High School Football

West Virginia retires Rod Thorn’s No. 44 in halftime ceremony

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — If Rod Thorn had to do it all over again, Jermaine Haley would be the last Mountaineer to ever wear No. 10.

It was Thorn’s No. 44 that was officially retired by West Virginia on Saturday afternoon, making him just the third player in program history to receive the honor.

But in the hours before his likeness and number were unveiled atop Section 226 at WVU Coliseum, Thorn revealed that he didn’t realize just how much pressure he was putting on himself back in 1961. Not only was he following in Jerry West’s footsteps as West Virginia’s top player, but he doubled down by wearing the same number — 44.

“That is one if I had to do over I probably wouldn’t have done,” Thorn said.

So if Thorn had a time machine, there’d now be a 10 hanging up at the Coliseum until the end of time instead of a second 44.

But there sure isn’t much else about Thorn’s life in basketball that warrants changing.

His star shone brightly from the beginning. Well, almost the beginning.

Thorn’s father was once a promising baseball prospect, but saw that dream squelched when he was among the nearly 20,000 Marines wounded at Iwo Jima. Not long after returning home to Princeton, W.Va., the elder Thorn tried getting Rod on the same track.

“He was throwing curveballs to me when I was 6,” Thorn said.

But West Virginia winters weren’t very conducive to baseball, so basketball became the flavor of the season. And eventually, Thorn’s entire life.

“He didn’t know anything about basketball, but I think he rented the gym to get kids off the street,” Thorn said. “I first played on an organized team when I was 5 and was only on it because my dad was the coach. I probably scored two points the whole season.”

Thorn was putting the ball in the hoop with a lot more effectiveness by the time he reached Princeton High. With Thorn also being recruited by Duke, the West Virginia Legislature made the unprecedented move of declaring Thorn — a living human being still in high school — as a state natural resource.

“I was so young and naive that I didn’t really think a lot about it,” Thorn said. “It was like ‘what?’”

Today’s college basketball scene is dominated by the one-and-done player, but in Thorn’s time it was quite the opposite. Freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity team, denying West Virginia the opportunity to pair him with West and reach the national championship game for a second straight year — perhaps winning it that time around.

“I’ve often wondered about that. We had a really good freshman team and we practiced a lot against the varsity,” Thorn said. “Who knows what we would have done?”

Thorn could only practice against West, learning the ropes from one of the best. But it also had its drawbacks — as a sophomore, Thorn tried to be the next Jerry West. He averaged 18.5 points per game, but it was only when he realized that he just needed to be the best Rod Thorn that his career took off.

“The pressure I felt had nothing to do with the coaches. It had to do with me,” Thorn said. “I had a tough time for awhile. [Then I realized,] ‘You have to be the best player you could be.'”

Thorn averaged 23.7 points and 12.1 rebounds per game as a junior and 22.5 and 9 as a senior before getting drafted second overall by the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets.

However, it is the No. 3 overall draft pick by which Thorn’s life in basketball is most remembered.

As the Chicago Bulls’ general manager, Thorn took Michael Jordan with the third pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf showed his appreciation by firing Thorn at the end of Jordan’s rookie season, but the most important building block was in place for six future NBA championships.

“That’s what I’m more known for than anything else,” Thorn said. “And if that’s something you’re going to be known for, you could do a lot worse.”

Thorn finally got a chance to win with Jordan in 1992, serving as one of the architects of the U.S. Olympic Dream Team in his role as the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations. The Dream Team rolled to Olympic gold, and is credited with transforming basketball into a truly global sport as the world was transfixed by its accomplishments.

“It was unbelievable what it did for basketball around the world,” Thorn said. “Now, there are 100 foreign kids playing on NBA rosters.”

His impact in creating the Dream Team helped get Thorn elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. Two years later, his playing exploits received the greatest accolade available at his alma mater. Thorn is only the third West Virginia basketball player to have his number retired, joining West and Hot Rod Hundley (33).

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have my share of big days,” Thorn said. “This is certainly one of them.”

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