There are those who have played the game with distinction, collegiate all-Americans, top NBA draft picks who became NBA starters. There are those who have coached and seen their teams challenge for titles. Some have done so as team executives, designing the strategies to propel their teams to the top of the basketball world. And there are those who have sat at the highest levels in the executive suites in the league office who have made the decisions that have impacted the many and the few.
There is one man, however, probably just one, who has done all of those things, arguably the only so called five-tool star in NBA history. Who, by the way, also kick started the Bulls 1990s dynasty by drafting Michael Jordan out of the U. of North Carolina.
It’s Rod Thorn, the kid from rural West Virginia who went on to a 50-year career in the NBA and who Thursday at a dinner in Springfield at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame will be presented with the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, one of the Hall of Fame’s highest recognitions.
“I’m not sure there are any others who have the hard earned understanding of the game,” former NBA commissioner David Stern said about Thorn. “People forget he drafted Michael Jordan, forget the Nets (under Thorn) were in the Finals two years in a row (after he pulled off the Jason Kidd trade), forget he was with the 76ers when they beat the Bulls in the playoffs as an eighth seed. And to have the experience at the league, the referee supervision level with a deep understanding of every aspect of the game. He has a unique background and a unique personal approach.”
Thorn became perhaps most known for two tenures in the league office lasting more than 15 years as the vice president of basketball operations czar of discipline during the period of the NBA’s greatest growth.
In that delicate role, Thorn was the final arbiter regarding NBA discipline and rules, a potentially controversial position that Thorn handled with particular grace and elegance. He became one of the most popular and outgoing figures in the game, even to media as Thorn gained a following and reputation as perhaps the most communicative league official no matter the sensitivity of the issue.
“He has a great way with people,” said former deputy commissioner Russ Granik, like Stern a Hall of Famer. “Most remarkable to me was (how) long he held the job in the league office. Nobody has been able to last very long in that job. After a few years, you pretty much have every single team upset about something they consider really critical. But Rod always had a way of earning everybody’s respect. When he had to give them really bad news they seemed to accept he was trying to do the right thing and knew what he was talking about. They didn’t hold it against him, which in that particular role is pretty remarkable.”
It earned Thorn the blue ridge mountains of good will that was unprecedented along this particular country road known as the NBA headquarters.
Though what most didn’t know about the humble West Virginia native was that he once was one of the nation’s greatest athletes, literally a natural resource. When he was choosing a college, the West Virginia state legislature literally designated him a state natural resource to persuade him to follow his buddy Jerry West to West Virginia University. Thorn did.
“He was a terrific athlete, a great baseball player, which a lot of people don’t know,” said West, the unofficial logo for the NBA and now a consultant with the Golden State Warriors. “An incredible student, very bright, a very together person. Going to West Virginia, he did something that may not have been the best for him at that point in his life (following Rod Hundley and West). But he was a terrific representative for the state, dedicated to the academic side of life. His career has been very distinguished. He’s done a terrific job wherever he’s been.”
Thorn was a multi-sport star in high school who went on to be drafted No. 2 overall in the 1963 NBA draft and in high school (before that sport’s draft era) was pursued my several major league teams.
“I always thought I was a better baseball player than basketball player,” says Thorn, who was considered a prospect to play both professional baseball and basketball, as players like Dave DeBusschere did in that era.
But Thorn suffered a head injury playing baseball at the end of his junior year of high school and wasn’t able to get back to baseball. Though being all-American and the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft isn’t that much of a sacrifice.
Thorn was burdened by knee injuries in an eight-year NBA playing career that had All-Star possibilities after averaging 14.4 points as a rookie and making the all-rookie team. He moved around some and was the ultimate team player, volunteering at times as a shooting guard to come off the bench to give his team the dimension Boston had become famous for using players like John Havlicek. After averaging 15.2 points for Seattle in about 25 minutes per game in 1967-68, he hurt his knee and his career was shortened.
Thorn’s family back in West Virginia was involved in politics and law and he’d decided to attend law school with the idea of eventually returning to West Virginia to run for political office. He earned a degree in political science from the U. of Washington when finishing his career with the Supersonics.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything but law school,” Thorn recalls.
But an old teammate buddy from Baltimore, Kevin Loughery, was having a good time coaching in the ABA with a pretty good team led by a kid named Julius Erving. He needed an assistant and called Rod. “It was $15,000 for one year and I told him I didn’t think so,” says Thorn. “But a couple of days later I told my wife I was thinking about doing it. She said, ‘Are you crazy? We have a nice life.’ But we ended up driving across country to Long Island (where the Nets then played in cavernous, mostly empty arenas) and the first year we win a championship.”
