Few people ever have the athletic ability to have their state’s legislature pass a resolution urging them to attend a certain the state’s university.
Unless you are Princeton’s Rod Thorn.
“I was a shy type of kid,” Thorn said. “It was probably embarrassing at the time. It was certainly a tremendous token for the legislature to do that. I was being recruited by a lot of schools and looking around. It was certainly a nice thing for them to do.”
Thorn eventually chose West Virginia University before going on to play eight seasons in the National Basketball Association and making waves in the front offices of pro basketball.
The story of the Thorn’s career does not begin there, it starts on West Main Street where he grew up.
Thorn’s father, Joe, was a talented athlete himself. He played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization before having his career derailed when his finger was shot during World War II.
“My father,” Rod Thorn said when asked what got him started in sports. “He was into sports, particularly baseball. He also ran a team called the Rinky Dinks that I ended up playing for.”
However, it was not only his father that got him interested in sports, but “there were a lot of activities and sports going on,” Thorn said when he was growing up.
“It was a great time to grow up in Princeton,” he added. “It was a fun time. A lot of kids lived on my street that ended up playing together in school.”
When Thorn finally did arrive at Princeton Senior High School, he wasted little time making a name for himself as he earned a spot on the varsity roster his freshman year.
All he did from there was become a three-time All-State performer on the hardwood.
“We had a good team,” Thorn said. “My last three years we had a really good team. We were ranked first in the state my junior and senior years. We didn’t win the championship.
“We had the best team, but we just didn’t win it. We had sellout crowds everywhere we played. Princeton supported us well and it was a lot of fun.”
Thorn made a name for himself by averaging over 30 points a game in his final two seasons wearing a Tigers’ uniform.
“I had the ball a lot,” Thorn said of scoring 30 points a game. “I was the principal ball handler. I had the ball virtually every time.
“I didn’t have to depend on anyone to get the ball. We played an open game and ran a lot. We had a good team. There were many games where I didn’t play in the fourth quarter.”
Despite the talent, including having another all-state performer in Jim Sayers on the team his junior year, Thorn and the Tigers never were able to play for the state championship.
“We got (to the tournament) my junior year, but lost to Parkersburg in semifinals,” Thorn recounted. “They were a team we beat in the regular season. Then we lost to Beckley in my senior year by one point in the regional tournament.
“We had a much better team. That was a game we really should of won.”
Princeton lost to only Williamson during those two years in the regular season while being ranked first in the state.
After debating on where to go for college, Thorn became a Mountaineer.
“It was a great,” he said. “West Virginia was big-time during those days. Jerry West was there. West Virginia had just went to the NCAA Finals my senior year in high school. West Virginia was big time.”
Still under NCAA rules, Thorn would have to wait a year to get on the court as freshmen were not allowed to play varsity. All Thorn did was led the freshmen team to an undefeated season.
Thorn went on to be an All-American guard for West Virginia during his three season however he would be denied an opportunity for a championship.
“My sophomore year we lost to William & Mary in conference semifinals and you had to win your conference tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament,” said Thorn. “My junior and senior years we won the conference tournament to go to NCAA.
“We lost to Villanova in Philadelphia my junior year and we played them on their home court. Senior year, we beat Connecticut then lost to St. Joe’s in the regional prior to the Final Four. We had a good team, never great team.”
While people may remember Thorn for his prowess on the basketball court, he also played baseball in high school and college.
“I think I was probably a better baseball player than basketball player,” Thorn admitted. “I would have probably pursued a baseball career had I not got hurt. I think that most would say I was a better baseball player than basketball player.”
The injury occurred while at West Virginia as Thorn suffered a concussion as the result of getting hit in the head on a throw when the catcher tried to pick a guy off second baseball.
“It took me a long time to recover then I was drafted by Baltimore. I was second pick in the NBA draft. I played for them had a good rookie year and decided to play basketball.”
He played eight seasons averaging 10.8 points per game for Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis and finally Seattle.
Just like an injury pushed him into basketball, a knee injury sent Thorn from the court to the sidelines.
“It was great,” he said of playing in the NBA. “The highest competition and best players. It was great.
“I ended up hurt my knee in my sixth year which really ended my career. I had a bad knee operation that effectively ended it for me.”
At the end of 1970-71 season, Thorn was getting ready to go to law school when Kevin Lockery of the New York Nets in the ABA called him.
“He called me and offered me a job as assistant coach,” Thorn recalled. “I couldn’t tell you way (I decided to accept). My path was set — go to law school and probably end up in politics. On a whim, I did it and been there since in pro basketball.”
Thorn eventually became the general manager of the Chicago Bills from 1978-86 before moving onto the NBA front office where he was the NBA’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations from 1986 to 2000.
“Drafting Michael Jordan,” Thorn said of his greatest accomplishment with the Bulls. “From that time on, you knew they were going to be good. He was a once in a generation player.
“The team got better. We weren’t very good when I started.”
After spending 15 years working for the NBA, Thorn jumped at one last opportunity to get back onto the team level when the New Jersey Nets came calling.
“I enjoyed my time in the NBA,” he said. “ I had opportunity to go back with the Nets. Either, I do it now or stay with NBA and I decided to do. I was with the Nets for 10 years.
“We went to the finals twice. We had a good team during part of it — won four division titles, two conference championships. It was a lot of fun.”
Now, Thorn is with the Philadelphia 76ers as their president, and still loving every minute of it.
“It’s been a great journey,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends, been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things that otherwise I wouldn’t have had the chance to. I’ve been very fortunate over the course of my career that things have worked out as well as they have. Very fortunate.”
Not bad for a kid who was better at baseball than basketball.
— Contact Jonathan Greene