The Obit For Joe Thorne

O'Connor: A soldier taught Nets' Rod Thorn how to survive and advance

The Record
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
By IAN O'CONNOR


RUTHERFORD — On the drive back to his Westchester home, all alone with the unforgiving truths about his 2-26 team, Rod Thorn still hears his old man’s voice. This too shall pass, Joe Thorn used to assure his only child.

Not that Joe always counted patience as a virtue. His son revels in the tale of Joe checking the Atlantic Division standings in the paper, picking up the phone in his Princeton, West Virginia, home and barking at Rod, “Why did you ever trade Jason Kidd?”

Laughter is a potent medicine for the president of a team that might win fewer games than any in NBA history. But it’s no match for the hardscrabble memories of a father, coach, police chief, World War II veteran and Parkinson’s disease victim who taught his son that no odds were too long to merit a surrender.

So if people think Rod Thorn is unraveling over this legacy-buster of a season, one that could be his last if the Russian billionaire buying the Nets says so, they never met the fighter who shaped him, the Marine once left for dead on the shores of Iwo Jima.

That’s where Joe Thorn’s story starts, with a Marine wounded and unconscious on a blood-soaked beach. Soldiers on both sides of him were getting gunned down by entrenched Japanese forces before a bullet ripped through Joe’s right hand, the pitching hand that had delivered 95 mph fastballs as a St. Louis Cardinals prospect and minor league teammate of Stan the Man.

Suddenly the screaming soldiers fell silent and Joe’s world turned dark. The shock of impact separated Joe from his senses, and he was down for nearly an entire day before a fellow Marine noticed he was breathing and not among the 6,821 Americans who would perish in the battle.

Years later Rod would ask his father if he was scared as he made his way out of the boat, onto the beach and into the killing fields.
“I didn’t have time to be scared,” Joe told him.

He earned his Purple Heart, survived malaria and returned to West Virginia to give his boy the life he couldn’t build for himself. Joe wanted to be a big league ballplayer. Before going off to war, he’d found himself on a spring training mound flanked by Dizzy and Paul Dean, and inspired by the fact he could throw harder than both.

Rod would be the big-leaguer instead. When the boy was five, Joe took him to a local school and taught him how to hit the curve.

But Joe wasn’t only about his own flesh and blood. As a police officer in Princeton, and then the police chief, he started Little League programs and rented gym space and coached travel basketball teams so the community’s children could find sports before they had a chance to find trouble.

Joe cleared $311 a month, and spent plenty of it on kids in dire need. “One boy wanted to play for Joe and couldn’t afford tennis shoes,” said his wife, Jackie. “Joe gave him the money for the shoes and a haircut. He really wanted that boy to get a haircut.”

Joe’s brand of order and discipline helped mold Rod into a dedicated two-sport star, and one recruited by the likes of Adolph Rupp. It came down to Duke and West Virginia, and Joe reminded his son that he wanted to be a doctor. “One Duke education is worth two from West Virginia,” Joe told Rod.

Peer pressure compelled Rod to sign up as the heir to Jerry West’s Mountaineer throne. West would make the freshman look silly in practice, but no son of Joe Thorn could pick up his ball and head for the hills.

The baseball scouts kept chasing Rod’s signature, at least until his final college season playing first base. The West Virginia catcher called Rod off a pop-up, made the play and then tried to double up the runner at second.

The throw crashed into Rod’s ear and fractured his skull. He was loaded into the back of a pickup truck and carted off to the hospital and, ultimately, to a career in the NBA.

The Baltimore Bullets made Thorn the second overall pick of the 1963 draft. Even though Rod had averaged 14.4 points in his first season, and had missed an entire summer of baseball while suffering from vertigo, the Houston Colt .45s offered him a contract to play for their Durham Bulls.

“You know you’re a better baseball player than basketball player,” Joe told him. “So you’ve got to do this.”

Rod stayed with basketball, played eight NBA seasons and then moved into coaching. In 1975, he was the head coach of St. Louis of the ABA when the phone rang and his mother asked if he could find his father a good neurologist. Turns out Joe’s hand and leg had been shaking for three years, and he figured it was time to tell his son.

Joe had a game plan for Parkinson’s, because he had a game plan for everything. No, he wouldn’t take the prescribed medication. He wanted his mind to be clear for however many years his body had left.

Joe was embarrassed to be out in public, shaking for friends and strangers to see. “You just don’t understand how this disease makes you feel,” he told his son.

