The WVU Spotlight Shines On Rod Thorn
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The lights darkened inside the WVU Coliseum Saturday evening, and after a video highlight played on the video board, a bank of spotlights blinked on.
The carpet was rolled out onto the court, and just as he did as a Mountaineer basketball player nearly 60 years ago, Rod Thorn strode down the historic gold and blue rug.
So began the ceremony that resulted in Thorn’s No. 44 being retired.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of honors in my adult life, and this is right there with any of them,” said Thorn of this latest recognition by his alma mater. “To be honored by your school and to be honored by the state where you grew up, it’s a tremendous thing. I’m very appreciative of this.”
Thorn arrived at West Virginia University as a freshman in the fall of 1959, one of the most ballyhooed prep players in the history of the Mountain State. His athletic career on the basketball hardwood and baseball diamond at Princeton (W.Va.) High School had earned him scholarship offers from a who’s who list of colleges. He was said to be leaning to Duke, where the path for the straight A student would also include medical school.
But from WVU basketball coach Fred Schaus on down, the goal of those in the Mountain State was to keep Thorn home. Even the West Virginia legislature played a role, passing a resolution that declared him a state natural resource.
In the end, Thorn chose WVU, following directly in the line of Hot Rod Hundley and Jerry West.
Now six decades later, Thorn finds himself immortalized like those other two West Virginia stars from the Golden Age of Mountaineer basketball.
Saturday, with the spotlight shining down, Thorn’s number was retired. A sign declaring the honor was uncovered in one corner of the Coliseum, midway between similar graphics recognizing Hundley (#33) and West (also #44), the only other two WVU basketball players to have their numbers retired.
“Two of our state’s most famous natives have worn No. 44 for our basketball program. Like Jerry West, Rod Thorn has been a source of pride for West Virginians everywhere,” WVU director of athletics Lyons said. “Not only was he an outstanding basketball player, but his list of career achievements has taken him to the pinnacle of the sport.
“Starting with his induction into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame, then being an inaugural member of the Mountaineer Legends Society to now having his number retired, Rod has achieved the three highest honors a WVU athlete can receive,” added Lyons. “He is a true gentleman, and very deserving of this great accomplishment. It will be my honor to be the sitting athletic director when his N0. 44 is retired.”
After scoring 1,785 points in his three seasons with the Mountaineer varsity, Thorn moved on to the NBA. Selected by the Baltimore Bullets with the second pick in the first round in 1963, he played eight seasons, split between Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis and Seattle.
When injuries brought his playing career to an end in 1971, Thorn was prepared to enter law school at the University of Washington. A last-second assistant coaching job offer, though, by New York Nets head coach Kevin Loughery, who had been Thorn’s teammate in Baltimore, changed Thorn’s path.
Instead of law school, he moved into coaching. Eventually he became a general manager, and was in charge in Chicago when he drafted Michael Jordan in 1984. Eight years later, as the NBA’s president of basketball operations, he was charged with assembling the first Olympic team to feature professionals. Again he turned to Jordan as the cornerstone for the Dream Team.
All his accomplishments eventually earned Thorn a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he was enshrined as a contributor in 2018.
Even as he worked and played at the highest level of the sport, West Virginia and Mountaineer basketball remained close to his heart.
“The other day my wife (Peggy) and I came up from Florida, where we live now, and as we were driving into Morgantown I was thinking about all the memories I have here,” said Thorn. “I remember certain games, but games tend to run together after a while. What I really remember are the people. The fans were fantastic, the coaches and players I played with, the trainers, the people you dealt with on a day-in, day-out basis. I tended to remember more about them than any specific games. We had some really good teams while I was here, but it’s the people that you really remember.”