USA Basketball Steitz Award Recipient Rod Thorn Recalls His Joyful Basketball Journey
The longtime player and executive led the USA Basketball committee that assembled the Dream Team.
A life in basketball began for Rod Thorn when he was just a little guy, still learning how to tie his shoes, how to ride a bike and to look both ways before crossing the street.
It was the late 1940s in Princeton, West Virginia, and Thorn’s father, Joe, a former professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals organization, decided the kids in the town needed a way to compete and exercise during the winter months.
He started a little league basketball team, and Rod was one of its junior members. They practiced and played in the Mercer School where on one end of the court, the ceiling was too low to take outside shots. Joe named the team the Rinky Dinks.
“Don’t ask me why he picked that name,” Thorn said.
It has been 70-plus years since that first exposure to basketball. In the decades since, Thorn has gone on to make his mark on the game like few others. His career spans decades as a player, coach and executive, including important roles with USA Basketball that helped the organization reach increasingly greater levels of success that continue today.
In honor of his legendary career, Thorn was selected as the 2018 recipient of the Edward S. Steitz Award. Presented by USA Basketball, the Steitz Award recognizes an individual for valuable contributions to international basketball. The award is named after the former president of the predecessor’s to USA Basketball, who was instrumental in developing many of the rules of the international game.
“It means a lot,” said Thorn, 77, who is semi-retired but still serving as a consultant with the Milwaukee Bucks. “That’s a very prestigious award from USA Basketball. Ed was probably the biggest rules maker in international history. I knew Ed. I had a lot of respect for him, and I feel very honored to receive this award.”
Growing up in a house on West Main Street in Princeton, Thorn fell in love with basketball. His dad poured a concrete slab in the backyard, where Rod spent countless hours shooting, even in the wintertime when he shoveled or swept away snow first.
He went on to play four varsity years in high school, finishing three of them as an all-state selection and two of them as a high school All-American. From there he went to West Virginia University, joining the men’s basketball program just as Jerry West was leaving it.
Thorn said West, coach Kevin Loughery, former NBA commissioner David Stern and his parents, Joe and Jackie Thorn, were his greatest mentors and influences. While his father coached him at times, Thorn’s mother, an elementary school teacher, always made sure he was a student first.
Thorn was the second overall pick in the 1963 NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets. That is where he began a pro career that took him from one coast to the other, ending with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1971. After retiring as a player, he got into coaching.
“Coming from a very small town in West Virginia and making it to the NBA and then playing eight years in the league were highlights, because not many people from where I come from had that opportunity,” Thorn said.
In 1978, he became the general manager of a struggling Chicago Bulls franchise. After making just one playoff appearance in Thorn’s first six seasons, they held the third overall pick in the draft in 1984. Houston and Portland flipped a coin to determine who would pick first as there was no draft lottery at the time.
Houston won, which was a great news for Thorn and his team. Houston picked Hakeem Olajuwon with the top selection. Portland, which already had a great wing player in Clyde Drexler, opted for center Sam Bowie, allowing Michael Jordan to land in Chicago.
“Jordan sort of fell to us because of the coin flip,” Thorn said. “Had Portland won the coin flip, they would have taken Olajuwon and then Houston 100 percent surely would have taken Jordan. So we got very fortunate on a couple of things happening. He fell to us and became arguably the best player ever. I feel very, very fortunate that it happened the way it did.”
Thorn’s success eventually led him to roles with the NBA league office and USA Basketball. He spent 14 years as the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations. In that role he served as the league’s primary disciplinarian.
In the early 1990s, when FIBA gave approval for professional athletes to compete in the Olympic Games, Thorn played an integral role in assembling the original Dream Team.
Thorn remembers the process of choosing which players would be included on the Dream Team as arduous, because there were so many good players who wanted to be a part of it.
The eventual squad won the 1992 Olympic gold medal in resounding fashion, with its lowest margin of victory in the tournament being the 32-point defeat it handed to Croatia in the gold-medal game. Thorn said traveling with the Dream Team was like being a part of the Beatles when they first became popular.
“The first Olympics when pros were allowed to play stands out,” said Thorn, who served as chair of the USA Basketball Men’s Senior National Team Selection Committee from 1992 through 2000. “Being with that team, traveling with that team, being around that team. Probably the best team ever put together. It was just remarkable. Memories from that team are still very special to me today. The team was so great, and put on such a show, and really showed what USA Basketball was all about and how good it was. I think a lot of people thought that basketball outside the U.S. was on a par with the U.S., and I think that team proved once and for all that wasn’t true.”
Thorn said he sees the ripple effects of the Dream Team to this day in the success of younger divisions of USA Basketball, and he’s proud to have played a part in that. He also believes the Dream Team contributed to basketball becoming more popular around the globe, leading to approximately 25 percent of NBA players being foreign born in recent years.
“I think it was the real impetus for basketball growing around the world and it got us to where we are today,” Thorn said.
Thorn now lives most of the year in Naples, Florida, with his wife Peggy. The couple raised three children and have six grandchildren. He said rarely does a night go by during the basketball season when there isn’t a game on his television. He’s still in love with the sport.
With such an extensive career to his credit, it was hard for Thorn to select just one thing he was most proud of.
“It’s hard to pick out any one thing, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed all the different parts of my association with basketball, but I can’t pick out any one thing. It’s just been a joyful journey.”