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February 02 Issue

San Francisco Restaurateur and
National Basketball Association Hall of Famer

Ernest Beyl
-Without doubt, Nate Thurmond was one of the all-time great NBA players

One of San Francisco’s most graceful, dignified and modest citizens is Nate Thurmond, restaurateur and National Basketball Association Hall of Famer. Originally from Akron, Ohio, "the genial giant," as his official NBA biography calls him, Nate Thurmond fell into our midst when the San Francisco Warriors selected him as the third overall pick in the 1963 NBA Draft. Thurmond became an instant San Franciscan, played for the Warriors with amazing distinction for 11 seasons and developed a fierce love of the city. San Francisco is fortunate he is one of us, a dignitary who graces our city by his presence.

The product of a strong family environment that valued both education and athletic ability, Nate attended Bowling Green State University where he majored in sociology. He also racked up a lengthy set of basketball honors that culminated in his being enshrined in Bowling Green’s Hall of Fame.

Without doubt, Nate Thurmond was one of the all-time great NBA players and was enshrined in its Hall of Fame in 1985. He played 14 professional seasons in the 1960s and 1970s, posting career averages of 15 points and 15 rebounds per game. Among the all-time NBA leaders in career rebounds and rebounding average, Thurmond was selected to play in seven NBA All-Defensive First or Second Teams. He still holds the NBA record for the most rebounds in a quarter with 18 and he owns the distinction of being the first player ever to record the arcane "quadruple-double"---22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocked shots in a Warrior’s overtime victory against the Atlanta Hawks in 1974.

Some basketball observers have suggested that the six foot, eleven inch center provided the best mix of offense and defense in the history of basketball. With great quickness, sure hands, deft outside shooting touch, tenacious rebounding, aggressive shot blocking and, above all, a total team attitude, Thurmond was perfectly balanced.

The NBA states that the period in which Thurmond played was an era of Super Centers---"big men who could dominate games by scoring nearly at will and by defending with long arms, quick reflexes and sheer intimidation. Thurmond, while never reaching the rarified level of Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was nevertheless one of the elite of his era."

Just as Nate Thurmond isn’t flashy today, he wasn’t flashy then. "I’m just not a tricky basketball player," he once told Sport Magazine. But his opponents had a mighty respect for him. He was consistent, highly competitive and always a threat.

It is instructive and enjoyable to spend a half hour or so, tracing the amazing career of Nate Thurmond on the Internet. Try Hall of Famers at
Meanwhile, to take the measure of the man, the Nob Hill Gazette sent this interviewer to talk to him.
Nate Thurmond, now 63 and still lean as a whippet, greets this interviewer in his modest, second floor office in the two-story, cinder block building that houses Big Nate’s Barbecue at 1665 Folsom Street. The mouth-watering scent of burning oak and barbecuing meats from two, giant smokers drifts upstairs. Below in the restaurant, set with a few, simple Formica-topped tables for customers (a great deal of Big Nate’s business is takeout or home delivery which he occasionally delivers himself), the walls are adorned with framed photos of prominent, sports world customers and action shots and clippings from Nate’s basketball career. For our interview Nate’s outfit, and we assume it is his standard, at-work uniform, is a Golden State Warriors warm up jacket, topped with a baseball cap.

There is a quality of dignity that one is aware of instantly when meeting Nate Thurmond. He wears that dignity unselfconsciously along with a slight reserve that in many public figures is frequently associated with self confidence. Some sports figures have that combination. Michael Jordan and Ronnie Lott come to mind. Nate Thurmond has it indubitably. Perhaps it is easier to project dignity and self confidence when you stand just more than six feet, eleven inches in your high top basketball shoes.
EB: Let’s get a few details out of the way right now. Do you live here in the city?
NT: Oh yes, I live in Diamond Heights with my wife Marci.
EB: Any kids?
NT: Just one, our 25-year-old son, Adam. You probably saw him downstairs in the restaurant. He helps me here.
EB: Nate let’s talk basketball for a few minutes. If you had to do it all over would you pursue a career in sports?
NT: Absolutely! It’s the best job I ever had. The public knows you, caters to you and in today’s sports marketplace there is a tremendous amount of money that an athlete can earn.
EB: What’s the downside if there is one?
NT: Unfortunately a career in professional sports doesn’t last too long and it is necessary to make a big adjustment after a sports career. The public demands so much of their time. Athletes are frequently put on a pedestal. They must proceed with caution. Many athletes come into professional sports much younger than they did in my day. This puts them under enormous personal pressures.
EB: Does it seem to you that athletes in most sports are more outspoken these days and that some become known for bizarre or outrageous behavior?
NT: I think that is reflective of our society in general and not isolated to athletes. We have become more demonstrative about many things---our government and even our president, for example. Athletes are not really different from the general public in this. But I think some athletes may hold inflated values of their own worth and of their opinions because of the way they are treated by the fans and because of the great amount of money they are paid. But society in general has changed; not only athletes.

