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Rod Is Watching
Jack McCallum
May 01, 1995
Video vigilance will allow the Veep of Violence, Rod Thorn, to punish postseason perpetrators
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May 01, 1995

Rod Is Watching

Video vigilance will allow the Veep of Violence, Rod Thorn, to punish postseason perpetrators

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The Rod Thorn Theater, located on the 15th floor of the NBA offices in midtown Manhattan, is a strictly no-frills operation: no ushers, no coming attractions, no popcorn, not a Goober or Raisinet to be found. The fare is predictable too. It contains violence, but even when the New York Knicks are involved, it's mostly PG-13 stuff, nothing like the slash-and-hack stuff available on cable. There's very little comedy, no romance, no cartoons (unless you count the occasional appearance by Dennis Rodman) and nothing that would be called—as was Forrest Gump, one of Thorn's favorite movies—uplifting to the spirit. But that doesn't mean that NBA players, coaches and general managers aren't deeply interested in what Thorn is screening up there in his corner office. When Thorn switches off the lights and turns on the VCR, you see, there's an excellent chance someone is going to be lighter in the wallet.

Since he started reviewing video of NBA fights and flagrant fouls in February 1986, Thorn, the NBA's senior vice president of operations but a man more familiarly known as the "vice president of violence," has handed out more than $3 million in fines. And that doesn't include pay lost during suspensions. The Detroit Pistons alone coughed up a total of $112,250 between 1987-88 and '90-91 during the four-year run of the two-time champion Bad Boys. That explains why two of the most notorious members of that club, Bill Laimbeer ($29,250 in fines) and Rick Mahorn ($17,250), paid a visit to Thorn's office when they were in town for a game against the Knicks several years ago. Thorn was away, but the delightful duo stuck a sign on Thorn's door that read THIS OFFICE FURNISHED BY FINES FROM THE DETROIT PISTONS, gluing it so forcefully that it left a hole when the maintenance man took it down. "I always regret I didn't send them a bill," says Thorn, laughing.

This is the time of year when things become most interesting at Thorn Theater. It was a relatively quiet regular season—violent "incidents," as the NBA calls them, were down to three from 11 in each of the previous two seasons—thanks largely to the ever-escalating fines levied by the bleary-eyed lord of discipline. But that could change with one flick of a postseason elbow. Last spring, remember, two ugly bench-clearing melees broke out in the Eastern Conference playoffs, in the Miami Heat-Atlanta Hawk first-round series and then in the Chicago Bull-New York semifinal. And in the Western Conference's first round, the San Antonio Spurs' incorrigible Rodman was tossed for hip-checking the Utah Jazz's John Stockton.

In the postseason "the problems come from those teams or those players who play right at the line all season," says Thorn, holding up his hand to indicate an imaginary line between hard play and violent play. So, beware, Knicks like Charles Oakley, John Starks, Anthony Mason and Greg Anthony—Thorn refuses to name names, but you are all known for playing "right at the line." Beware, Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic—Thorn has already suspended you for one regular-season game for cuffing Boston Celtic Eric Montross. And beware, Phoenix Sun Charles Barkley: Thorn's newly installed flagrant-foul point system (which results in a one-game suspension for every flagrant foul after the fifth in a season) has already cost you a suspension. (The slate is wiped clean for the postseason, but now a suspension will result upon the fifth flagrant foul.) There is a Thorn in the side of all who stray from the NBA's increasingly straight and narrow path...and he is watching.

