Thorn: NBA More Popular Than Ever
Rod Thorn briefly interrupted his busy schedule last weekend to take part in the Bob Huggins Fantasy Camp, which concluded on Sunday.
These days, Thorn is back to running the daily functions of the NBA as the league’s President of Basketball Operations, a role he managed quite successfully for a 14-year period from 1986-2000.
“I had that job 15 years ago before I went to work for the New Jersey Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers, and now I’m back,” Thorn said last Friday evening. “As they say, the world is round and sooner or later you start passing yourself again.”
Recently, Thorn had to deal with an air conditioning malfunction during game one of the NBA finals in San Antonio. The Spurs defeated the Miami Heat (minus star player LeBron James for much of the fourth quarter with cramps blamed on the stifling heat) but Miami has since evened the series.
Thorn says he is equally impressed with both teams.
“You just can’t beat those two teams the way they play,” he said. “They both have great players but they share the ball - James being the transcendent player today, but he shares the ball and it’s a pleasure watching them play.
“I’m not a big proponent of isolation and one-on-one play that some people do, but you basically do what your talent lets you do,” he added. “I think last year was one of the better finals that we’ve had in quite a while and hopefully if we can get the air conditioner fixed we’ll have the same type of finals this year.”
Thorn, an All-American player at West Virginia University in 1963, was a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Bullets who spent eight years in the NBA from 1963-71, playing with the Bullets, Pistons, Hawks and Supersonics. He's been involved with the league in some capacity ever since.
“It’s like I’ve been a kid my whole life,” he said. “I was going to go to law school when my playing career ended and I had a chance to become an assistant coach and did that instead.”
The NBA game Thorn played in the late 1960s is vastly different than the one we enjoy today, he says.
“It’s two different games,” he admitted. “The athletes are so much better today and I think coaches, by and large, are better. Not that they know any more basketball than people back in the day did, but they have so many more tools to work with.
“When I first started playing you didn’t have tape. Now, you’ve got five, six, seven assistant coaches and everything is broken down,” he added. “They give you printouts at halftime about who is scoring, or who is scoring from whatever spot on the floor. You have so many more tools to work with and the athletes are incredible. Defenses are better, overall, because these athletes can cover so much ground.”
Knowledge is one thing, but common sense is something entirely different. When Thorn was general manager of the Chicago Bulls in 1984 he drafted Michael Jordan after Portland selected Kentucky center Sam Bowie. It was a move that forever seals Thorn’s place in professional basketball history. He recalled how he was able to draft the player who many believe is the greatest in NBA history.
“I was very friendly with Stu Inman, who was the general manager of the Blazers at that time, and a month before the draft I had a conversation with him and he told me if Bowie passed the physical they would take him,” Thorn said. “They already had Clyde Drexler, who went on to become a great player, and they had Jim Paxson, who was a great wing player.”
A week before the draft Thorn called Inman to get an idea how Bowie’s physical went with team doctors. Inman said it went fine and they were going to take him.
“We knew before the draft started that Jordan was going to fall to us,” Thorn said. “I wish I could say I knew how good he was going to be - we knew he was going to be a really good player - but not like he turned out to be.”
Had Portland selected Jordan, Thorn said the Bulls would have likely drafted North Carolina forward Sam Perkins.
“We wouldn’t have taken Bowie because our doctors felt that his leg was skeptical,” said Thorn. “I probably would have taken Perkins over (Charles) Barkley because I thought Barkley wasn’t big enough. He’s not going to be able to do in the pros what he did at (Auburn). That would have been a big mistake, so thank goodness Michael showed up.”
Thorn’s big discovery was Michael Jordan - if you can call it that - while Jerry West’s great find was Kobe Bryant. West, like Thorn, was raised on West Virginia basketball and knew the game like the back of his hand.
“I was in the league office at the time and we were talking,” Thorn recalled. “I asked Jerry who he was going to take and he said he worked out a player who was the best player that he had ever worked out. I asked him who it was and he said it was Kobe Bryant. I said, ‘the high school guy?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it was the best workout I ever had. I’ve got to get that guy.’”
West didn’t have a spot in the upper portion of the 1996 draft, so he worked out a deal ahead of time with the Charlotte Hornets to select Bryant with the 13th pick and he would trade all-star center Vlade Divac to them for the rights to Bryant.
“Jerry was right on him from the start,” said Thorn.
Thorn believes the NBA game today has never been better, or more popular.
“There are so many kids who play basketball around the world now,” he noted. “Other than soccer, more people play basketball than any other sport. I think the growth of the sport on an international level has been incredible. We’ve got a good storyline and it’s just a great time to be in the NBA.”
It was also a great time to be a West Virginia basketball fan back when Thorn was starring for the Mountaineers in the early 1960s. Thorn continued a string of homegrown All-American players that endured for more than a decade, beginning with Mark Workman in 1952 and continuing with Hot Rod Hundley in the mid-1950s, West in the late 1950s, Thorn in the early 1960s, and ending with Ron “Fritz” Williams in the late 1960s.
Marshall’s Hal Greer and Morris Harvey guard George King were also terrific players from the state back then. Fortunately for WVU, most of them ended up in Morgantown.
“We were all different,” said Thorn. “When Rod was in high school he was an incredible ball handler. He could score and did it all. Jerry was one of a kind. We’ve never had a player like him. I was an all-around player and Williams was a very good player - a very good pro with Milwaukee in particular - but there have been some really good players here since.”
Perhaps so, but not quite like it was back in the 1950s and 1960s when the quartet of Hundley, West, Thorn and Williams were patrolling the court for West Virginia University more than 40 years ago.
For many years afterward, West Virginia coaches were often lured to some place off the beaten path in search of the next Jerry West, only to discover that he wasn’t the next Jerry West.
Come to think of it, as well-known Pittsburgh writer Roy McHugh used to say, “the Jerry Wests of this world don’t come in pairs.”
“No they don’t,” laughed Thorn. “No they don’t.”
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