EB: You were an athlete in college and completed your education before you turned pro. Today there are athletes who elect not to complete their college education before turning pro and in some cases go directly into professional sports from high school. What’s your take on that?
NT: Well, you have to look at that in two ways. First, there are some players ---Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers comes to mind---whose athletic abilities are so outstanding that they are highly equipped to move right into professional sports. My point is: how can you tell an athlete such as this, don’t go into the NBA, go to college? In the equivalent amount of time that person might earn many millions of dollars. That same person could attend college, acquire a doctorate, and might not earn that amount of money in a lifetime. Who is to tell that young man or woman that he or she shouldn’t strive to earn that amount of money? Now there are others, who perhaps made the same move as Kobe, but failed to develop and achieve stardom. So that’s why I believe turning early to professional sports can be good or bad depending on the individual.
You must remember that in my time you couldn’t go into the NBA early even if you wanted to. It was against NBA policy. If an athlete had started school in 1963 and dropped out, he had to wait until 1967 before he could join a professional team. My point is, if I thought that after my junior year in college that I had enough talent to go into the NBA, frankly I would have opted for the NBA. At that time my father Andrew was only earning $7,500 a year and my mother was also working at a fulltime job. Earning a handsome living is a big priority and if you have the talent and the stability to come out early and play professionally, so be it. I was fortunate. I had some talent and I had a stable home life. Although both parents worked, my grandparents lived with us, so there was always someone there for me.

EB: Kobe Bryant has learned a lot since he has been playing professional basketball.
NT: Yes, both on and off the basketball court. He has the good fortune to have a father who played in the NBA. In fact, I played against Kobe’s father when he played for Philadelphia. We called him Jelly Bean. Actually, the NBA has developed a great network of support systems for young players. For example, it helps them socially and assists them in their adjustments to a monied world.
EB: How important were your parents and your grandparents in early decisions you made concerning schooling and an eventual career?
NT: Very important. They always encouraged me in my studies and in my sports. My father played baseball, but it was before the time when a black person could become a professional athlete. And my mother Leala, played volleyball and basketball in high school. I was born and raised in Akron, Ohio and some of our greatest moments as a family were when we went to see the Cleveland Indians play ball. My parents are both deceased now, but their early encouragement kept me on the right track.

EB: What would you like to tell young persons who are considering a professional career in sports?
NT: I would tell them not to think that just because they have the desire they will automatically become a professional sports figure. I would tell them to think in terms of acquiring a good education, too. Use my life as an example. When I was in grade school it was accepted in our family that I would go to college. My parents didn’t have that opportunity. But I would also want to say, if you do have that strong desire, it is necessary to be single-minded in your pursuit of a professional athletic career. After all, to use professional basketball as an example, there are only a few hundred athletes in the NBA and they are the cream of the crop. You must be diligent in practice, in your eating habits and in the total care of your body. You don’t get anything without hard work. You need to understand that from the beginning.
EB: Speaking of eating habits and total care of the body, you seem to be in excellent shape. What’s your secret?
NT: I work out at a gym three times a week and try to stay as active as possible. As to my diet, I eat well and my wife and I enjoy dining out which we do a lot.
EB: How often do you eat barbecue?
NT: About four times a week. I enjoy barbecue and I frequently eat our Memphis Pork Sandwich which is probably our most popular menu item.
EB: How did you happen to get into the restaurant business?
NT: I was fascinated by the restaurant business and had a lot of recipes from my family floating around in my head. In 1970 when I was still playing basketball I opened a restaurant in San Francisco called The Beginning. It was a soul food restaurant out on Fillmore between Pine and California. I operated it until 1977 when I retired from professional basketball. It became difficult for me to maintain financially. That was when I accepted a position with the Warriors as Goodwill Ambassador. But, I always loved good barbecue. I saw a need for a restaurant that served and delivered real barbecue.
EB: So you opened Big Nate’s. Where did you get the recipes?
NT: I got the recipe for the sauce from my mother. The sauce is really the most important element of barbecue. Our sauce is a Southern sauce. It is vinegar based.

EB: You seem to be a most happy man---enjoying what you do, enjoying your friends and family and enjoying San Francisco.
NT: You are right. I was extremely fortunate to be drafted by the Warriors. San Francisco has been an ideal home for me. I have been here a long time and I love it. This city treats me like royalty. Being six feet, eleven inches and bald, I stand out. A lot of people know me. I like that. Many professional athletes today can’t really enjoy this city or any other city. Kobe, or Shaquille O’Neill or Tiger Woods have to rent out a theater for the night so they can see a movie in privacy. It wasn’t like that in my time but, it’s a different world today. The adulation of athletes has turned into a frenzy.
EB: Is that the case here in San Francisco?
NT: Actually, San Francisco is more sophisticated than most cities and people tend to allow you some privacy. But I believe Barry Bonds is mobbed when he goes out.
EB: What do you do in your downtime?
NT: My family is number one. Movies, dining out, reading, traveling. My wife and I are not particularly fond of airplanes. I had my fill of them during the 14 years I was in the NBA. But we enjoy traveling within California and just sightseeing in San Francisco. Then, I’m also active in my church---Providence Baptist in Bayview. And, of course, there is my work with the Warriors. I frequently speak before youth centers and at high schools in the area. And I have become associated with the Community Housing Partnership, an organization that is dealing with the problems of the homeless. That’s how I spend my downtime. I’m a lucky man.

© Ernest Beyl 2002
Ernest is a loca lSF writer and a lucky man. He has a passion for basketball and for barbecue.

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