Guard, coach, team president, league executive—Rod Thorn has held as many NBA jobs as a man can without putting on a bear costume and dunking off a trampoline. However, while his latest incarnation as president-general manager-miracle worker for the Nets earned him votes from 19 respondents for executive of the year, many fans remember Thorn only as the NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations, a position he held from 1986 to 2000. "I get recognized all the time on the train home because of that," says Thorn, who lives in suburban Rye, N.Y. "People say, 'You're the a——— who suspended so-and-so,' because we got the Knicks a bunch of times."
These days New York fans have a different reason to detest Thorn: They have to crane their necks to look up at his team in the standings. Defying all expectations—SI, for one, picked New Jersey to finish 12th in the East—the Nets have an Eastern Conference-leading 32-15 record at the All-Star break. On Feb. 4, after blowing out the team with the NBA's best record, Sacramento, 117-83, Kings forward Chris Webber called New Jersey's point guard Jason Kidd one of the league's two untradable players, along with Shaquille O'Neal. Told of the comment the next day, the 60-year-old Thorn smiled and shook his head. "That's amazing," he said in his West Virginia drawl of his prized off-season acquisition, which cost him Stephon Marbury. "You can make a case that both teams got what they needed. "
Thorn is very polite, but so far it is clear that the Nets got a whole bunch more of what they needed than Phoenix did. As much of an impact as the Kidd deal has had, though—and it's hard to overstate its significance—it was only the most dramatic part of Thorn's extensive rebuilding plan. When he took over in New Jersey, in June 2000, the team was a disjointed, prideless, snakebit mess. After identifying rebounding, defense and team chemistry as the Nets' major shortcomings, Thorn has hired a coach who believes in discipline and an up-tempo offense ( Byron Scott), dealt the team's most selfish player (Marbury) for the league's foremost chemist ( Kidd), signed an emerging young center as a free agent (26-year-old Todd MacCulloch), used the No. 1 draft pick in 2000 to land the team's leading scorer (forward Kenyon Martin) and traded down in the '01 draft to build his bench, picking up sixth man Richard Jefferson and center Jason Collins.
In a basketball market rife with second-guessers, Thorn's moves have drawn only praise. "I know we're not supposed to compliment the Nets," says Knicks president and general manager Scott Layden, "but he's done quite a job."
Thorn prefers to share the kudos, heaping praise on Scott and Kidd, crediting the return of oft-injured guard Kerry Kittles and saying he's been merely "fortunate to be in the right place at the right time." His track record suggests otherwise. After all, before he was recognized as the A——— Who Suspends Knicks, Thorn was known as the Man Who Drafted Michael Jordan, which he did as G.M. of the Bulls in 1984.
Now, if he can only get fans to recognize him by his latest unofficial title: the Guy Who Resurrected the Nets.
What or whom should the NBA get rid of to improve its image?
Answers ranged from tattoos to the media to guaranteed contracts. The most common response was bad officiating, which was on three ballots. Receiving not a vote, on the other hand, was the referees' primary critic, that chest-pounding, milk-shake-serving scourge of the league office, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
While no sweeping conclusions should be drawn from this, it is increasingly clear that Cuban's is not a lone voice in the wilderness. Two seasons ago five players and coaches were fined some $60,000 for ripping refs. In 2000-01 there were 26 critics, who were fined a total of $600,000. Through the All-Star break, those numbers were 12 and $605,000 (although $500,000 of that came from Cuban). He has hired a research firm to log every call made by every official in every game this season to show the enormous differences in the way they blow their whistles (chart). Cuban believes such inconsistency among refs—even veteran ones—breeds confusion among players and damages the product. He is also convinced that one man, supervisor of officials Ed Rush, cannot effectively manage 59 refs, and that the league needs an outside agency to monitor its officiating system.
The NBA, which also logs every call, says that its system works and that some discrepancy in the frequency of calls by officials is to be expected. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik agrees that certain discrepancies are now too great but says that Rush's staff (which includes three deputies) along with Stu Jackson, the league's senior vice president of basketball operations, constantly review calls with the refs. "The goal is not to get every official blowing the whistle the same way," says Granik. "It's to get everybody within a range so they're performing properly. By and large, we think that's happening."