MORGANTOWN — When West Virginia University announced around noon on Thursday that it was retiring Rod Thorn’s basketball No. 44, it was meant to honor one of the greatest players of all time at the state university.
But it went much further than that.
This honor celebrates more than Thorn and his 50 years as a player and front office executive in the NBA.
It celebrates the state of West Virginia itself.
Thorn is the third WVU basketball legend to have his jersey number retired, joining West, who also wore No. 44, and Hot Rod Hundley, who wore No. 33.
“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,” said Shane Lyons, WVU athletic director. “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.
“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 No. 44 is retired,” Lyons said.
All three were from West Virginia – Thorn from Princeton, West from Cheylan and Hundley from Charleston.
“Who would have thought two kids from small West Virginia towns would end here,” Hundley said when inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “Jerry probably did. I didn’t.”
All three were from the same era, an era which has come to be known as the Golden Era of Mountaineer basketball, playing their entire college careers from 1955 to 1963.
Over those nine years, WVU finished with a .797 winning percentage and, with West on the team, reaching the school’s only NCAA Final, losing to California by a point, 71-70.
The three players were mirror images of each other, Hundley listed at 6-4, 195, West at 6-3, 180 and Thorn at 6-4 and 176. Two of them even had the same first name — Rod.
And statistically they were similar at WVU. Hundley averaged 24.5 points, 10.6 rebounds; West averaged 24.8 ppg, 13.3 rebounds and Thorn averaged 21.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg.
Each became a legend upon leaving WVU in the NBA — Hundley more for a long broadcasting career after his playing career was cut short due to injury, West as one of the greatest players and executives ever in the NBA.
And then there was Thorn, the third in the trilogy of Mountaineer greats.
Born in Weirton, Thorn grew up in Princeton where he became a high school phenom that was sought across the country. Not wanting to lose this prize prospect, the State Legislature declared him a natural resource of the state.
Thorn did not let the people of West Virginia down.
He was a three-time All-Southern Conference First Team member and the 1962 and 1963 Southern Conference Athlete of the Year and earned All-America basketball honors from the Helms Foundation, Look magazine, Coach & Athlete and Converse. A noted clutch player, Thorn scored a career-high 44 points in an NCAA tournament consolation game against Saint Joseph’s in 1963.
A two-sport star, he was a member of two NCAA Basketball Tournament teams and three NCAA baseball teams. A first baseman, Thorn was the son of a one-time pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system.
He even flirted with a baseball carer but that ended when he was hit in the head with a ball thrown from the outfield.
In 1964, Thorn was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets in the first round and went on to play with Detroit, St. Louis and Seattle during a professional playing career that spanned eight years.
His finest NBA season came in 1967 with the SuperSonics when he averaged 15.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.
Thorn finished a 466 game NBA career with a 10.8 scoring average, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, retiring due to recurring knee injuries.
Like West and Hundley, Thorn wasn’t going to leave basketball. He coached in Seattle, New York, St. Louis, Chicago and New Jersey before transitioning to front office positions.
Thorn is best known as the general manager of the Chicago Bulls and being responsible for the team using the third overall pick of the 1984 NBA draft on a North Carolina player named Michael Jordan.
Jordan’s rights didn’t come easily. He negotiated some trades to get into that position, then passed on drafting Jordan’s Tar Heel teammate Sam Perkins with that No. 3 pick to take Jordan. Perkins was selected with the fourth pick.
The move changed history, although Thorn wasn’t looking at it that way at the time. The Bulls had won only 55 games in the previous two seasons and were looking for a center but there was none in the draft that could change their fate.
So he took Jordan.
“Look, when Isiah Thomas went to Detroit, he improved them but it took two years to make the playoffs,” Thorn said at the time.
“We’ve taken a step in the right direction. Jordan isn’t going to turn this franchise around. I wouldn’t ask him to. I wouldn’t put that kind of pressure on him.”
In 1986, Thorn joined commissioner David Thorn as NBA executive vice president of basketball operations and became chair of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team Selection Committee that put together the “Dream Team” that won the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona while thrilling the world with its play.
Thorn went to the Nets in 2000 and became the NBA Executive of the Year when the Nets reached the league Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Thorn was inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame in 1992 and named an inaugural member of WVU’s Mountaineer Legends Society in 2017. He received the ultimate honor when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as an executive and a contributor in 2018.
“I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to be in the right place so many times,” Thorn has said.
“To come from a place with 7,000 people sometimes you pinch yourself and think, ‘Wow, how fortunate I’ve been.’
“When I played we got $8 in meal money. We were like a barnstorming league. I can remember playing 16 straight days in preseason in one little high school after the next. You couldn’t tell me the NBA would end up where it is and I would be a firsthand witness to so many great things.
“That’s one of the things I’m proudest of, just being on the scene and sometimes having a little something to do with what transpired. It’s been a lot of fun.”
The retirement ceremony will take place during halftime of WVU’s home game with Oklahoma on Saturday, Feb. 29.