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 Franciscos 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 Greens
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 Warriors 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 isnt flashy today, he wasnt flashy then.
"Im 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 Nates 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 Nates 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 Nates basketball career. For our interview
Nates 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: Lets 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 lets talk basketball for a few minutes. If you had to do
it all over would you pursue a career in sports?
NT: Absolutely! Its the best job I ever had. The public knows you,
caters to you and in todays sports marketplace there is a tremendous
amount of money that an athlete can earn.
EB: Whats the downside if there is one?
NT: Unfortunately a career in professional sports doesnt 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. Whats 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, dont 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 shouldnt 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 thats why I believe
turning early to professional sports can be good or bad depending on the
You must remember that in my time you couldnt 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
EB: Kobe Bryant has learned a lot since he has been playing professional
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 Kobes
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 didnt 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 dont 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. Whats 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
EB: So you opened Big Nates. 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 cant really enjoy this city or any other
city. Kobe, or Shaquille ONeill or Tiger Woods have to rent out
a theater for the night so they can see a movie in privacy. It wasnt
like that in my time but, its 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, Im 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. Thats how I spend my downtime. Im 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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