Havlicek, led Ohio State to a 78-6 record, three conference titles, one national championship and two runner-up finishes in the NCAA tournament.

Thurmond, meanwhile, blossomed into one of the best players in Mid-American Conference history.

He, with help from Woodward High School sharp-shooter Howard "Butch" Komives, led the Falcons to a 40-12 record in 1962 and 1963, two MAC championships, two NCAA tournament appearances, and a shocking 92-75 upset of No. 1 Loyola (Chicago) in 1963.

Thurmond averaged 17.8 points and 17.0 rebounds in three seasons with the Falcons - freshmen were not eligible to play in those days - and he earned All-American honors as a senior.

"We called him Nate the Great," Komives said. "He single-handedly changed the MAC."

The San Francisco (now Golden State) Warriors selected Thurmond No. 3 overall in the 1963 NBA draft. He spent his rookie season playing power forward and serving as an apprentice to another great center, Wilt Chamberlain. Thurmond was voted one of the NBA's 50 greatest players in 1996, but many still don't include his name in the same class as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Chamberlain.

Former Cavaliers great Austin Carr, who was a teammate of Thurmond's his last two seasons in Cleveland, doesn't think it's fair.

"Nate was a lot better than people think," Carr said. "I don't think he should take a back seat to any one of those guys."

Bowling Green, Ohio State, Kansas and Illinois were among the schools that offered Thurmond - then 6-7 - a scholarship coming out of Akron Central, where his teammates included future NBA star Gus Johnson and Elijah Chatman.

Thurmond and Chatman settled on BG because their high school coach, Joe Siegferth, was a graduate of the university and a friend of legendary Falcons coach Harold "Andy" Anderson, who died in 1967.

"I was a string-bean when I first got there," Thurmond said. "But I grew four inches and put on some weight by the time I was a sophomore."

After playing forward on the Falcons' freshmen team in 1959-60, Thurmond moved to center the following season and led the team in scoring with a 17.8 average in his first season as a starter on the varsity. He also was named team MVP, but the Falcons finished 10-14 and tied for fifth in the MAC.

Komives joined Thurmond in 1961-62, and the duo created a punishing one-two punch.

While Thurmond dominated the boards, Komives did the scoring. Together, they guided BG to a 21-4 record, a MAC championship, and a berth in the NCAA tournament, where they lost 56-55 to Butler in the opening round.

On Feb. 16, 1963, Komives scored 32 points and Thurmond added 24 as the Falcons shocked the college basketball world by beating undefeated and top-ranked Loyola, before a then-record crowd of 5,734 at Anderson Arena. Bowling Green is the only MAC team to ever slay a No. 1 team. Loyola went on to win the national title.

"I think we had one of the best MAC teams ever the last two years," Thurmond said. "We were clearly head and shoulders above everybody else. We could play with anybody."

The Falcons repeated as MAC champions at the end of the 1963 season and earned a return trip to the NCAA tournament, where they went 1-2.

Thurmond pulled down a school-record 31 rebounds against Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament, which turned out to be the final game of his college career. He averaged a career-best 19.9 points and 16.7 rebounds that season and was named team the Falcons' MVP.

He led the MAC in rebounding all three years, the only player to accomplish that feat. His 1,295 boards are still a school record, even with players now eligible to play four years.

"Nate had a wingspan bigger than he was tall," Komives said. "He owned the key, that was his territory. He was a terror on the boards. And he had a decent jump shot for a big man."

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Thurmond, the wide-eyed rookie, bonded with Chamberlain, a veteran who later would became his mentor and friend.

"Wilt had a big influence on me," Thurmond said. "He was a big-name guy, the best player in the game. I didn't have a name or much game at all. He was a guy I had read about in college. He was a guy who scored 100 points in a game. I thought it was a typographical error when I first saw it in the paper.

"Now, here I was playing with him."

In Thurmond's second season, the Warriors advanced to the 1964 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in five games.

Midway through the following season, the Warriors traded "Wilt the Stilt" to the Philadelphia 76ers. The deal gave Thurmond the center position all to himself.

His numbers immediately reached All-Star proportions, finishing with averages of 16.5 points and 18.1 rebounds.

"When I was at Bowling Green, I hadn't played against the best centers in the nation," said Thurmond, who is still close to his NBA playing weight of 235 pounds. "We played Notre Dame, but we didn't play some of the bigger-name teams. It was a little rougher in the pros, making that adjustment. I had to add strength and bulk."

On Feb. 28, 1965, Thurmond set an NBA record that still stands, grabbing 18 rebounds in one quarter against Baltimore. That same year, he pulled down an incredible 42 rebounds in one game against Detroit.

Thurmond's in-your-face, rugged style of defense intimidated Abdul-Jabbar.

"Nate played me better than anybody," Abdul-Jabbar once said. "He was tall, had real long arms, and most of all, he was agile and strong. When I scored on Nate, I knew I'd done something. He made me work hard and sweat for everything I got."

After 11 seasons, the Warriors traded Thurmond to Chicago for a young center named Clifford Ray in 1974.

In October, Thurmond recorded the NBA's first quadruple-double in his debut with the Bulls, collecting 22 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and 12 blocked shots in a game against Atlanta.

Thurmond started the 1975-76 season with Chicago, but after 13 games the Bulls shipped him to Cleveland. The deal brought Thurmond home to his native Ohio.

The Cavaliers were 6-11 before his arrival, but went 43-22 the rest of the way and, in what has been called "the Miracle of Richfield," won the Central Division and reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, where they lost to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.

Thurmond retired Sept. 20, 1977. In 14 NBA seasons, he played in seven All-Star games, was named to the league's all-defensive team five times and wore the uniform of three teams - San Francisco, Chicago and Cleveland.

And he chalked up 14,464 rebounds and 14,437 points in 1,014 NBA games. His top salary was $280,000.

"There's no doubt he was one of the best big men to ever put on a pair of tennis shoes," said Carr, who is a full-time analyst for the Cavaliers' TV network and the director of community and business development for the team. "The big fella was first class all the way, from the way he dressed, to the way he carried himself, to the way he played.

"He was a true gentleman in every sense of the word. He taught me a lot about the game of basketball and the game of life. I still apply a lot of the things he taught me to my every day life now."

Thurmond is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, the MAC Hall of Fame and the Bowling Green Hall of Fame. The walls of his restaurant are filled with memorabilia from his playing days, as well as pictures of his friends.

In his spare time, Thurmond dabbles in community relations work for the Warriors. He keeps in touch with former teammates, including Komives, who competed against him during a 10-year career in the NBA that ended in 1974.

Cleveland and the Warriors have both retired Thurmond's jersey, as has Bowling Green.

Hard as it is to believe, it has been 42 years since the man known as "Dr. Defense" last slipped on his No. 42 Falcons jersey.

"Nate and I were really close friends at Bowling Green and we still talk quite a bit now," said Komives, an AFLAC insurance salesman from Toledo who has battled health problems for more than a decade. "Nate has always been a class act. There is not a bad bone in his body. He is a super individual.

"And he was a super player, a super center. I would put him right between Russell and Chamberlain in terms of ranking. That's how good he was."

Contact Ron Musselman at: mussel@theblade.com or 419-724-6474.

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