One could say that Thorn was born to the job of keeping the peace. In Rod's hometown of Princeton, W.Va., which sits 2,500 feet high in the Allegheny Mountains, his father, Joe, was chief of police. Then, too, Thorn's full name is Rodney King Thorn, which seems unfortunately apropos for a career that involves video replay. But what Thorn was supposed to be was the next Jerry West, not the next Scotty Stirling, the man whom he succeeded in the NBA office on Feb. 1, 1986. As an all-state performer at Princeton High, Thorn averaged 31 points a game in both his junior and senior years. (Princeton is also where he met his future wife, Peggy, mother of their three children: Jonathan, 20, a sophomore guard at West Virginia Wesleyan, and 15-year-old twins Amanda and Jessica, both high school athletes.) In January 1959 the West Virginia Legislature passed a resolution calling Thorn, who was a high school star in baseball as well as basketball at Princeton High, "a natural resource" and imploring him to attend a school inside the state. So, all you young players who sometimes complain that Thorn doesn't know the game, just remember that he was once declared a natural resource, and you weren't.

Thorn did indeed stay home, becoming the third spoke in a perfect West Virginia University basketball wheel: Three years before West came Hot Rod Hundley and three years after West came Thorn, or Hot Rod Junior as he was predictably called. But though Mountaineer coach Fred Schaus said while recruiting Thorn that he was "in a class with West and Hundley at the same stage of development," and though Thorn dazzled the opposition with an unusual over-the-head, two-handed jump shot called the Thornderbolt, Thorn squirmed when compared to West. They went at each other in scrimmages when Thorn was the leader of an undefeated freshman team and West the senior All-America on a Mountaineer team that had lost to California in the NCAA final the previous season. "The bottom line is that there was only one Jerry West," says Thorn, "and I wasn't him. And I knew I wasn't."

Injuries nagged Thorn throughout a solid but unspectacular eight-year NBA career in which he averaged 10.8 points for the Baltimore Bullets, the Pistons, the St. Louis Hawks and the Seattle SuperSonics. He was a slender 6'4" guard, and "strong defensive guards like K.C. Jones and Don Ohl could just stop you in mid-dribble and push you out 10, 15 feet," says Thorn. It's no surprise, then, that Thorn had much to do with the rule outlawing hand checking above the foul line that went into effect this season.

Though he concedes that "most people would say I never lived up to my promise," Thorn was recognized around the NBA as an intelligent player and a ferocious competitor, and it was logical that after his retirement in 1971 he stayed in the game as an assistant coach (with the SuperSonics and the New York Nets of the old ABA), a head coach (of the ABA Spirits of St. Louis) and a general manager (with the Bulls). It was Thorn who, in the Bull boardroom on draft day in June 1984, uttered the fateful phrase, "Take Jordan." That subject comes up from time to time around the NBA offices, of course. "Every time Rod feels good about himself, I'll mention that he was also the guy who drafted Marvin [Automatic] Johnson," says Brian McIntyre, the NBA's vice president for public relations, who was the p.r. director for the Bulls during part of Thorn's tenure in Chicago. (Automatic, a gunner from New Mexico, was cut in training camp after Thorn made him the Bulls' second-round pick in '78.)

Thorn was fired in March 1985, when Jerry Reinsdorf bought the Bulls and installed his own man, Jerry Krause. Shortly thereafter NBA commissioner David Stern asked Thorn to go to New York to replace Stirling, who had become general manager of the Knicks. Thorn left his job as a trader on the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, and 17 days after assuming his NBA post he handed down his first fines—a total of $6,500 for fighting to Xavier McDaniel of Seattle and to Tree Rollins and Kevin Willis of Atlanta.

Thorn has expanded the operations job into virtually every area that involves the playing of the game. He is the rule maven, the referee maven and the selection maven who will help decide whether Magic Johnson will be a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. By and large he has gotten high marks for his performance. "Rod's a cool guy," says McDaniel, despite having frequently appeared on video at the Thorn Theatre. Even an adversary such as the now retired Laimbeer, who opines, "Rod sometimes let personalities get in the way," concedes that Thorn has "the one job that no one wants." Thorn is an exceedingly gentle and even-tempered man who makes his pronouncements carefully and through the filter of what he calls "a heelbilly accent." Says Stern, "Rod is the calming influence around the office. His basketball credentials are impeccable, and people like him."

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