So Joe retreated to his den and read encyclopedias and science books. The son of farmers and the product of a coal mining culture, Joe didn’t graduate from high school because he was needed to work the land.

But he was a Renaissance man all the same. He was a painter and poet, drawing and writing through the tremors. He loved making furniture in his workshop, and loved listening to his son’s winning and losing on the radio even more.

“Why don’t you get Larry Bird on your team?” Joe kept asking his son.

Joe counseled Rod when he was fired by the Bulls, told him to keep his head up and get back to work. But when Rod informed his old man he was leaving his comfortable job as David Stern’s lieutenant to run the Nets, a practical joke of a team, Joe tried to shove him out of harm’s way.

“You’re making another huge mistake,” he told his son.

Only Rod had his father’s stubbornness times two. Against all odds, he landed the Nets in a most improbable place: the NBA Finals.

“Oh my goodness,” Joe said. “And to beat the Celtics to get there.”

From afar Joe followed every possession of the back-to-back trips to the Finals, and then of the back-to-back 34-win seasons. He never lost his eyesight or command of his thoughts.

Joe would call Rod and cite statistics on the victims of his vile disease. “I’ve already lived longer than 98 percent of them,” the father told his son.

Joe’s goal was to make it to his 100th birthday, but at 94 he broke his hip in a fall, ended up in the hospital and lapsed into a coma. Rod spent four days at his bedside, talking up his childhood spent in the family’s apartment above a motorcycle shop. He thanked Joe for his sacrifices and confirmed through a smile that the old man was right, that Rod should’ve chosen to play baseball after all.

Joe had already made a deal with his bride of 70 years that he’d be allowed to die in his three-bedroom house. Jackie had her husband taken off life support and moved to the bed set up in his cherished den. On Sept. 13, 2009, surrounded by his books and the trophies won by Rod, Joe died a month shy of his 95th birthday.

Jerry West showed for the funeral, Lawrence Frank made the all-night drive in from Jersey and Larry Bird was among the dozens who sent flowers.

Rod was approached at the service by three mourners, one a dentist, one the head of a retirement home, one a successful businessman from Florida. They told of how Joe handed them money for school and equipment, and gave them the greater gift of his time.

“My father was a legend in the area,” Rod would say. “He was a very good man, and I never wanted to do anything to disappoint him.”

So this is the first Christmas of the rest of Rod Thorn’s life. On those lonely drives from East Rutherford to the other side of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the president of the Nets doesn’t heed talk radio advice on how to manage a 2-26 team.

He only listens to the soldier who taught him how to survive and advance.


EAST RUTHERFORD — On the drive back to his Westchester home, all alone with the unforgiving truths about his 2-26 team, Rod Thorn still hears his old man’s voice. This too shall pass, Joe Thorn used to assure his only child.

Laughter is a potent medicine for the president of a team that might win fewer games than any in NBA history. But it’s no match for the hardscrabble memories of a father, coach, police chief, World War II veteran and Parkinson’s disease victim who taught his son that no odds were too long to merit a surrender.

So if people think Rod Thorn is unraveling over this legacy-buster of a season, one that could be his last if the Russian billionaire buying the Nets says so, they never met the fighter who shaped him, the Marine once left for dead on the shores of Iwo Jima.

That’s where Joe Thorn’s story starts, with a Marine wounded and unconscious on a blood-soaked beach. Soldiers on both sides of him were getting gunned down by entrenched Japanese forces before a bullet ripped through Joe’s right hand, the pitching hand that had delivered 95 mph fastballs as a St. Louis Cardinals prospect and minor league teammate of Stan the Man.

Suddenly the screaming soldiers fell silent and Joe’s world turned dark. The shock of impact separated Joe from his senses, and he was down for nearly an entire day before a fellow Marine noticed he was breathing and not among the 6,821 Americans who would perish in the battle.

Years later Rod would ask his father if he was scared as he made his way out of the boat, onto the beach and into the killing fields.
“I didn’t have time to be scared,” Joe told him.

He earned his Purple Heart, survived malaria and returned to West Virginia to give his boy the life he couldn’t build for himself. Joe wanted to be a big league ballplayer. Before going off to war, he’d found himself on a spring training mound flanked by Dizzy and Paul Dean, and inspired by the fact he could throw harder than both.

Rod would be the big-leaguer instead. When the boy was five, Joe took him to a local school and taught him how to hit the curve.

But Joe wasn’t only about his own flesh and blood. As a police officer in Princeton, and then the police chief, he started Little League programs and rented gym space and coached travel basketball teams so the community’s children could find sports before they had a chance to find trouble.

