Larry Nance was one of the most underrated players in NBA history. The 6’10” Nance was a key member of a Cleveland Cavaliers nucleus that won 54 or more games three times in a five-year span in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Nance was a Power Forward/Center that could leap with the best players of any size.
Nance was a key part of a Cavs team that posted 54 or more wins three times in a five year span. This team was arguably the best Cavs team of all time, lead by Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, John “Hot Rod Williams”, Ron Harper, Craig Ehlo, as well as Nance. If it hadn’t been for some guy named Jordan, the Cavs would have been the dominant Eastern Conference team of the mid 80’s to mid 90’s.
Nance began his basketball career playing for the Phoenix Suns. Drafted 20th overall in 1981 out of Clemson, Nance played seven years for the Suns. Nance was perhaps best known for being the winner of the first ever NBA Slam Dunk Contest held in 1984, earning him the nickname “The High-Ayatolla of Slamola”. Previously in 1976, the ABA had held the first professional slam dunk contest at half time of their All-Star game held in Denver. It wasn’t until 1984 that the NBA reintroduced the event, after the merger of the two leagues. Nance may have won the contest, but Julius “Dr. J” Erving had perhaps the most memorable dunk in the history of the event, a high flying leap from the foul line, with a single arm stretched high above to slam home the rim rattling tomahawk dunk.
The Cavs, needing a veteran defensive presence, sent Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin a 1988 first round pick (which became Dan Majerle) and two second round picks to Phoenix in exchange for Nance, small forward Mike Sanders and Detroit’s 1988 first round selection (Randolph Keyes). From the moment Nance arrived in Cleveland, he helped to secure their interior defense, and along with Daugherty and “Hot Rod” Williams, made the paint a place that you didn’t want to venture into.
The young Cavs had been built primarily around the 1986 draft which had brought Price, Daugherty, Ron Harper and others to the team. What they needed most was a veteran presence. Giving up the talented Kevin Johnson was much debated by fans and the media at the time, in spite of Nance averaging 21.1 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game. However, Nance’s effective, consistent play quickly turned skeptics into fans, as the Cavs won 11 of their final 13 games that first season to make the playoffs.
Nance was a model of consistency throughout his NBA career. He averaged over 16 points and 8 rebounds per game for all eleven seasons as a starter. His best scoring average year was in the 1986–1987 NBA season, where he averaged 22.5 points per game. Always among the highest in field goal percentage, Nance had an excellent mid-range shot, as well as the ability to post his man up down low and score over him. Nance scored 15,687 career points (17.1 points per game) and grabbed 7,352 career rebounds (a 8.0 rebound per game average).
A tenacious defender, Nance is the only player in franchise history to make the All-Defensive team three times (1988-89, 91-92 and 92-93). He was also consistently one of the league’s better shot blockers, averaging 2.2 blocks per game during his career. Upon his retirement, he held the league record for most blocked shots by any player other than a center. As a Cav, Nance ranks among the all-time leaders in blocked shots (2nd), field goal percentage (2nd), rebounds (4th), field goals made and attempted (6th), minutes played (7th) and free throws made (7th) and attempted (8th).
Nance was named to the Cavaliers’ All-Time Starting Five by 32 members of the Northeast Ohio media during the Cavaliers 30th Anniversary season. The team retired his jersey on Jan. 30, 1995 and number 22 hangs today in the Quicken Loans arena in Cleveland, OH.