LOCALS | MARK J. MITCHELL
Sports fans mourned the death of Nate Thurmond, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, who died on July 16 at the age of 74. He was the first player ever to score a quadruple-double in the history of the game and the only player to have his number retired by both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors.
He will be remembered as an immortal of the game, and many San Franciscans will also think of him as the man behind Big Nate’s Barbecue for 20 years.
Those of us with deep roots in the Fillmore have other memories.
Back in the 1970s — when Pacific Heights started strictly on the north side of California Street and everything south was still the Western Addition — Nate the Great roamed our little corner of San Francisco.
After retiring from professional basketball in 1977, Nate lured a talented soul food chef named Ollie from her own restaurant and got her to work for him in his restaurant at 2020 Fillmore, now the home of Harry’s Bar.
It was called Nate Thurmond’s…The Beginning, a soul food eatery and a neighborhood bar. The name indicated that while Nate’s life on the court might be over, his new life was just beginning. With his cousin Bobby managing the bar and Ollie in the kitchen, it was a neighborhood hangout. It’s where you went after work for a beer — and stayed for dinner if you wanted something a cut above what was then Uncle Vito’s Pizza, now Dino and Santino’s, on the northwest corner of Fillmore and California. It’s where I was taken after my first shift at Bi-Rite Liquors, then located on the southeast corner of that prime intersection.
You would see Nate around the neighborhood, although he was never one to be the man in front. He wanted the food to be the attraction, not the sports star, a philosophy he kept up through the years after he started Big Nate’s down on Folsom Street.
Nate was 6 feet 11 inches tall, with ebony skin, graceful moves and a brilliant smile. He was always charming and approachable. Fillmore folks, at least, weren’t hounding him for autographs. He’d chat with you on the corner, or in Grand Central Market, where he was sometimes shopping because of a no-show delivery truck.
As a pro ball player, Nate was smart enough to have his contract structured to delay the payout until he was 45, so he could have a life after sports.
“For me, Nate was the best defender ever to play the game,” noted his lawyer, former mayor and assembly speaker Willie Brown, in his Sunday Chronicle column. “He also knew how to take advice, both on the court and with his contracts.”
Brown, who got his start in the Fillmore, remembered: “He was the first player to have his million-dollar contract paid out like an annuity, over several years. The only things Nate wanted up front were a Rolls-Royce, a penthouse, a full wardrobe and $7,500 a month in spending money. Everything else kicked in when he turned 45, setting him up for life.”
Nate’s car was a thing of beauty, and he knew it. He also knew it was big enough even for his long form. That Silver Shadow was sleek and shiny, with the license plate reading “Nate 42.” It dressed up the neighborhood. The car was always impeccably polished and shone in the fog and the sunshine both. When parking officers went to give him a ticket for overstaying his welcome at a meter, people would try to convince them it should be spared as a matter of civic beautification. It never worked, but it tells you how fond all of us were of that car and of Nate.
I remember Nate being snappily dressed and maintained at all times — not flashy, but if he wore jeans, they had a crease. He would get his nails done at Ruth Dewson’s The Nail Gallery, which she operated on Fillmore before she branched out into hats. Ruth would always make sure Nate sat in the window for all to see.
You got to see Nate around the Fillmore fairly often. Poet Ronald Hobbs, who ran Spectrum Exotic Birds, remembers seeing Nate shooting hoops with the kids on the St. Dominic’s Church playground. Ron couldn’t resist getting onto the court, just so he could say for the rest of his life that he’d played basketball with Nate Thurmond.
The Beginning stayed with us for eight years. Then Nate moved on. The old space became Lynaugh’s for a few years, then Harry’s.
Thurmond started Big Nate’s Barbecue when he noticed that people were delivering pizza all over town, but no one was delivering barbecue. He told the Los Angeles Times: “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.” He kept his barbecue joint going for 20 years before selling it in 2010. It was one of the great treats during the last days at Candlestick Park, where Nate maintained a stand.
Nate Thurmond was a great athlete and a gracious man. He will be remembered as such. But some of us will thrill to the memory of just running into him while shopping, or stepping out of his beautiful car, or just shooting hoops with the kids on the school yard. We will remember him, fondly, as our good neighbor.
Mark J. Mitchell’s latest book of poetry, Lent 1999, is available from Leaf Garden Press and through Amazon.