Rick Barry has never hidden his light under a basket, peach or otherwise, but last week, as his team of the moment, the Golden State Warriors, won three of four to stand but two games back of division-leading Los Angeles, he said, "Nate Thurmond's the guy who makes us a good team. I'm just the dressing on the salad."
Five years ago the Warriors seemed about to leave their salad days behind. They finished first in the West and put up a stong battle in the NBA finals before succumbing to a Philadelphia team that was considered nearly invincible. To further mix the salad metaphor, they were Wilted.
Boasting a skinny 25-year-old center and a skinny 23-year-old forward who had led the league with a 35.6 scoring average, the Warriors were the NBA's team of the future. They are now well into that future and, with those two stars having gained the weight of both flesh and experience, are every bit the title contenders they were supposed to be. But the last five years didn't go as planned. Shortly after the promising spring of 1967, Rick Barry, the young forward, departed to perform in federal, state and ABA courts in Oakland, Washington, Virginia and New York. Warrior Owner Franklin Mieuli made a crusade out of bringing Barry back and many fans joined up, in the process ignoring Thurmond, the young center, who toiled well and, judging by the team's record and attendance, often in solitary splendor.
"They talk about the great combinations who have played together in this league," Thurmond said last week. "They talk about Jerry West and Elgin Baylor and they talk about Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. Rick and I should have been one of those great combinations. Certainly, I am glad to have Rick back so we can now try to do all those things together, but that doesn't mean that I don't get sad thinking about the five years we wasted. We could have been in that group; we might have produced championships. Now we're finally getting our chance. But we're both getting older and we've both got bad knees."
Even with bad knees, Thurmond and Barry are rapidly proving they are ready to pick up that old challenge, particularly since they both agree that this is a far stronger Warrior team than the one they last played on. Golden State has an explosive scorer in Forward Cazzie Russell and a steady one in Guard Jeff Mullins, who last week got his 10,000 NBA point. The Warriors also have a superior offensive rebounder in 6'10" Clyde Lee. The team lacks overall speed and an accomplished floor leader, although Mahdi Abdul-Rahman (formerly Walt Hazzard), who was recently signed, could help if he revives his game. The guard starting opposite Mullins is Jim Barnett, who is not controlled enough to be a playmaker in the traditional manner. But Barnett is a man of 1,000 layups, and his slashing drives are an asset. Even the coaching compares with that of the earlier Thurmond-Barry team. Bill Sharman was the coach then and his successor once removed, Al Attles, is beginning to attract the respect that Sharman first attained with the Warriors.
Still the Warriors' chances to overtake the Lakers depend on Thurmond and Barry, in that order, which is a precedence that even Mieuli recognizes. It is team policy that no player is more highly paid than Thurmond, who will earn about $30,000 in excess of Barry's $218,000 salary this season.
That is surely the biggest compliment Thurmond has received in a playing career full of second notices. Even at high school in Akron, Nate was overshadowed by teammate Gus Johnson, the longtime Baltimore Bullet who now plays for the Phoenix Suns. While Johnson was dazzling the crowd with his dunk shots, Thurmond was trying to figure out how to persuade all the parts of his gangly body to go in the same direction at the same time. In college at Bowling Green, Thurmond was highly regarded by pro scouts and rarely by anyone else. For a season and a half after he joined San Francisco, the 6'11" Thurmond usually played forward while Wilt Chamberlain, averaging more than 35 points, took most of the shots and all of the headlines. Three months after the Warriors traded Chamberlain, they signed Barry. Two seasons ago, when Attles was coaching the team and Thurmond had recovered from a series of injuries, the Warriors jumped from sixth place in their division to second. That was also Jerry Lucas' only full year with the Warriors and he got all the ink. Last year the Warriors' record (51-31) was the best in their history. It was also the year Russell joined Golden State and became the team's latest celebrity.
Over the past five seasons Thurmond has averaged more than 20 points per game and only once finished lower than fifth in rebounding. He also has been at least the equal of any other center on defense. Yet in the past two years Thurmond has not been picked to play in the All-Star Game, while Detroit's Bob Lanier and Elvin Hayes, then of the Rockets, two high-scoring pivotmen whose overemphasis on shooting has often been criticized, were selected.
"I guess you've got to have some kind of flair and I don't," says Thurmond. "I don't dunk unless I have to. About the only fancy thing I do is block a few shots in every game."
A gantry-crane jump shot and a talent for running the pick-and-roll are Thurmond's offensive strengths. On defense he is more diverse. Milwaukee's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the hardest of all centers to guard, considers Thurmond his most bothersome opponent. But as talented as he is at guarding other big men, Nate is at his best against teams whose centers do not command his full attention, when he is free to roam as he was in Golden State's games last week against Philadelphia, Portland and Buffalo. In those games he blocked 20 shots, only four of them taken by the men he was assigned to guard. In one play against the 76ers he picked up Forward John Block at the top of the key and when Block decided to attempt a 25-foot jumper, Thurmond reached out and snatched the ball as soon as it left Block's hand. The next night, in Portland, the Trail Blazers' Geoff Petrie and Ollie Johnson ran a two-on-one fast break with Thurmond the lone defender. Petrie drove the ball nearly to the point of release and, when he appeared to have Nate's undivided attention, flicked the ball around Thurmond's body to Johnson, who immediately shot a layup. Thurmond spun, batted the ball straight down, caught it as it bounced off the floor and threw it downcourt to start a Warrior fast break.
"With Rick back now, I figure I won't have to score as much this year," said Thurmond. "But that will allow me to concentrate more on the other end of the floor."
The Warriors, who remember Barry as a nonstop offensive player who always left the other end to Nate, have been surprised to find that he apparently learned some defense in the ABA. Attles, who played for the Warriors then, is also pleased that the 195-pound boy who left San Francisco is now a 215-pound man.
Last week Barry actually was playing at over 220 pounds, since he missed training camp while trying to decide between a TV career and basketball. The extra weight slowed his reflexes and there were even moments when he unwisely passed up easy shots to feed teammates. Barry, who is also bothered by a slight knee injury, claims that by the end of the season the Warriors will find him an entirely different ballplayer from the one they remember.
"I've always thought I could be a complete player," he said, "but I've felt that the teams I've been on needed my points. Here that's not the case because we have a lot of scorers. I think I can contribute more by playing good defense, rebounding, passing and taking the good shot when it comes."
To say nothing of fulfilling Nate Thurmond's sense of destiny.