It never was easy being Rod Thorn.
When you’re the best high school basketball player in your state, when you are probably the best high school baseball player in your state, when you are a solid student, life can’t be anything but fun.
You try being the man who replaces Jerry West and see how easy it is, especially when you have already been labeled a prized West Virginia natural asset in an effort to insure that you went to the state university to follow the Hall of Famer West.
You learn quickly that easy and fun don’t go together.
Oh, Thorn was up to the task. He was a three-time All-American in basketball and one of the best baseball players in the Southern Conference, right up until a teammate hit him in the head with a throw in what would be the final baseball game he ever played.
How good was he?
He was the second player drafted in the 1963 draft, right behind Duke All-American Art Heyman, ahead of Hall of Fame players Nate Thurman and Gus Johnson. That is the same draft position West had, being selected after a player who gained quite a bit more fame and fortune that Heyman, however, in Oscar Robertson.
Rod Thorn had a plan then and it didn’t include being an NBA lifer.
“No,” he said the other day as he attended Bob Huggins’ Fantasy Camp for the first time when asked if he expected to make basketball a career as he has. “It’s like I’ve been a kid my whole life, because I’ve been involved with basketball.
“I was going to go to law school when my playing career ended, but I had a chance to become an assistant coach and did that instead.”
Playing in the NBA was fun, but he came to learn it wasn’t easy. His first season he was a member of the All-Rookie team for the Baltimore Bullets, but it was a good thing he rented and never bought, for he was traded following that first year and in an eight-year career which did not blossom like West’s he played also with Detroit, St. Louis and Seattle.
That’s when the offer came to coach and Thorn put law school on hold. Who knew how closely he would be a witness to — and sometimes quite heavily involved in — professional basketball history, watching it go through its best of times and its worst of times.
Today he serves as the president of basketball operations in the NBA, “which means I’m in charge of anything that has to do with basketball,” he said.
That, of course, has kept him out of the Donald Sterling mess, which has been handled both efficiently and swiftly by his new boss, Commissioner Adam Silver, allowing him to concentrate on the truly important issues of the day, like the air conditioning in San Antonio’s arena.
That, of course, was the talk of Game 1 of the NBA Finals between San Antonio’s Spurs and the Miami Heat, LeBron James having to be carried off the court with cramps from the plus 90-degree temperatures within the arena.
“With these two teams, last year was one of the better finals we’ve had for quite a while and hopefully, if we can get the air conditioner fixed, we’ll have the same type of finals this year.”
The NBA, during the half century Thorn has spent serving it, has gone through any number of ups and downs.
Certainly, in the years when West and Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell’s Celtics were dominating it was a marvelous league, showcasing the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.
But it also went through eras of disfavor, times when defense wasn’t played at all, times when the game became too rough to be recognized as basketball, times when it really didn’t have players with whom America could identify.
In truth, there were times when if you were sitting in a bar you would get yelled at by the patrons if you asked to have an NBA game — regular season or playoffs — on the TV set.
But that has changed and today the league’s popularity is rising.
Viewership for Game 1 of this year’s series on ABC was up 4 percent from a year with 14,846,000 viewers, making it the second highest-rated NBA Finals Game 1 since 2004.
And, when you compare the NBA’s TV reach to the NHL, which is the up and coming sport, it is no contest, the NBA averaging almost four times as many viewers.
What has happened to ignite the resurgence in basketball interest.
“I think several things have happened,” Thorn said. “There are so many kids who play basketball around the world, more than even soccer. The growth of sport on an international basis has been incredible.”
The truth is, however, and no one knows this better than Thorn, for he was in the midst of the sport’s last resurgence, is about the men who play the game … probably more than any other sport for basketball lends itself to individual excellence.
First off, the area is confined and the number of players on the floor limited. They come in wearing jerseys and shorts … no shoulder pads and helmets, no catcher’s masks or hats pulled down over their ears.
It’s a game of what you see is what you get, a game that lends itself to personal brilliance and creativity.
“I think the NBA reached the height of its popularity when they had Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Celtics and the Lakers, and then Michael Jordan came along. He transcended basketball for a time,” Thorn said.
Thorn modestly skipped over his hand in the Michael Jordan era.
In 1984 he was general manager of the Chicago Bulls and the 1984 draft to this day is considered the greatest ever.
The first pick of that draft was Akeem Olajuwon by the Houston Rockets, followed by Sam Bowie of Kentucky by the Portland Trail Blazers.
That left the third pick to Thorn and the Bulls.
Their choice? A fellow named Jordan.
Bowie, it turned out, was damaged goods with a bone problem in his leg that would ruin his career.
Thorn admits he was drooling for the chance to get Jordan, checking with Portland the day before the draft to see if they still planned to take Bowie. They said they did.
“If they had taken Jordan, I wasn’t going to take Bowie anyway,” Thorn said. “Our doctors weren’t sure about his leg.”
Thorn was going to take Sam Perkins of North Carolina, who went after Jordan and ahead of that fellow named Charles Barkley, who we still are dealing with today, 30 years later if we own a TV set.
It is those kind of players, though, who make the NBA what it is and Thorn says that’s behind today’s surge in popularity.
“Now we have LeBron James and Kevin Durant and all those other great players. We just have had a series of great players. We have a good story line. It’s just a great time to be in the NBA,” he said.
Thorn not only has seen the players advance, but he’s seen the game evolve from the passing game he and West played at WVU back in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“It’s two different games,” he said. “The athletes are so much better today. The coaches are better. It isn’t that they know any more basketball than people back in the day did, but they have so many more tools to work with,” Thorn said.
“You used to have maybe an assistant coach. When I was playing, you didn’t watch tape. Now, you have five, six, seven assistant coaches … everything is broken down. They give you printouts at halftime … who’s scoring from here, who’s scoring from every spot on the floor.”
With it all, though, Thorn says to give the greats of his era their due.
“Guys like Jerry and Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell and those great players of that time would still be great players,” he said.
The rules changes, from the 24-second clock to the 3-point shot, also have changed the way the game is played and made it more exciting.
“The way to play is to attack the rim or shoot 3s,” Thorn said. “Excuse me, but the worst shot you can take is a mid-range two-point shot. The statistics tell you that. It’s not always easy to get to the rim. You see a lot more 3-point shots. Scores are going up because more teams are playing up tempo games. In fact, this year we had 17 teams who scored over 100 points a game. Scoring is at the highest level it’s been in 15 years.”
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It never was easy being Rod Thorn.
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