Sitting in chairs on the gym floor where Akron’s best basketball player learned the game, they came to honor the memory of Akron’s second-best basketball player — and one of its all-time nicest people.

Nate Thurmond, who died in July at the age of 74, was praised by a parade of former teammates, classmates, coaches, neighbors and relatives Thursday afternoon at the Summit Lake Recreation Center.

Although they shared highly personal, inside stories, there also was remarkable redundancy: Almost every person who spoke invoked the word “gentleman.”

They talked about how “Nate the Great” never changed as a person from the time he was a scrawny high school kid at Akron’s Central High School — tempted to quit the game because of its physicality — through the days when his own physicality propelled him to a spot among “the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History,” and on to his last breath.

Despite extremely short notice, about 40 people showed up and sat in folding chairs facing a lectern set up next to a mural of Thurmond that was painted in 1992 and later autographed by him.

Several of the dozen or so speakers choked up while describing Thurmond’s kindness, friendship and leadership.

Among them was Bobby “Bingo” Smith, the sharpshooter who played with Thurmond during the Cavs’ “Miracle of Richfield” season. Like Nate, Smith is one of only seven Cavs whose jerseys have been retired during the franchise’s 46-year existence.

Noting that their numbers hang right next to each other in the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena, Smith said, “We’ll always be beside each other in my heart.”

Smith was wearing a black “2016 NBA Champions” cap over a thick gray head of hair. He showed the effects of a stroke, unable to stand without assistance and slurring his words slightly. But his mind and memory remain sharp, which was evident as he recounted the impact Thurmond had on the Cavs’ “Miracle” year.

Most of us have forgotten that when Thurmond was traded to the Cavs by Chicago early in the 1975-76 season, the team was 4-15 and badly lacking in spirit.

No. 42’s arrival changed everything, Smith said.

At his first practice, Thurmond asked Coach Bill Fitch if he could speak to the players.

Smith quoted Thurmond as saying, “I don’t know you guys personally, but I’ve seen you play. You guys are talented.”

He went around the room and analyzed the abilities of every player. His assessments were so accurate, Smith said, that “he told us things we didn’t even know about ourselves. He could see. Because he was a pro’s pro.”

Thurmond pressed them to be the same.

“You guys are pros,” he said Thurmond told them. “Act like pros. Work like pros. Play together like pros.”

Before that talk, Smith said, he and the others considered themselves ordinary people who played basketball. Thurmond convinced them they were special.

That day’s practice was spirited, and that night the Cavs beat the Celtics by 15 points. They went on a late-season tear that didn’t stop until the conference finals.

“That speech gave us the courage to be pros,” Smith said.

No. 7 also told a story that illustrated Thurmond’s selflessness. Smith had been captain of the team for six years before Thurmond arrived. But Thurmond had such a commanding presence that the coach called Smith into his office and said he was going to give the honor to Thurmond.

Bingo didn’t object. But Thurmond did. He refused the honor, saying Smith deserved it.

Smith was by turns funny and poignant. When he choked up talking about his fondness for his 6-foot-11 “brother,” tears began to trickle down lots of other faces, too.

“So many people loved him,” Smith said. “I loved him.”

The Rev. Harvey Glover, a good enough baller himself to wind up in both the University of Akron and Summit County sports halls of fame, took the mic at the conclusion of Smith’s remarks and said to Smith: “That was as accurate as your jump shot.”

Bingo.

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31