76ers boss has seen it all before

UPI
UPI
Posted: August 29, 2010

The new man in charge of the 76ers has six watches commemorating NBA championships.

Rod Thorn never got to personally celebrate any of those titles.

Each year the Chicago Bulls won another one, their owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, "sent me a watch and a nice note thanking me for Michael Jordan," said Thorn, the new Sixers president.

Of course, Reinsdorf also fired Thorn soon after the owner bought the team, less than a year after Thorn drafted Jordan. That, Thorn knows better than anybody, is life in the NBA. Don't let the West Virginia native's aw-shucks manner fool you. If anybody has seen it all, this may be the guy. Yes, Thorn drafted Jordan, turning down a myriad of trade offers that included a couple of history-changing overtures from the Sixers.

Thorn also sat on the Nets bench as an assistant coach for two seasons watching Julius Erving in his ABA prime. He marveled not just at the special feats Dr. J performed on the court - "every night," Thorn said, but he also called Erving "the best teammate of anybody I've ever been around."

Sitting in his new Sixers office - Ed Stefanski's former office - Thorn made it clear he was here to do a job, not just have a job.

"I've been in this business for 40-some years," Thorn said. "I've seen a lot of different scenarios. I don't think I'll be fooled by much that will happen."

Thorn was well known during his decade in charge of the New Jersey Nets for not being so calm himself during games, even as team president.

"I've gotten better," Thorn said. "I'm an emotional guy. I always have been. You wear your emotions on your sleeve, up and down during games. I take losses pretty hard, I would say. But I'm better than I was 10 years ago."

But he's got stories. Like that 1984 draft. Half the teams in the league were calling the Bulls with trade offers. Coveting Jordan, the Sixers called offering Andrew Toney and the No. 5 pick for that third pick. It wasn't a terrible offer. Toney was coming off his last strong season, and that fifth pick turned out to be Charles Barkley. But Thorn said he didn't get too interested in the deal.

"In my mind, Charles wasn't big enough to do in the pros what he had done in college - which would certainly have been a mistake," Thorn said. "He could do in the pros what he did in college."

Unknown to Thorn, Sixers owner Harold Katz had made his own call to Bulls managing partner Jonathan Kovler, seeing if the Bulls would be interested in trading that third pick to the Sixers for Julius Erving, who would play three more seasons in the league. Kovler never approached Thorn with the offer, Thorn said. He first learned of it recently when Filip Bondy wrote a book about the '84 draft, Tip Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever.

Going back earlier, the Bulls had been in a coin flip in 1979 for the first pick of the draft. Thorn remembers visiting Michigan State with Jerry Sloan, then the Bulls coach, to meet Magic Johnson, how Sloan walked away talking about how they had to get him. That year, the Bulls held a fan contest to decide whether to go heads or tails on the coin flip. The fans voted for heads, he said. The Lakers agreed to let the Bulls make the call.

And that's how Chicago ended up with David Greenwood.

Some great players

Thorn was a ballplayer himself, a West Virginia schoolboy legend and an all-American for the Mountaineers, eventually the second pick of the 1963 NBA draft. He averaged double digits in six of his 10 NBA seasons.

After retirement as a player, Thorn was an assistant under Lenny Wilkens in Seattle then joined Kevin Loughery as an assistant coach with the New York Nets. The second season, Erving led the Nets to the ABA title.

"Julius led our team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocked shots. What other category is there?" Thorn said. "Virtually on a nightly basis, I'd turn to Kevin Loughery or he'd turn to me, and say, 'Can you believe what this guy just did?' In the NBA, Philly had a lot of great talents. To me, he sort of subjugated his talent, to a degree. In the ABA, he was unbelievable, played 43, 44 minutes a game."

And if teammate Larry Kenon had a couple of off-scoring nights, Thorn said, Erving would tell Loughery he'd take care of it. He'd continually drive and then find Kenon, wherever he was on the court. Walking off the court, he'd smile and wink at Loughery.

"I've been associated with some great players. Jordan is a better player," Thorn said. "But Doc, of all the teammates I've ever been around, played with or coached or seen, he was the best."

Thorn's next job, as head coach of the Spirits of St. Louis, gave him experience with the opposite end of the spectrum.

Thorn coached the ultimate coach-killer, Marvin "Bad News" Barnes. Allen Iverson might get perfect attendance awards if one compared him to Barnes, who would go completely AWOL for days between games. That's not including the two weeks Barnes missed for his trial for allegedly beating a Providence College teammate with a tire iron, Thorn said. He was a talent, though. The Sixers had drafted Barnes in the first round, second overall, before he signed with the ABA.

"He told me one time, 'You know something, Coach? I get you 24 and 12 every night, and you're on my butt all the time. I don't get it. Why don't you go talk to some of these other guys?' "

Thorn relates that story with a laugh. He lasted just 47 games as coach. Benching Barnes on a night when St. Louis fans were let in for free - and screaming for the team's star - was the beginning of the end, Thorn said. A team owner even went up to him that night and said he had made "an egregious error."

All of this is good been there, done that fodder. But Thorn's longest stretch running a team was with the Nets, where he just spent a decade. He figures he had to remake the team twice, and now they're doing it a third time, he said.

The first remake was the successful one. His trade of Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd in 2001, combined with a big draft-day deal that year, set the Nets on a course for two appearances in the NBA Finals. It's hard to come up with a trade that offered such polar opposites. If you don't know which of those two guys made their teammates better, you haven't watched the NBA. Thorn also did a successful job finding role players, including the three-for-one draft-day trade in 2001, when the Nets traded Eddie Griffin's draft spot to Houston for the picks that became Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins, and Brandon Armstrong. (Little known footnote: If Armstrong had been gone, the Nets would have taken Gilbert Arenas).

Not every move worked, of course. Thorn is the first to admit that trading with the Sixers for Dikembe Mutombo didn't work, that Mutombo was a bad fit for the Nets and ultimately cost the franchise the biggest buyout in NBA history. (The Nets went after Mutombo for pretty much the same reason the Sixers had, to try to body up Shaq if they faced the Lakers in the finals again).

A change in ownership also probably led to Kenyon Martin getting away, and Martin was never replaced, Thorn said. That was the probably the biggest reason, he said, for the Nets' slide toward their current position, where they had the worst record in the league last season.

Drastic changes?

What does any of this mean for the Sixers? Thorn made it clear that he has opinions about Sixers players, but opinions from afar aren't always accurate, he said.

"I like some of the pieces we have here," Thorn said. "I think we have nice depth on the team. I think we've got some pieces, particularly the wing-type players, that are good players. I think obviously with us we need our fours and fives to come through for us."

Is Thorn promising dramatic changes with the Sixers? He can't do that, obviously.

"We're a capped team. We're over the [salary] cap," Thorn said, so any big deals would have to be trades.

Thorn has never had a problem pulling the trigger on deals, large or small.

"Ascertain exactly what you have, see what you need, and try to get it," Thorn said. "I think in a period of time, we'll know what we need and attempt to go get it. You can't always get what you want, but if you understand what you need, you have a much better chance of being successful."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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