After another season with the Nets, Thorn was hired to coach the ABA’s insolent and irreverant Spirits of St. Louis and the irrepressible Marvin Barnes. Thorn lasted until the All-Star break.
“Marvin would come late for everything,” Thorn recalled. “You couldn’t depend on him. He’d say, ‘I’m giving you 24 and 12 every night. You better talk to the others.’ He’d come late on purpose to show, ‘You don’t control me. I’m in charge.’”
Thorn went back to the Nets as an assistant just in time for the ABA merger with the NBA. Thorn said the Nets had a deal for Tiny Archibald to team with Erving in the NBA. But to get into the NBA, the Nets had to sell Erving to the 76ers. “We would have been pretty darned good,” Thorn says with a sigh.
Thorn was then hired to run the Bulls, who were trying to recoup from the collapse after the erratic executive reign of Dick Motta and the aging of the great players from the early 1970s.
The Bulls had a strong run when Thorn hired former Bulls great Jerry Sloan. The 1980-81 team with starting All-Stars Artis Gilmore and Reggie Theus swept the Knicks in a first round playoff series and then lost to eventual champion Boston. But it fell apart quickly the next season and Sloan was fired. Thorn was interim coach the last 30 games. Oh, what could have been. Like when the Bulls lost the draft coin flip in 1979 for the rights to draft Magic Johnson, who then wanted to stay close to his Michigan home and wanted to play with Bulls center Artis Gilmore. Magic wanted to be a Bull, which was one reason he even decided to leave college when he did knowing the Bulls had a high draft pick. The Bulls with the No. 2 pick selected David Greenwood. Bill Cartwright was No. 3 and went to the Knicks.
Thorn hired old buddy Loughery to coach in 1983. And though they both were fired in 1985 after current Bull managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf took control of the team, Jordan often credits Thorn and Loughery for the confidence he developed to have success in the NBA.
Though every NBA executive including Thorn was hoping to draft Hakeem (nee Akeem) Olajuwon in 1984 with the top pick, Thorn quickly recognized Jordan’s potential. The Bulls were fortunate the Portland Trailblazers with the No. 2 pick selected center Sam Bowie. Thorn headed off numerous trade offers for the No. 3 pick. In fact, North Carolina coach Dean Smith was lobbying behind the scenes for Jordan to go to Philadelphia to join former North Carolina star Billy Cunningham, who was coaching the team.
There also was speculation Thorn would select North Carolina’s Sam Perkins, who went No. 4 in that draft, because the Bulls had previously selected shooting guards in the draft. Thorn had just traded All-Star Bulls shooting guard Reggie Theus. Thorn got Jordan, and the Bulls foundation was in place.
“Rod’s done everything in the NBA, more so than any one individual, from assistant to head coach, player, general manager, team president,” noted Loughery. “I think he’s had more jobs involved in the NBA than anyone ever. Outstanding athlete, great tennis player and golfer, too. Great intelligence, fantastic people skills, knows the game top to bottom. Like we say in coaching, ‘It’s not the Xs and Os, but the Jims and Joes.’ So he could make the transitions he did, and they’re not easy.”
Granik said Thorn was a unanimous choice to take over the league basketball operations job after his Bulls tenure ended.
Thorn’s league stint lasted until 2000, during which he helped lead the USA Basketball committee that named the 1992 Dream Team. When he joined the Nets he helped direct the woebegone NBA version of the franchise to consecutive Finals after pulling off the trade of Kidd for Stephon Marbury. Thorn was named Executive of the Year. In 2010, he left the Nets to go to the 76ers and oversaw their last playoff run before the current rebuilding. He returned to the league office in 2013 and announced his retirement earlier this year after more than 50 years in the NBA.
“I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to be in the right place so many times,” says Thorn. “To come from a place with 7,000 people sometimes you pinch yourself and think, ‘Wow, how fortunate I’ve been.’ When I played we got $8 in meal money. We were like a barnstorming league. I can remember playing 16 straight days in preseason in one little high school after the next. You couldn’t tell me the NBA would end up where it is and I would be a first hand witness to so many great things. That’s one of the things I’m proudest of, just being on the scene and sometimes having a little something to do with what transpired. It’s been a lot of fun.”