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Rod Thorn’s magical tall and short tales
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By Sam Smith | 2.14.2015 | 4:00 p.m. CT
Perhaps there never would have been a Bulls dynasty without Rod Thorn. After all, the longtime NBA executive was running the Bulls when the team drafted Michael Jordan.
Or maybe things would have been even better if during Thorn’s six years as Bulls general manager the Bulls hadn’t messed up chances to draft Magic Johnson, Maurice Cheeks and Sidney Moncrief to join Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore.
“We were in transition,” Thorn said with a laugh Saturday morning after the Basketball Hall of Fame announced Thorn would receive the prestigious John Bunn Lifetime Achievement award at the Hall of Fame enshrinement in September. “I guess the highlight of those early years was we made the playoffs that one year and beat the Knicks in the first round with Jerry (Sloan as coach) and then we lost to Boston in the next round. We were sort of up and down until Michael came along. That changed everybody’s fortune. Great times. I was very young when I became GM of the Bulls. I was sort of learning on the job. Jerry Sloan and I went up to meet with Magic with Jud Heathcote (before the 1979 NBA draft). So we’re sitting in a room and you know Magic’s personality was unbelievable. He indicated that he’d love to play for us. He knew all about us. So we were very fired up that hopefully we would win that coin flip. But, ironically, had we won that coin flip, the Bulls would never have gotten Jordan. I guess it worked out for the Lakers and us.”
Ah, the coin flip, one of the most famous, or infamous, days in Bulls history, the day they lost Magic Johnson. Just another crazy story of perhaps the wildest period in Bulls history, from the end of their first great run with Chet Walker, Bob Love, Sloan, Tom Boerwinkle and Norm Van Lier, until the rebirth and renewal with the Jerry Reinsdorf group and the drafting of Jordan in 1984.
Thorn was fired in that 1984-85 season. But his legacy with the Bulls is a bridge from their first successful era to one of the greatest in NBA history. It’s a part of one of the most accomplished careers in basketball history, a star player, coach, executive and league official as Thorn currently is NBA President of Basketball Operations.
The Hall of Fame at All-Star weekend in New York Saturday revealed its award winners, so called direct elects to the Hall of Fame and finalists who will go to a vote and be announced at the Finals Four in April.
The Bunn award is the highest without official Hall of Fame inclusion. Previous winners include Bulls legend Johnny Kerr, team officials Pat Williams and Brian McIntyre and coaches like Tex Winter and Ray Meyer. The media awards will go to photographer Rich Clarkson and broadcaster Woody Durham. Those elected for direct admission include Louis Dampier of the ABA, Tom Heinsohn among veterans and George Raveling as a contributor. Finalists include referee Dick Bavetta, players JoJo White, Dikembo Mutombo, Kevin Johnson, Spencer Haywood and Tim Hardaway, coaches Bill Fitch, John Calipari and Bo Ryan and WNBA player Lisa Leslie.
But few have as many tales, long and short, or as varied a career as Thorn. The West Virginia native was as an all-American, the No. 2 pick in the 1963 NBA draft ahead of Nate Thurmond. He played eight seasons in the NBA. He was later an assistant coach with buddy Kevin Loughery with the championship Nets in the ABA and head coach of the ABA St. Louis Spirits. In 1978 at age 37, Thorn became Bulls general manager. If not a rousing success, Thorn presided over a wild west era for the Bulls of color and controversy that culminated with his selection of Jordan in the 1984 draft.
“I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to be in a lot of good situations,” said Thorn, who was Executive of the Year for his Nets going to the 2002 Finals. “It’s hard to distinguish any one thing, but it’s been a series of things over the course of many years. We were very fortunate that Michael was available at No. 3. I wish I could say I was prescient enough to know he was going to turn out to be as good as he was. I thought he would be a good player, hopefully a really good player, but not like anything like he was. It seemed like every other day there was a story about the team being sold. It was the (Marvin) Fishman litigation that was going on. Is Fishman going to be the owner of the Bulls? It was just always something. We had Artis Gilmore as the fulcrum of that team. We had Mickey Johnson. We drafted Reggie Theus early. But we were in transition. There’s no doubt.”
