The View From Pluto: Remembering Akron's Other Native NBA Star
Way before LeBron James, Akron had another hometown NBA hero – Nate Thurmond. Thurmond grew up in Akron and at the end of his career, played for the Cavs. He died last weekend from leukemia at age 74. WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says the Hall of Famer made a big impact during his short time here.
Pluto says the 6'11" Nate Thurmond was often overlooked during his career because he played during an era known as the "Golden Age of Centers," when players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the superstars. "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said he was the toughest defender he faced. Thurmond averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds for his entire career."
Far from home
Thurmond played most of his career for the Golden State Warriors in California, which made it tough for his friends and family to follow back in Akron.
"In the 1960's-1970's, nobody could keep track of players on the West Coast because there were no late-night games on ESPN, no internet and there weren't even scores from those games in the newspaper."
Closing a career in Cleveland
The Cavs signed Thurmond in 1975 when he was 34. The Cavs had been in existence for five years and had yet to make the playoffs. "They have a young team with some talent but they started the '75-'76 season with a 6-11 record. Coach and general manager Bill Fitch knew he needed veteran and leader, so he brought in Thurmond from Chicago."
And, the crowd embraced the hometown hero. "When he would come to the scorers table from the bench, people would just explode. They would just chant 'let's go Cavs!'"
Miracle of Richfield
Pluto says Thurmond brought a positive vibe to the team, mentoring the younger players and telling them to act like professionals. Suddenly, the team turned things around. They made the playoffs with a 49-33 record in the season known today as the "Miracle of Richfield." They won in the first round of playoffs and then lost to the Celtics in the next round, falling short of the finals. The Celtics won the title.
After Thurmond retired, he returned to California, where he had spent most of his career. "He was known as the ambassador of the Warriors. He also owned Nate's Barbeque restaurant in the Bay area for about 20 years. He would come back for some of the [Cavs] reunions."
"You really wished he could have ended up in Cleveland in his prime," Pluto says. "But a lot of times when a player is coming to the end of his career, he's just trying to squeeze out another year or two. He ends up coming off the bench on some team and it doesn't mean a whole lot. Where to Nate, this was an exclamation point on a terrific career."
"People wonder why the No. 42 in the rafters [at the Q] from the outside you don't get it. If you were back there in '75-'76, you understand why. He was a special kind of guy."