ESPN’s documentary series following the 1997 Chicago Bulls’ quest for a second three-peat, ‘The Last Dance’, has captivated an audience starved for sports content. The first six episodes have broken viewership records for the sports channel, with millions of people tuning in each Sunday.
The series’s central figure has obviously been basketball great Michael Jordan and his Bulls teammates at the time such as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and others. To fully tell the story of MJ’s greatness, however, the filmmakers have shown interviews from a variety of sources, including former president Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
One figure who has made several appearances through the documentary’s first six installments has been West Virginia University hall of famer Rod Thorn. Thorn represents a unique connection between the story of Jordan and the Bulls’ dynasty and WVU.
On Feb. 29 of this year, Thorn became the third former Mountaineer basketball player ever to have their jersey retired. In a press conference prior to the ceremony, Thorn talked about his connection with Jordan.
“I think that’s probably what I’m known more for than anything else,” Thorn joked. “If you’re going to be known for something, that’s not a bad thing to be known by.”
Thorn, the general manager of the Bulls from 1978-85, told the story of how he ended up drafting Jordan to Chicago with the third overall pick in 1984.
The Houston Rockets won a coin flip with the Portland Trail Blazers for the No. 1 overall pick. Thorn said Hakeem Olajuwon of the University of Houston was destined to go first overall, regardless of who had the pick.
“I would have taken Olajuwon,” Thorn said. “Everything is relative to the time, big guys were so much more important than small guys so anybody that says they wouldn’t have taken Olajuwon is not telling the truth because 30 teams would’ve taken him.”
With Olajuwon already accounted for, Thorn, who had the No. 3 pick, turned his attention to Portland’s pick.
“About a month before the draft Stu Inman, who was the GM of Portland at the time and I was very friendly with, I call him and I said ‘have you guys decided who you’re going to take yet?’,” Thorn recalled. “He said that if (Sam) Bowie passed the physical, they would take him. So about a week before the draft I called Stu and ‘did Bowie pass the physical?’ and he said yes and I said ‘are you still going to take him?’ and he said yes.”
Portland took Bowie, a University of Kentucky product, with the second pick, leaving Jordan there for Thorn at three. Thorn said it was thanks to the Rockets winning that coin flip that helped him get Jordan.
“I knew that we were going to get Jordan before the draft, unless some crazy trade came up,” Thorn said. “If Portland had won the flip they would’ve taken Olajuwon and Houston would’ve taken Michael so we were very, very fortunate.”
After 1985 Thorn moved on to become the NBA’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, giving way for the Bulls to hire Jerry Krause as his replacement. Krause, now passed, has been a central figure in ‘The Last Dance’ and has been somewhat portrayed as the documentary’s antagonist as it was his decisions that led to ’97 being the Bulls’ final year together.
That is not where Thorn’s and Jordan’s paths completely diverge, however.
The 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea were a turning point for USA basketball and basketball worldwide. In 1988 the U.S. team, barred from including professionals at the time, lost to the U.S.S.R. in the semifinal round, winning only a bronze medal. The shame that performance brought to USA basketball brought about a change for the 1992 Olympics, in which professionals would be permitted to compete.
Tasked with assembling the U.S. team, Thorn set out to get the best of the best from the NBA’s ranks.
“Russ Granik and I, Russ was the deputy commissioner of the NBA, were responsible for getting the players,” Thorn explained. “Everybody I called said they would do it, I called most of them and they all said they would do it. No one knew how big that would be, including the commissioner.”
The U.S. team, dubbed the dream team, was made up of the biggest and best NBA stars of the time including Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The team went on to easily win the gold medal and ignited a worldwide basketball craze.
“That was unbelievable, what it did for basketball around the world,” Thorn said. “Now in the NBA you’ve got over 100 foreign kids, that’s because of the 1992 dream team.”
In “The Last Dance” several of the dream team players recalled the inter-squad practices the team had, saying it was some of the best basketball any of them played. Thorn too remembers the practices but says they only cemented Jordan’s position as the best player in the world.
“The things I remember about it was Jordan was clearly the best player, clearly,” Thorn said, “But his personality did not affect the team from the standpoint of ‘I’m Michael Jordan, I want to be the leading scorer’. He was a total team guy. (Charles) Barkley was the leading scorer and rebounder on that team, but Jordan in practices, oh my goodness (Jordan) was unbelievable.”
Thorn stayed in basketball for several more years following 1992. He also helped put together gold medal-winning team for the 1996 and 200 Olympics. In 2000 he joined the Nets organization and won NBA Executive of the Year in 2002. In 2010 Thorn became the president of the 76ers, in 2013 he was named the NBA’s President of Basketball Operations and even after semi-retiring in 2015 he served as a special consultant for the Milwaukee Bucks.
In 1982 Thorns was inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame, in 2018 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and, as previously mentioned, earlier this year Thorn became just the third former Mountaineers to have his basketball jersey retired and hung in the WVU Coliseum.