If you’re a West Virginia native – especially if you’re a WVU fan – you had to feel some sort of pride from watching “The Last Dance” on Sunday evening.
The special on the Chicago Bulls – centering on Michael Jordan – featured Princeton native and former West Virginia University All-America basketball legend Rod Thorn.
No, not because of Thorn’s play. But because of his work after his NBA playing days. See, after being the NBA’s No. 2 overall pick in 1963 and playing through 1971, Thorn became a coach, general manager and league executive. He also put together the Olympic “Dream Team.”
Yet he’ll always be remembered for drafting Jordan in the 1984 draft as the GM of the Bulls.
In case you missed it, Thorn took Jordan third after the Houston Rockets selected the University of Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon (now Hakeem) and Portland selected Kentucky’s Sam Bowie.
“We’re lucky the draft was before the Olympics,” Thorn said on the ESPN show. “Michael became the most popular basketball player in the world because of the Olympics.”
So, yes, celebrate Thorn’s place in NBA history. Olajuwon was a star, but not on the same level as Jordan. Bowie, 7-1, became a bust because of numerous leg and feet injuries.
Yet here’s the rest of the story:
At the time, Thorn wouldn’t have taken Jordan No. 1 if he had the Rockets’ pick. In fact, one wonders if he too might have selected Bowie. Thorn even somewhat apologized after the draft for not getting one of the two big men.
Skeptical? Go ahead. Ask Thorn. Or go back to Bernie Lincicome’s column in the Chicago Tribune on June 20, 1984. The headline: “Apologetic Chicago Bulls ‘stuck’ with Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft.”
“They got stuck with Michael Jordan of North Carolina, maybe the greatest natural basketball talent, inch for inch, in this young decade,” Lincicome wrote. “Nothing they could do. They want you to know that.
“They tried to avoid Jordan, tried hard. But nobody wanted to trade with them, swap some big fossil of a center for the third pick in the draft. It was like they were under quarantine or something.”
Yes, he wrote it was “like they were under quarantine.” Eerie, eh?
“So they were forced to do the intelligent thing Tuesday,” Lincicome continued. “They had to take Jordan, even though he is already famous, has had quality coaching, is not a social disgrace and may likely become the next Julius Erving before the old one is in the Hall of Fame.”
Lincicome quoted Thorn.
“We wish he were seven feet, but he isn’t,” said Thorn.
“There just wasn’t a center available. What can you do?”
As Lincicome wrote, “Counting your blessings doesn’t seem inappropriate.”
If you watched the first part of “The Last Dance,” Thorn said any NBA executive would have selected Olajuwon No. 1.
“Including me,” he said. “Then Portland had Clyde Drexler, who played the same position as Michael. So they’re feeling is they needed a center… So I knew Jordan would be there for us.”
Understand that, at the time, big men were all the rage. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bob McAdoo, Bill Walton, Robert Parish and Artis Gilmore were all still playing. Patrick Ewing was on deck to be drafted the next year.
Still, Thorn seemed to be tempering expectations of the Bulls’ fans.
“When you win only 55 games in two years,” Thorn said at the time, “you don’t get well all at once. Look when Isiah Thomas went to Detroit, he improved them but it took two years to make the playoffs. 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.”
Perhaps Thorn’s plan was to indeed take pressure off Jordan.
“He’s a very good offensive player,” said Thorn. “But not an overpowering offensive player… Olajuwon was the big prize.”
“We picked him because you can’t pass up a great player,” Thorn said at the time. “If we were a great team, we could have drafted for need. We need a center; we’re going to have to get one. There just wasn’t one there.”
Thorn admitted misgivings about Jordan to Adam Fluck of NBA.com in 2009.
“He was a tremendous athlete with a strong body that looked like it was going to get better,” Thorn said. “He was competitive, and a fair shooter. Good ball handler, though not a great one at that time, but a good one, and a good defensive player. His shooting was what we were concerned with. We didn’t know what kind of shooter he was going to turn out to be.”
Of course, it didn’t take long for Thorn or the rest of the world to find out. As the ESPN docuseries explained, Jordan led a Bulls comeback in the third game of the 1984-85 season against the Milwaukee Bucks before 9,356 at the Chicago Stadium. The guard single-handedly dismantled the Bucks, led by NBA Defensive Player of the Year Sidney Moncrief.
“They were double-teaming Michael every time he got the ball,” Thorn told Fluck. “In the fourth quarter, Michael had 15 or 16 points and I don’t care if they double- or triple-teamed him or whatever they did, he still scored. We ended up beating them and it was like, ‘Goodness gracious, I can’t believe what I just saw out there.’”
And you might have heard what Thorn said on the ESPN special.
“Everybody on that Bulls team, within a two-week period, knew he was the best player we had.”
Including that former Mountaineer from Princeton.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.