It might not have been as much charge given that 1979 draft, which could have made Thorn a Chicago star.
It was yet another of the rich stories that have made the Bulls history a tale too incredible for fiction.
First there was Thorn’s 1978 draft, his first. He did well taking Reggie Theus No. 9. The only player selected ahead of Theus who would have a career as long was Larry Bird.
NBA teams back then had drafts as public parties to help draw attention and fan interest. The draft was during the day and the Bulls were having that one at the old Bismarck Hotel in the west Loop. Then Bulls scout Gene Tormohlen was touting this Chicago kid from West Texas. But then coach Larry Costello had seen this kid from New Mexico, “Marvelous” Marvin Johnson, have a big game. Tormohlen was lobbying intently for the Texas kid. Thorn went with his coach and Johnson didn’t make it through camp and never played in the NBA. The Texas kid was Chicagoan Maurice Cheeks from DuSable High School.
That day Cheeks’ father and brother were in the audience at the Bismarck. After the Bulls pick, they got up yelling the Bulls had made a mistake, would regret it and would be story. They stormed out.
What a backcourt that could have been with the high scoring Theus and the unselfish Cheeks who went on to an All-Star career setting up Julius Erving and Moses Malone.
“My feeling at that time was that Larry had coached (Kareem Abdul) Jabbar and Larry was great at getting the ball to Jabbar,” said Thorn. “We’ve got Artis. And Larry will concoct all these different ways to get the ball to Artis. It’ll really be good.”
It could have been amazing.
The Bulls remained poor in 1978-79, so they got the top pick in the Eastern Conference. Before the change for the lottery in 1984, the losingest team in each conference if tied flipped a coin for first pick. The Lakers, though good with Kareem but not great, had gotten the No. 1 pick for that season from a previous deal with the Jazz in which then New Orleans signed Gail Goodrich in free agency. The commissioner then would award compensation for free agents. Which was why few players ever moved. The compenation was a future draft pick, which turned out to be No. 1 in 1979.
And Johnson was perhaps even more hopeful of going to the Bulls than the Lakers.
Johnson’s then agent, Chicago attorney George Andrews, said Magic wanted to play with a center.
“He believed the way to win was with a big man,” recalled Andrews. “Kareem was No. 1, but he was getting older. Artis was No. 2. Plus, Chicago was closer to Lansing (Johnson’s Michigan home). He preferred Chicago. He thought Chicago would be a better situation.”
The Bulls still seeking community interest decided to conduct a fan vote for the coin clip. The fans voted for heads.
The coin came up tails.
With Thorn seeing his career flash before his eyes, Kerr, then a Bulls broadcaster, quipped to Thorn, "If you listen to the fans, you end up sitting next to them."
The Bulls could still salvage something in a good draft. They had a center, so they didn’t want Bill Cartwright. Thorn was intrigued by Arkansas’ Sidney Moncrief. But team medical staff warned because of Moncrief’s knee problems in college he might not last three years in the NBA. The Bulls selected David Greenwood. Moncrief went on to become the best perimeter defender in the NBA for a decade, a multiple All-Star and whom Jordan described as the toughest guard to play against early in his career.
And so it went as Thorn plowed through coaches, six in six years including himself for 30 games replacing Sloan. There was the never ending search for a guard to go with Theus, trying Ronnie Lester and Quintin Dailey until Jordan finally in 1984 to replace Theus. Thorn didn’t make the end of that season with the franchise sold to the Reinsdorf group and replaced by Jerry Krause. But Thorn went on to success with the Nets and 76ers and as a league official. But who knows for one heads or tails.
“I might,” said Thorn with a laugh, “still be working there.”