New Sixers president Thorn likes what he sees so far

Rod Thorn: 'I think we definitely can be a playoff contender.'
Rod Thorn: 'I think we definitely can be a playoff contender.'
Posted: August 27, 2010

NEWS ITEM: Evan Turner, the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft, taken by the 76ers, signs a multiyear shoe contract with Chinese company Li Ning. Turner will have his own signature shoe and apparel, which will be available globally in his second season. The money apparently is significant.

Rod Thorn, the Sixers' new president, comes from a different era. He played eight NBA seasons, starting in 1963, and - like a lot of us - wore Converse low cuts.

"A new company came along in Baltimore, Bata Bullets," Thorn recalled, laughing.

"They gave me $1,000 to wear their shoes."

At the end of his career, Thorn found himself wearing adidas.

"Some players today wear a new pair every day," Thorn said. "It's as if the shoes are made to wear out quickly. But that year, I wore two pair the whole season. They wouldn't wear out."

That's Thorn the storyteller, the historian, the West Virginia legend who was the No. 2 overall pick by the Baltimore Bullets in '63. That's Thorn, who started out in college as a pre-med major, who eventually got a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Washington, who thought he was going back to West Virginia to enter politics.

Since then, he has been an assistant coach, head coach, general manager and team president. He even spent 14 years as the league's vice president of basketball operations.

Now, he's facing what could be viewed as his toughest assignment, rebuilding the Sixers. Somehow, he must wipe out the memory of last season's nightmarish 27-55 record and try to win back a city that has its arms wrapped lovingly around the Phillies, Eagles and Flyers.

Thorn, 69, talked about the challenges ahead and - sometimes merrily - about his years in the league in a wide-ranging, 2-hour session with the Daily News.

Q: What's your relationship and expectations of Doug Collins, the Sixers' seventh coach since Larry Brown?

A: "I've known Doug since his days as a player in the league, and have always had respect for his intensity, about his ability to always play full-out. Even going back, somewhat superficially, to his career at Illinois State, his time with the Olympic team, I've admired his approach to everything he did. He's a very smart guy. He knows what he's doing. For the personnel here, for what we want to do, he's the perfect guy."

Q: There are people who believe he wears down late in the season. What's your view?

A: "He's an emotional guy, always has been. I mean, Phil Jackson would appear to be the epitome of equanimity, but I'm sure his stomach is churning. You play so many games, you attach so much importance to every game, everyone goes up and down. I don't think anybody is always up. As you get older and more experienced, I think you learn better how to deal with what I call the vagaries of the game. You're going to have small setbacks. You have to deal with those.

"[Collins is] at a different place in his life [at 59]. He started out here, and I think he views this as a closing of the circle, so to speak. He's back where he began [in 1973]. He's very upbeat about it. He thinks he can really help the team."

Q: Having said that, in a reshaped Atlantic Division and a bulked-up Eastern Conference, can this team realistically shoot for the playoffs?

A: "I think so. If we play the way the team did [winning 41 games in 2008-09], or even better, I think we definitely can be a playoff contender."

Q: And that is because . . . ?

A: In the division, Boston is obviously the favorite, a year older but still a quality team. Toronto lost its best player in Chris Bosh and a good player in [Hedo] Turkoglu, even though Turkoglu didn't play very well for them. New York, picking up [Amare] Stoudemire and Raymond Felton will be better, but they lost David Lee; they're still trying to do some things. New Jersey has added some pieces, has some depth we didn't have there last season, and Brook Lopez will only get better.

"We certainly have a chance to make some noise. After Boston, we have a chance to be as good, if not better, as anybody. As far as the conference, with Miami, and then [Carlos] Boozer going to Chicago, the gap between the East and the West is rapidly diminishing."

(An aside: One of Thorn's stops was as an assistant and then as an interim coach of the Spirits of St. Louis in the now-defunct ABA. One of their stars was Marvin Barnes, the muscular big man who, when drafted by the Sixers in 1974, said he'd "rather carry a lunch pail."

"We talk about guys sometimes being late for practice," Thorn said, smiling. "Marvin was late every day. Every single day. One day, practice was at 10 in the morning. I saw Marvin outside the door to the gym about 2 minutes before 10. He just stood there, looking at his watch. He waited until 10:01 to come in. He wanted to keep his streak going.")

Q: Are there things about the Sixers that can be quickly fixed?

A: "That's a very good question. At the end of the day, it comes down to your personnel and your coaches. If you can upgrade, you always look at everything. You never know when a trade might be coming. I've learned that trades come when you least expect them, and don't come when you most expect them."

Q: Should we be concerned about Turner, who had a difficult time in the Orlando Summer League?

