Recently I talked with former Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers player, 3-time NBA All-Star, 1984 Slam Dunk Contest champion, Larry Nance Sr. Among the things we discussed are his time with the Suns, winning the Dunk Contest, or being traded to the Cavaliers.
Beginnings in the NBA
You were drafted by one of the best teams in the league which won 57 games the year prior. What were your expectations when you became an NBA player?
My expectations were not very high. I have just come into the team, and I was a little underweight. But one thing I brought to the table that I was going to give 100%. My job was to go out there my first year, and I did not know if I was going to start, or how much I was going to play. But when I did play and practice, I just wanted to give 100% and see what happens.
In the first few seasons you had a chance to play with Suns legends, like Alvan Adams or Walter Davis. How do you recall being a part of this team?
I loved being a part of this team because Walter Davis and Alvan Adams were the guys that put me on the map. One of my things was alley-oops, and Alvan Adams was the one who was throwing me the ball the majority of time when I did those. He was a key part of me developing in the NBA. And I feel that Walter Davis is one of the best players that I ever played with, but not a lot of people talk about Walter Davis. He was very good, along with Truck Robinson, Dennis Johnson – I played with a lot of great players on that Suns team.
In 1984 you won the first Slam Dunk Contest. What do you think about the development of the contest, and what you would have to do to win it nowadays?
Back when I won it, I was one of the best athletes. Now, all those guys are really good athletes. It would be really tough for me to win the Contest now, me being 6’10”, and everybody who is in the Dunk Contest can jump like I jump. But you know, I would take my chances; If I was young today, I would try and see what happens. I would have come up with different stuff that would make it interesting.
1984 Conference Finals and first All-Star Game
In the same year you reached the Conference Finals and faced the “Showtime” Lakers. How big of a challenge was it for you to play against some of the best players of all-time?
It was a great challenge. My player, who I think is the best player of all-time, is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, so going against him was just awesome. As well as Magic Johnson, James Worthy. It was just a great competition, and I am always open to go against the best. They beat us, but we competed pretty good.
A year later you made your first All-Star Game. How do you recall the moment when you got the news about the selection, and the event itself?
Well, the thing is that when I was in the Slam Dunk Contest, everybody called me a slam dunker. I wanted to be known for more than just a slam dunk guy. I talked to my coach about it, and he was like: “dude, you’ve got to work on your game this summer, get out there, and develop”. When I got selected to the All-Star Game, it was one of the best things of my career, because they acknowledged me for more than just a slam dunk guy. So that was a big point of my career. Becoming an all-around player was really important to me.
Trade to the Cavaliers
Then came your trade to Cleveland. Were you nervous about the whole situation, since it was the first time you were traded? And how helpful was the fact that your longtime teammate, Mike Sanders was also in that deal?
Me and Mike were really good friends, so it was good to be traded with him, that made it easier. But anytime you get traded, you do not know why it happens. I thought I was getting traded because they just did not want me no more, but they got stuff for me. I understand trades now, and it does not always mean they do not want you. At first, it was the worst thing that ever happened, and then, all of a sudden, I got there and met my teammates, organization. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened, because we still live in Ohio, and love the fans here.
You went from Phoenix in Arizona to Cleveland in Ohio. Some players hate such big climate change. Was it a problem for you?
(laugh) It was a problem because I love Phoenix, I love the weather in Phoenix, it was just awesome. When I got traded, it was like an 80-degree day in Phoenix, and we come here, and it is snowing all over the place. It was definitely miserable getting traded, because I did love the weather, and that is what I tell people all the time, that coming here was definitely tough, but I like the people here and like being here.
You played with two young stars, Brad Daugherty, and Mark Price. What do you think was the key to success that allowed you to have a 57-25 record in the following year?
