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Blast From The Past: Nate Thurmond
December 25, 2009 · By Greg Popelka

(thinking to myself on a bad-weather Saturday): Hmm. Let's click over to Andrew Clayman and Jeff Ellis' 64 Since '64 bracket. How many Cavaliers are included in that? Wait: before I click, I'll guess- from the first era, Bingo, AC, and Chones... then World B. Free... then Price, Daugherty, and Nance... to Z and LeBron. So who'd I miss? (checking...) Craig Ehlo, and Shawn Kemp. OK, I suppose. So which players have had their number retired by the Cavs? There's Bingo, AC, Price, Daugherty, and Nance. And Nate Thurmond. Nate the Great. Voted one of the 50 greatest professional basketball players in history. Did he even play 2 seasons in Cleveland? It sure seemed appropriate when his Cavaliers #42 was retired. But here's a guy who gets his jersey retired, and it doesn't seem to raise eyebrows when he gets bumped from the bracket in favor of Ehlo and Kemp. I must close my eyes... and... ponder...

(fade in, to a rapidly strumming harp): Roger! Pam! Dad! Mom! How are you doing? Good to see you!

Hey-- Roger... looks young. Like about eleven years old. His blond hair is past his shoulders... -but he's had a shaved head for years now. Pam... is wearing wide bell bottoms. I think our Aunt Beverly gave her those back in the 1970s. She's looking like she may have looked while listening to her new Bay City Rollers record album. And Dad... his hair is long, too.

Roger looks at me with the knowing smile of a brother; Pam smiles too but with a measure of dismay. They apparently are assuming I must have been doing something technically illegal (due to my age) when I last slipped away for a restroom break. But I wasn't- honest! What is going on-

HOOOOONNNNNK "Now entering the game, number Forty Two, Nate Thurmond."

The crowd has been roaring their approval since he stood up to enter the game in place of starting center Jim Chones. This crowd is LOUD, and the energy is contagious. Whoa, Roger- these are the newly crowned, Central Division champion Cleveland Cavaliers of 1976. Out on the court- there's the Washington Bullets. Wes Unseld. Elvin Hayes. Phil Chenier. The Cavs are lookin' good, rockin' the original unis (even with the short shorts). This... is Game 5 of our first playoffs, ever.

Wow. The team has come so far since 1970. Back then, they were maybe drawing 3000 per game at the old, dingy Cleveland Arena- a run-down, minor league hockey venue.

It is a wonder the team survived those early years. They chose not to stock the roster with veterans; they were developing youngsters like Butch Beard, Bingo Smith and Austin Carr. By the third year, they did trade Beard in a deal which landed the steady Lenny Wilkens. Year after that, they dealt Rick Roberson and John Johnson for the right to draft Jim Brewer out of Minnesota. More recently, they acquired the former ABA-er Chones' rights in what by now seems to have been an annual deal with the LA Lakers. And just last year, veteran shooting guard Dick Snyder (from North Canton) came aboard along with the drafted Clarence "Foots" Walker, out of West Georgia.

Now- look at this palace. The Richfield Coliseum. Not a bad seat, anywhere. Any area is accessible to anyone. That crazy, brilliant Nick Mileti- built this place in the middle of nowhere -well, actually pretty much in the middle of the greater Akron- greater Cleveland area. Nobody else saw this kind of success coming. He had strong opposition from the Cleveland establishment, too.

Saw Skynyrd here a couple years ago. And a bunch of other concerts - almost none as loud as this Cavaliers playoff crowd. Except maybe for Ted Nugent. When this crowd chants, it's from the depths of their souls. It can even be kind of frightening in its intensity. Alternately ear-splitting, then silent enough to hear a whisper when they suck in their next breath. Responding to a ‘bad call‘: "BULL- $h!+ (silence) BULL-Sh!+ (silence)." We are tired of being down. These Cavs are a winner, and we can help will them to a victory.

This is a team which was so marginalized that it did not have a local TV deal. Now, radio icon Pete Franklin was holding court in his pre-game show in a small, see-through Plexiglas booth in the outer concourse. Seems like electricity is blooming all over the building.

The Cavaliers had started giving the league's elite teams all they could handle back to last year. This season, their first and only coach, Bill Fitch, traded promising center Steve Patterson to the Bulls in November. Patterson, drafted in 1971, was the UCLA center who had bridged the careers of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. In return, Fitch added two solid contributors to the roster: forward Rowland Garrett and center Nate Thurmond.

