PRINCETON — Rod Thorn always used to get Bob Huggins in trouble with his mom.
Growing up in a “suburb of Saberton” before his family moved to Ohio, a young Bobby Huggins would listen to West Virginia University basketball games on the radio with his grandfather. Huggins’ mother was fine with her son sitting on his grandfather’s lap to listen to the games, she just asked that he take a bath first.
“She would get me all clean and spiffy,” Huggins said on Sunday afternoon at the Chuck Mathena Center in Princeton.
Then, Huggins would listen to the games and try to be like the team’s star- legendary basketball figure Rod Thorn. It seemed the only place for the young player to practice was in the family’s garage. Unfortunately, there was a coal shoot there that inevitably laid black dust all over Huggin’s body and his clothes. Inevitably, this meant another bath.
“I don’t know if I ever told you this, Rod,” Huggins told the current Philadelphia 76ers President. “Growing up, I always wanted to be Rod Thorn. I guess I didn’t do that well.”
Huggins, former WVU coach Gale Catlett and others came to Princeton on Sunday afternoon to remember Thorn’s career. Thanks to the relationship between Del. John Frazier and Thorn’s father-in-law, Bill Reynolds, the interchange of Interstate 77 and US 460 near Princeton was named after Thorn.
In his last year as President of the Philadelphia 76ers, Thorn’s career speaks for itself. Former sportswriter and current delegate Danny Wells explained that the West Virginia legislature had declared Thorn a natural resource to get him to attend West Virginia University.
“The state may have been falling apart,” Wells told the audience. “But they weren’t going to let him get out of the state.”
Thorn did eventually choose to attend West Virginia University and became an All-American in basketball. As his career in the Gold and Blue ended, Thorn was selected second overall by the Baltimore Bullets. After an eight year career in the NBA, Thorn kept a promise he had made to his father.
“I promised my dad that I would go back to school and get my degree,” Thorn said. “I got my degree from the University of Washington and I was all set to go to law school. I wanted to go to the University of Washington, get my law degree and come home to West Virginia. I was planning to run for political office.”
It wasn’t meant to be, however, New York Nets coach Kevin Loughery called and offered Thorn a job as an assistant for $14,000 per year along with access to a car. After talking it over with his wife, Thorn accepted the job.
“I didn’t know [Julius Erving] but I knew of him,” Thorn said. “I was an NBA guy, not an ABA guy. When I saw him practice, I knew we had a chance to be pretty good.”
Thorn said that life was filled with little twists and turns that each person must navigate. A few years later, Thorn would play a part in arguably the greatest “what if” in NBA history. The Chicago Bulls under Thorn’s leadership as general manager picked third in the 1984 NBA Draft.
As basketball fans know, Thorn’s Bulls were able to select Michael Jordan with the pick after Houston selected Akeem Olajuwan and Portland selected University of Kentucky center Sam Bowie. For years, fans have debated about what would have happened if Jordan was selected by the Trail Blazers.
Thorn would later play a role in recruiting Jordan for the greatest basketball team ever assembled- the 1992 Dream Team. By that time, Thorn was well into a 15 year stint as the NBA’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations.
In 2000, Thorn returned to the then- New Jersey Nets, this time as President.
Catlett joked, “Rod always talked about money. When he told me that he was think about taking the Nets job, he talked about the money. I told him he was crazy. He had a nice comfy job with the NBA.”
Catlett, who was Thorn’s roommate for a time at WVU, said that after he got the Nets job, Thorn did not talk about money as much.
While with Nets, Thorn was instrumental in returning the franchise to prominence. Thorn was able to acquire point guard Jason Kidd from the Phoenix Suns and was named NBA Executive of the Year in 2002.
In a twist of fate, Thorn called upon on Huggins’s University of Cincinnati players with his first draft pick as Nets President. That player was Kenyon Martin.
“Kenyon Martin was one of my favorite players of all time,” Thorn said. “He wasn’t the most skilled guy but he was one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen.”
Thorn also said Martin was one of the most loyal guys he had ever seen. Thorn believed Martin was able to feel the loyalty from Huggins’ Bearcats and his own Nets. When Martin accepted a contract for more money elsewhere he wasn’t able to find that feeling of loyalty.
By describing Martin’s loyalty, Thorn was also inadvertently describing himself. He said the night before he had asked one of his twin daughters what he should talk about in his speech. She told him to focus on the community that watched him grow up.
“Growing up here, it was almost idyllic,” Thorn said. “This was such a great place to grow up. You had a generation of kids that grew up playing whatever sport was in season.”
Thorn still remains in contact with many of those that he played with in the neighborhoods and later Princeton Senior High School. He named six of the players besides himself that were on a Princeton team that went to the state tournament.
Huggins shared the idea of loyalty as well. He said that WVU didn’t do enough to honor the past greats like his own idol, Rod Thorn, that had worn the Blue and Gold.
“That’s something we need to do a better job of,” Huggins said. “We’re a little slower in Morgantown that we should be.”