By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
West Virginia round-ball royalty visited the Chuck Mathena Center in Princeton on Sunday afternoon to participate in a celebration honoring one of the city’s most famous favorite sons, Rodney King “Rod” Thorn.
After graduating from Princeton Senior High School in 1959, Thorn, 71, earned All-American college basketball honors at West Virginia University and was the second overall pick in the 1963 National Basketball Draft by the Baltimore Bullets. As a rookie in Baltimore, he married his hometown sweetheart, Peggy Reynolds, and together, they embarked on a career that included eight seasons of play on the pro hardwoods, several seasons in the coaching ranks, and many more in league and team executive offices.
“I asked my daughter Jessica, what I should speak about today,” Thorn said to a crowd of about 175 people gathered for the celebration. “She said I should talk about community.
“We played sports from daylight to dark,” Thorn said of his youth in Princeton. “When the seasons changed, the sports changed. I was incredibly blessed to have two parents — a mother who was a professional educator and a father who was working to become a professional baseball player until he was wounded on Iwo Jima, and was unable to play anymore.”
While Thorn’s mother, Jackie Thorn, taught school, his father, Joe Thorn, served as chief of the Princeton Police Department. Together, they encouraged their son to participate in sports and academics at the highest possible level. During his remarks, Thorn said his dad had him playing on an organized basketball team — the Rinky Dinks — when he was 6 years old. When he wasn’t playing organized sports, he was playing sports in the neighborhood. He called off the names of several friends — “Wells, Gentry, Johnson, Hughes,” among others.
“Robert Farley was a dear friend who lived a couple houses away from me,” Thorn said of Farley, president and chief executive officer of the Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve lived a lot of years in major cities,” he said, including more than 20 years in New York. “It’s different, growing up in an environment like this.”
Thorn’s long-time friend had the honor to introduce his friend. “I Googled Rod before I came here to make this introduction,” Gillespie said. “There were a couple pages of his accomplishments there, but John Frazier has already said all of that.” Gillespie said that in addition to being a great high school, college and professional basketball player, Thorn was known for making great decisions, like drafting Michael Jordan to play for the Chicago Bulls, and working the trade that brought Jason Kidd to the New Jersey Nets.
“His greatest decision was when he asked Peggy Reynolds to marry him,” Gillespie said.
Peggy Thorn’s father, Bill Reynolds of Princeton, actually got the ball rolling on the sequence of events that would lead to Sunday’s ceremony, according to State Delegate John Frazier, D-Mercer. Frazier explained that he and Bill Reynolds exercised together at the Princeton Fitness Center.
“Bill suggested we should do something for his son-in-law, Rod,” Frazier said. “It’s Rod’s 50th year in the NBA.” Frazier authored House Concurrent Resolution No. 8 that names the I-77/U.S. Route 460 interchange in Princeton the “All-American Rod Thorn Interchange.” Frazier got the support of fellow Delegates Marty Gearheart and Joe Ellington, both R-Mercer, and: “It passed unanimously,” Frazier said as he handed the replica interchange sign to Thorn.
State Senator Mark Wills, D-Mercer, represented Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and presented a Distinguished West Virginian award to Thorn.
“Welcome home,” Wills said. “We’re very proud of you.”
The ceremony itself was fun, upbeat and fast paced. Before giving the invocation, the Reverend Dr. David Dockery, pastor of Princeton’s First Baptist Church, said he had been honored to serve as pastor for the late Joe and Jackie Thorn. “Joe would be so proud of you,” Dockery said as he looked in Thorn’s direction.
Princeton Mayor Patricia Wilson spoke on behalf of the city council, but her vice mayor, Marshall Lytton stood and was recognized with other non-basketball playing PSHS classmates who attended the ceremony. “He grew up in Princeton and he made us proud to say we know Rod Thorn,” Wilson said.
William “Buster” Brown had the honor of serving as Thorn’s high school basketball coach for four years. He was a little hesitant to spill the beans that the slender, 6 foot 4 inch Thorn’s nickname was “Stickman” in high school. “We were so good that I had to take Rod out of games,” Brown said for fear that the Tigers would be accused of running up the score. He said that if Thorn could have played all of his games, his scoring average would have been much higher than the 30 points-per-game that he averaged.