A: "Go back a year, when Jrue Holiday, who has turned out to be a very good player, had a struggling summer. Evan wasn't in tiptop shape, but when you look at most of these kids, there's a period of adjustment. They're playing against better players, usually more experienced players. They're playing against men.

"I don't take a lot from the summer. Some guys look really good; others don't look as good. I see Turner as a guy, playing with good players, who can fit right in because of his assets. He can pass, he's a team player, he has great size and he can rebound. He does a lot of things that help you win. He's an improving shooter, has a great work ethic. I think he's going to be a very good player."

(Another aside: The mention of "team player" triggered a memory, taking Thorn back to his days as an assistant coach with the New York Nets in the ABA.

"When I got my degree, I was thinking about law school and politics," he said. "Then Kevin Loughery, who was coaching the Nets, called and asked whether I wanted to be an assistant. He said they had just acquired a young player named Julius Erving. He said the kid was pretty good.

"But I didn't have a real idea of who Julius was until we had a game coming up against the Indiana Pacers and George McGinnis. Julius and George were both averaging a lot of points. But we had a player named Larry Kenon, who lived to score, and he had had two games in a row when he didn't. As the team was going out on the floor, Julius told Kevin, 'Don't worry, I've got Kenon.' The first five or six times Julius touched the ball, no matter where Kenon was on the floor, he found him. Kenon had a big game. Julius had just 15 points in a win. On the way to the locker room, Julius looked at Kevin and just winked. That's when I knew what we really had.")

Q: What's your take on Andre Iguodala, who seemed so worn down and dismayed at the end of last season, but who appears to have had a rebirth with the national team?

A: "He's an outstanding player who has an all-around game, who is one of the better wing defenders in the league. I'm a fan. I think he's very good. Shooting isn't his biggest forte, but if he's playing with guys who can shoot, he can create shots for them. With Holiday and Turner, I think we have three guys who can play multiple positions, who can help others. And there aren't that many guys in the league who can pass, so I think that's a plus. I think Andre will have a great year, and he's made a real connection with [Collins]."

Q: Collins said in his introductory news conference that it was important to make the Sixers relevant again. As president, you're responsible for the business side, too. How do you see that?

A: "I think [relevancy] is definitely our first order of business. The Phillies are so successful right now, the Eagles have been good for a long time, the Flyers went to the finals. It's up to us to put a product on the floor that the fans can identify with. Historically, Philly fans want their teams to compete, to win their share, to play tough. That's what we have to build."

Q: What's your take on LeBron James and Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami?

A: "All those guys were free agents. They didn't do anything illegal. They used their rights under the collective bargaining agreement to play where they wanted to play.

"I give Miami credit for being able to get far enough under the cap to do it, and for being able to do it. There was a lot of competition there. They're going to be a super team; they have two of the three best players in the league, and Bosh is certainly among the top 15 to 20. They all can pass, they're all team players, they all get to the foul line.

"The one thing that surprised me personally was that James went to Miami. After meeting with him [as president of the Nets], I thought he'd end up staying in Cleveland. That was just my inclination."

Q: But now there has been speculation that Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul will try and go to New York to team with Stoudemire. Is that a good thing for the league?

A: "New Orleans has Paul under contract for 2 more years. If they put enough around him, maybe he stays. But the collective bargaining agreement is coming up for negotiation, and who knows what the rules will be? This is a very fluid time in the league."

Q: Finally, will you always be remembered as the GM who drafted Michael Jordan for the Bulls in 1984?

A: "Any time I'm in Chicago, people invariably come up and thank me for that. Two or three times a year, a reporter will call and will want to go through the history of that. It's a pretty good thing to be known for.

"We had the No. 3 pick, and teams, including Philly and Dallas, tried to trade for it. Houston took Hakeem Olajuwon, but Portland, at No. 2, had Clyde Drexler and Jim Paxson and felt they didn't need another wing player. They took Sam Bowie [a center from Kentucky]. We took Michael."

Q: Given that, we have to ask: Was Charles Barkley, who went to the Sixers at No. 5 after Dallas took Sam Perkins, a consideration?

A: "We had scouted Charles, and I thought he was too small [at 6-4 7/8] to ever have a big-time impact in the NBA. I saw him get all those rebounds for Auburn, but I also said, 'How can he do that in the NBA?' But one thing that usually translates, college to pro, is rebounding. If you're a rebounder in college, it's likely you'll be a rebounder in the NBA. Charles, though, he could take a rebound and take the ball straight down the middle and lead the fastbreak. He was different."

Q: So, to span the years, can you tell us something that's different about the league from when you came in as a player?

A: "Meal money. My rookie year, we got $8 a day. Today, they get over $100." *

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