Someone has to be the most underrated great player in a sport, if only to keep tavern arguments perpetual while keeping them moderately civil.
Thus, we put it to the membership that the basketball player most qualified to hold that title was Nate Thurmond, the former Warrior who died today nine days short of his 75th birthday.
Thurmond was such a fixture within the community relations department for the Golden State Warriors that people almost forgot that he got the job by being one of the franchise’s greatest players. He is never mentioned as one of the sport’s great center/power forwards only because today’s fan has a visceral aversion to history, but he was, and almost from the start.
He was drafted third in the 1963 draft by the Warriors, who had just come west from Philadelphia a year before, and became part of a huge front line with Wayne Hightower (6-8 when 6-8 was actually closer to 6-10) and Wilt Chamberlain (no dimensions need be listed). The impossibly-muscled Thurmond, who made Phil Jackson’s shoulders look like barstool seats by comparison, was immediately assigned the most difficult defensive tasks by head coach Alex Hannum, and helped take a 31-win team to the 1964 NBA Finals.
His career took off after that, in part because Chamberlain induced a trade back to Philadelphia, and he became a full-time center of great repute, lost to notice only because of Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He helped anchor the 1967 Finals entrant with Rick Barry, and was a nearly perpetual All-Star until he was traded to Chicago for Clifford Ray in 1974.
More to the point, he became the first unquestionably popular San Francisco Warrior because we are a provincial lot who prefers home-grown stars, even if they were born and raised in Akron (like someone else you know, respect and currently dislike) and attended Bowling Green. Chamberlain was always another city’s guy and didn’t stay long enough to take root, and Barry had a bit too much personality for the staid ‘60s.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as the centerpiece of the 1985 class, but more important for local lore, he stayed in the Bay Area after retiring in 1975. He was self-effacing and affable, ran a quality barbecue joint in a place where quality barbecue is something you fly to Texas to get, and remained true to his professional roots until his death.
Yet he is largely forgotten by contemporary basketball fans because he was a defensive dominator rather than an offensive powerhouse. Even Chamberlain, who dominated every player he ever chose to dominate on the offensive end, said that Thurmond was the best defensive player he ever faced, and Thurmond ranks 25th on BasketballReference’s list of all-time defensive win shares.
He is also rendered almost anonymous to the modern fan because he played next to huge personalities like Chamberlain’s and Barry’s, and wasn’t big on what we now know as photo-bombing. He came, he worked, he made his opponent work, and he moved on, game after game, year after year.
He is also the possessor of the first known quadruple double in NBA history, going 22/14/13 with 12 blocks in 120-115 Bulls win over Atlanta on opening night in 1974. It is one of the few things LeBron James, who is the youngest player to ever quad, cannot take from his Akron compatriot.
But mostly, he is best known for not being sufficiently known, let alone properly appreciated. You all may have your personal preference for Most Underrated Great Player ever, but if your choice is not Nathaniel Thurmond, you are simply wrong.