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Nate Thurmond has a saucy attitude toward post-NBA life

NBA legend regularly spends four days a week at his barbecue restaurant in San Francisco, where he tries to stay out of sight.

April 02, 2009|JERRY CROWE

FROM SAN FRANCISCO — Part of the attraction of feasting at Big Nate's Barbeque is that, if your timing is right, you might just run into Big Nate himself.

Or you might not.

Owner and NBA legend Nate Thurmond regularly spends four days a week at his restaurant in San Francisco's working-class South of Market neighborhood, but mostly he keeps out of sight.

"I have a thing about having a business where people come to see you," the Hall of Famer tells a visitor to his office/storage room above the eatery. "They come one time, waste your time, so to speak, and then they're gone.

"But if they come in for the food, they don't need to see me -- and they'll come back."

It's a plan that seems to work because Big Nate's has been in business for nearly 20 years, serving up ribs once described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "wonderfully tender and not too fatty" and chicken that's "even better -- moist and smoky."

Says Thurmond, who owned a more upscale soul food restaurant before opening Big Nate's in 1990, "I've got a good product, bottom line. It's not about, come here and see Nate."

Thurmond, 67, says he knows food, which is why he got into the dog-eat-dog restaurant racket in the first place.

Surviving in an unforgiving business is not easy, he acknowledges, "but neither is being an NBA player."

And the 6-foot-11 Thurmond, of course, was one of the NBA's all-time greats, a reliable scorer, unrelenting rebounder and tireless defender. The No. 3 pick in the 1963 draft and a seven-time All-Star, the former Bowling Green star averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds over 14 seasons with the San Francisco and Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers.

In 1974, he had the league's first official quadruple-double, amassing 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocked shots in an overtime victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

"I wasn't a hell of a leaper, but I had good timing," says Thurmond, who helped the Warriors reach the NBA Finals in 1967 and the next season accomplished the rare feat of averaging more than 20 points and 20 rebounds.

"I think I would still average more rebounds than some guys who I won't name."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time scoring leader, calls Thurmond the best defender he ever faced.

"A lot of guys beat on me and said they played good defense, but Nate actually could do it," the former Lakers center says.

"He had the length and the agility and he knew what he was doing. He made me work for my points."

Thurmond says he often felt overlooked and underappreciated because of the long shadows cast by his more decorated contemporaries, but both the Warriors and Cavaliers retired his No. 42, and in 1996 the NBA recognized him as one of the 50 greatest players in the league's first 50 years.

His greatest regret, he says, was not winning a championship. The Warriors, behind Rick Barry, won their only title in 1975, less than a year after trading Thurmond to the Bulls.

"That was tough mentally," he says, "because you think, was I doing something to hold them back?"

A native of Akron, Ohio -- "I grew up six blocks from where LeBron grew up," he says -- Thurmond finished his career in the Midwest but left his heart in San Francisco.

"It was home six months after I got here," he says of his adopted hometown. "I hated snow, and the Midwest was not sophisticated like San Francisco. I like to get dressed up; my wife and I really love going out to dinner. I went home the first Christmas and told my mom, 'That room you're saving for me? Nah.' "

In 1972, while still playing for the Warriors, Thurmond frequented a tiny soul food restaurant in the city's Pacific Heights neighborhood and befriended the chef-owner, "the best cook outside of my mother I've ever encountered."

Persuading her to come work for him, he opened the Beginning, which stayed in business for eight years.

Later, after working several years for the Cavaliers as a television commentator, Thurmond couldn't help noticing that Domino's was delivering pizza all over San Francisco.

"But nobody was delivering barbecue," he says.

"Barbecue, if it's good, you can eat it at room temperature. That's not true about a pizza. So we said, 'Hey, we can deliver barbecue.' That's how it got started, and I've been here 19 years."

His longevity, he says, is attributable to his staff and his late mother, Leala, whose recipe has been used from the beginning to make Big Nate's barbecue sauce.

Thurmond and wife Marci, married in 1993, live in the Diamond Heights neighborhood overlooking the city. He estimates that he makes 15 to 20 appearances a year for the Warriors.

His 32-year-old son, Adam, is the manager at Big Nate's.

"I've got no complaints," Thurmond says.

His doctor, though, tells him he's too thin at 225 pounds, about eight pounds less than what he weighed as a player.

At Big Nate's, you might be able to see for yourself.

"If somebody asks for me," Thurmond says, "I'll come down."


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