MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Following in the footsteps of one of the greatest basketball players of all time is a difficult thing to do for an 18, 19 year old to do. The expectations and pressure put on the guy asked to replace Jerry West, of all people, would be nearly impossible to overcome, one would think.
None of that matter for West Virginia legend Rod Thorn, however. Playing at WVU immediately after West, Thorn was able to carve out his own legacy of greatness as a Mountaineer, all while wearing West’s number 44 to boot.
“Now that is one (wearing West’s 44), if I had to do over, I probably wouldn’t have done,” Thorn admitted Saturday before WVU’s game against Oklahoma.
Saturday was an important moment for both Thorn and WVU. Thorn’s number 44 jersey was going to become just the third ever jersey to be retired by the WVU men’s basketball program. He would join Hot Rod Hundley and West as the only Mountaineers to ever receive the honor.
West’s final season at WVU was the 1959-60 season, Thorn’s freshman year. Back then freshmen could not play on a school’s varsity team so Thorn and West were never able to share the court as teammates. The two did practice against each other often though, giving Thorn a first-hand look at just how good West was.
“Jerry was a great player,” Thorn said. “He had unbelievable hand-eye coordination, long arms, he had it all. I practiced against him a lot, he was a cut above…Jerry could not pick up a ball for two or three months, shoot for 30 minutes and he was in mid-season form. That’s how good he was.”
When West eventually graduated and was drafted second overall by the Minnesota Lakers, soon to be LA Lakers, it was Thorn’s time to step in and replace the legend.
Thorn said he put a lot of pressure on himself at first to be the kind of player West was, and it was only after he stopped trying to be West that he really flourished.
“The pressure, it had nothing to do with coaches, it had to do with me,” Thorn explained. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to live up and be the next West and nobody was going to do that. I had a tough time with that for a while. I realized you’ve got to try and be the best player you can be, you’re not going to be Jerry West. Then I was fine.”
In three seasons, West averaged 24.8 points and 13.3 rebounds per game and led the Mountaineers to an 81-12 record. Thorn followed that by averaging 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds and leading the team to a 70-18 record. Both went on to have successful basketball careers after West Virginia both as professional players, coaches and executives.
Both are West Virginia basketball legends, both made their own legacies while wearing number 44 and now both have their jerseys immortalized in WVU history.