We had a great coaching staff and we had great teammates. If you are going to be a really good team, like we were, you have to be unselfish. Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Hot Rod, and all those guys on our team, were really unselfish. We passed the ball and got it to the open guy, and that made us a really good team. People say: “they play as a team” – and we really did that. We really liked each other; we spent much time together. That team was the funniest I have ever been around in basketball.
After a couple of years under coach MacLeod you spent a few seasons playing for coach Lenny Wilkens. How much did they and their coaching style differ?
Their coaching style was quite similar. They both believed in team ball, and they both allowed me to be who I was – run the floor, catch alley-oops. When I got here, they made me work on my jump shot. I love both of those coaches, both of them were really good to me and really important to the development of my career. I was very fortunate to have two coaches like that in the NBA, because they both were really good people, and really good coaches.
In 1989 you were in the All-Defensive First Team. How much did it mean to you, that you were among some of the elite defenders?
It was really important because that goes again to being a good all-around player. I had proved that I can dunk, I had proved that I can score, and then the next thing was to prove that I can play defense. Because that is how you win games. It was really huge to be able to impact the game that way. And you know, defense is really important, and a lot of people are not good at that, so I wanted to develop and be good at it.
Cavaliers vs Bulls
In five playoff trips with the Cavaliers, you were eliminated by the Chicago Bulls. Did those losses affect you as much as for example Jerry West, who said that he cannot wear green after losses to the Celtics?
No; we had a good team, and they beat us, fair and square. I had my team, we had our run, and it never affected me that much, except that I am on TV all the time with Michael Jordan making the shot. That is the one thing this shot has done – put me on TV a lot. I wish I get paid every time it is on air, but no, it did not affect me that much. They had a good team and they beat us; we had a good team and had our opportunities to win, I am good with that.
In 1992 Eastern Conference Finals you challenged the Bulls and forced Game 6. Did you think, especially after winning Game 2 in Chicago, that you could defeat them?
Yeah, we always had confidence, and believed we had a good chance of beating them. Things just did not work out, but our confidence level was something we definitely were not lacking. They just ended up playing a little bit better in the playoffs and they won. But I would not trade anything in the world for the team I had. I would win, loose, or draw with them – I stick with my team no matter what.
After the 1994 Playoffs you retired. Was it due to a lack of motivation or physical fatigue?
I had two knee surgeries within a year, and I felt like I could not recover and play basketball they way I wanted to play. I felt like it was just time to retire. And that is what I did because of the knee surgeries.
Shortly after that, Cavs retired your jersey. Was it something that you dreamed of when you entered the league?
I never dreamed that my jersey would be retired. When they called and let me know that they were going to do that, it was just a real honor for me. That is also why I fell in love with the trade; that is just a great honor what they did for me.
You recorded over 2000 blocks throughout your NBA career. What helped you become such a good shot blocker?
Obviously, being able to jump is a big part of that. But my uncle taught me that most people are right-handed. So, if you are going to block shots, do it with your left hand. I blocked a lot of shots with my left hand, because that kept me out of foul trouble. And just the will to wanting to do it – you have got to put a lot of effort to be a shot blocker. Sometimes, you are going to get dunked on, but that is the NBA.
Larry Nance Jr.
In 2015 your son, Larry Jr. joined the NBA. How incredible feeling is it for you, when he not only plays in the NBA, but also wears your number for the Cavaliers?
That was the best, because I was fortunate enough to play in the NBA, and it really does not happen often that your kid can do the same. For my son to get drafted and then playing in the NBA, was just awesome and I am proud of him. Then he came here and now he wears my number, so that is just the best situation ever. The first time he wore it I was really nervous, but I got used to it, and I am glad the Cavaliers allowed that to happen.
In 2018 you helped your son in the Slam Dunk Contest. How do you recall this event?
That was one of the most nervous moments in my life, because I had to throw a lob to him, and it had to be perfect. We finally got that dunk in, and it was a really good one. I was really proud of him, because in my eyes he won. The way he competed, and I thought he really did well. It was a perfect day for me, and I had a lot of fun with that whole thing.