Thorn’s college roommate, Gale Catlett, who also played for the Mountaineers and coached WVU for 24 years, cut loose with a string of humorous stories about their travels together, his love of golf, good restaurants, and his competitive nature in everything — including card games like Spades and Hearts.
Catlett addressed one question to Thorn’s Princeton High School teammates: “Did he ever pass you the ball?” he asked.
“I’ve known Gale Catlett for 50 years and I never knew he had a sense of humor,” State Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanawha, former sports editor of the Charleston Gazette. Wells said he was in journalism school at WVU from 1958’-62, and got to enjoy Jerry West’s last two years and Thorn’s first two years in Morgantown.
“When Rodney came to the campus, he couldn’t be any nicer to underlings like me,” Wells said. He recalled that in 1959, the Legislature declared Thorn “a natural resource” to encourage the highly recruited athlete to play at WVU. Wells said that it was fitting that the interchange is named for Thorn, and expressed thanks to his legislative colleague Frazier for getting the legislation together.
WVU men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins confessed that Thorn and Catlett got him in a lot of trouble as a young man growing up in the Morgantown suburb of Sabraton. He said he listened to Mountaineer games on the radio, and played on a coal dust-smudged rim that his grandfather made for him. “I wanted to be Rod Thorn,” Huggins said.
Huggins spoke with pride about the long tradition of excellence in athletics that WVU has enjoyed through the years with athletes like Rodney “Hot Rod” Hundley, Jerry West, Rod Thorn, Ron “Fritz” Williams and more. “This is long, long overdue,” Huggins said.
Thorn agreed with Gillespie that his greatest decision was to marry “Bill and Lucille Reynolds’ daughter.” The two were married during his rookie year with the Bullets, and spent the next eight years playing in different cities. He said that he fulfilled his parents’ wishes that he graduate from college. He finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Washington when he was playing in Seattle, and he was planning to attend law school at Washington when Kevin Loughery called and offered him “$14,000 and the use of a car,” to join him as an assistant coach with the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association.
After talking it over with his wife, he decided to remain with the game and drove to New York. “I knew who Julius Erving was then, but I was an NBA guy and he was an ABA guy.” Of course, “Doctor J,” Julius Erving brought a new and exciting brand of play to professional basketball and a championship to the Nets.
Thorn reflected on that crossroads moment in his life when he took Loughery’s offer and did not go to law school. “All of us come to these kinds of decisions,” he said. “You go this way or that way. We’ve been unbelievably lucky to be in a cutthroat business,” and to survive 50 years,” Thorn said.
Just three days earlier, the Philadelphia 76ers announced that Tony DiLeo has been selected to replace Thorn as club president. Thorn will remain on the job to complete the final year of his contract before handing over the reins of the organization to DiLeo.
Thorn looked out at the audience and spoke about how his Princeton Tigers teammates like Farley, Johnny Porterfield, Gary McPheason, Roger Hickman, Mike Stafford and Jimmy Sayers contributed to his success. He said that the world of professional sports is being pushed into a game of “money ball,” by bright people who use statistical information to assemble teams.
“What these people don’t know is how to put a team together,” he said. “You’ve got to have core believers.”
Thorn used Catlett and Huggins as examples of good team-builders. He said that a Catlett-coached team would always “excel at both ends of the court,” and a Huggins-coached team would, “play hard and play defense.”
Thorn said that when Huggins embraced an injured Da’Sean Butler, in West Virginia’s Final Four loss to Kentucky in 2010, “His actions there endeared him to anyone who was watching.” He said that Butler’s injury may have cost the Mountaineers the game, but to Thorn, it was a reminder that WVU is “unbelievably lucky to have Coach Catlett and unbelievably lucky to have Bobby,” as coaches. “Give me that guy who’s not afraid to fail,” he said.
“It’s been a great run,” Thorn said. “This is my last year as president of the team.” Thorn expressed pride in the Chuck Mathena Center, the PSHS complex and the community. “There are a lot of things here that you people have put together,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how fortunate I was to grow up here.”
The Princeton-Mercer County Chamber hosted a reception following the ceremony.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org