Nate Thurmond was a tall, gangly kid out of Akron who had been a star for Central High School. His team eventually lost to Jerry Lucas' Middletown team in the state playoffs. The Ohio State University recruited Nate the Great, but he did not want to be Lucas' backup there. Thurmond starred as a Bowling Green Falcon, and was acknowledged as having raised the stature of the MAC. In 1963, he averaged 17.8 points and 17 rebounds, and was an All-American. Thurmond did not face premier big men in college, however, and later admitted that he had yet to learn to play the tough rebounding and shot-blocking game for which he is renowned. He experienced physical play in pickup games against NBA players, including former high school teammate Gus Johnson.

Drafted in the first round by the San Francisco Warriors, Nate Thurmond found himself under the wing of all-time great Wilt Chamberlain. After a short time, Chamberlain was dealt to Philadelphia, and Thurmond became an all-star several times over due to his presence as a defensive force. Many ex-players believe he is actually underrated, and that he took a back seat to no NBA center- not Jabbar, not Chamberlain, not Russell. Walt Hazzard has said that he'd see players get an offensive rebound and back away fifteen feet to be sure they could get a shot off. Thurmond played for the Warriors for over a decade before being dealt to Chicago. He was expected to be the Bulls' savior, and actually recorded the NBA's first quadruple double in his first game there (points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots). However, his stay in Chicago soon soured due to the unreasonable expectations he was saddled with.

To this day, when people talk about Nate Thurmond, they emphasize his reserved demeanor and his classiness, which was obvious in his character as well as in how he dressed.

Here in the Coliseum, Coach Fitch has the Cavaliers contending for the NBA title. Getting the players to believe in themselves is widely credited to the final piece- the team's glue and foundation: Nate Thurmond.

Nate the Great has returned home. His biological family comes to his home games, but of course, every one of the 21,000+ fans in the house regard him as family.

Borrowing a concept from teams such as the Warriors and the Celtics, Fitch has an extremely deep roster. His first team is Brewer, Bingo, Chones, Snyder and Jimmy Cleamons. His second team could probably make the playoffs on its own: Campy Russell, Garrett, Nate the Great, AC (still kind of gimpy due to injuries but still able to stroke it) and Footsie. A squad of assassins, with an all-time dominant defensive presence in the middle.

This team's coming of age has either caused, or coincided with, the simultaneous rise in the hearts and minds of Clevelanders of Cavs announcer Joe Tait. His calls in these playoffs are legendary. Thirty years later, Tait will still be calling Cavaliers games. Recordings of the most exciting portions of his broadcasts will be accessible on personal computers, on what will become known as the ‘internet.'

I am sitting with my family as the Cavs are about to win Game 5 against the Bullets; Joe Tait will scream at the end of regulation (but hardly hear himself in the din) as Dick Snyder inbounds to Bingo, who misses his shot- but Cleamons is there to grab the rebound and sink a reverse layup for the win! The crowd reaches new levels of wild abandon.

The series will ultimately go to Game 7 back at the Coliseum, where Cleamons will inbound to Snyder, who will dribble in from the left of the key. He'll throw up a very high runner off the glass with time winding down for another crazy win. The black and white Plain Dealer photo of Snyder's shot will be etched in the minds of a generation of Clevelanders.

Before facing the legendary Celtics in the next series, Jim Chones will break his foot during practice. The Cavs will be down 0-2 in the series, before Nate Thurmond stars in Game 3 in a win back at home. The good guys do not prevail against the Celtics, but the fans of Cleveland are hooked. The Cavaliers will have arrived, and it was a great rise from the ashes for the fledgling franchise.

(fade out, blinking to more harp strumming) No way. I was actually there. Well, of course I wasn't really. But yeah, that was a very special time, with the Cavaliers coming of age in the 70s. And yeah, Nate Thurmond was not only an emblem of that era- he was a catalyst. And a native of northeast Ohio. So sure- now I remember why it was a natural that he have his number retired by the Cavs.

Now, if I can only explain this too-small T-shirt I'm wearing, with the huge opera diva on it, declaring "The Fat Lady Has Sung- Cleveland Has a Winner!!"

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