Joe cleared $311 a month, and spent plenty of it on kids in dire need. “One boy wanted to play for Joe and couldn’t afford tennis shoes,” said his wife, Jackie. “Joe gave him the money for the shoes and a haircut. He really wanted that boy to get a haircut.”

Joe’s brand of order and discipline helped mold Rod into a dedicated two-sport star, and one recruited by the likes of Adolph Rupp. It came down to Duke and West Virginia, and Joe reminded his son that he wanted to be a doctor. “One Duke education is worth two from West Virginia,” Joe told Rod.

Peer pressure compelled Rod to sign up as the heir to Jerry West’s Mountaineer throne. West would make the freshman look silly in practice, but no son of Joe Thorn could pick up his ball and head for the hills.

The baseball scouts kept chasing Rod’s signature, at least until his final college season playing first base. The West Virginia catcher called Rod off a pop-up, made the play and then tried to double up the runner at second.

The throw crashed into Rod’s ear and fractured his skull. He was loaded into the back of a pickup truck and carted off to the hospital and, ultimately, to a career in the NBA.

The Baltimore Bullets made Thorn the second overall pick of the 1963 draft. Even though Rod had averaged 14.4 points in his first season, and had missed an entire summer of baseball while suffering from vertigo, the Houston Colt .45s offered him a contract to play for their Durham Bulls.

“You know you’re a better baseball player than basketball player,” Joe told him. “So you’ve got to do this.”

Rod stayed with basketball, played eight NBA seasons and then moved into coaching. In 1975, he was the head coach of St. Louis of the ABA when the phone rang and his mother asked if he could find his father a good neurologist. Turns out Joe’s hand and leg had been shaking for three years, and he figured it was time to tell his son.

Joe had a game plan for Parkinson’s, because he had a game plan for everything. No, he wouldn’t take the prescribed medication. He wanted his mind to be clear for however many years his body had left.

Joe was embarrassed to be out in public, shaking for friends and strangers to see. “You just don’t understand how this disease makes you feel,” he told his son.

So Joe retreated to his den and read encyclopedias and science books. The son of farmers and the product of a coal mining culture, Joe didn’t graduate from high school because he was needed to work the land.

But he was a Renaissance man all the same. He was a painter and poet, drawing and writing through the tremors. He loved making furniture in his workshop, and loved listening to his son’s winning and losing on the radio even more.

“Why don’t you get Larry Bird on your team?” Joe kept asking his son.

Joe counseled Rod when he was fired by the Bulls, told him to keep his head up and get back to work. But when Rod informed his old man he was leaving his comfortable job as David Stern’s lieutenant to run the Nets, a practical joke of a team, Joe tried to shove him out of harm’s way.

“You’re making another huge mistake,” he told his son.

Only Rod had his father’s stubbornness times two. Against all odds, he landed the Nets in a most improbable place: the NBA Finals.

“Oh my goodness,” Joe said. “And to beat the Celtics to get there.”

From afar Joe followed every possession of the back-to-back trips to the Finals, and then of the back-to-back 34-win seasons. He never lost his eyesight or command of his thoughts.

Joe would call Rod and cite statistics on the victims of his vile disease. “I’ve already lived longer than 98 percent of them,” the father told his son.

Joe’s goal was to make it to his 100th birthday, but at 94 he broke his hip in a fall, ended up in the hospital and lapsed into a coma. Rod spent four days at his bedside, talking up his childhood spent in the family’s apartment above a motorcycle shop. He thanked Joe for his sacrifices and confirmed through a smile that the old man was right, that Rod should’ve chosen to play baseball after all.

Joe had already made a deal with his bride of 70 years that he’d be allowed to die in his three-bedroom house. Jackie had her husband taken off life support and moved to the bed set up in his cherished den. On Sept. 13, 2009, surrounded by his books and the trophies won by Rod, Joe died a month shy of his 95th birthday.

Jerry West showed for the funeral, Lawrence Frank made the all-night drive in from Jersey and Larry Bird was among the dozens who sent flowers.

Rod was approached at the service by three mourners, one a dentist, one the head of a retirement home, one a successful businessman from Florida. They told of how Joe handed them money for school and equipment, and gave them the greater gift of his time.

“My father was a legend in the area,” Rod would say. “He was a very good man, and I never wanted to do anything to disappoint him.”

So this is the first Christmas of the rest of Rod Thorn’s life. On those lonely drives from East Rutherford to the other side of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the president of the Nets doesn’t heed talk radio advice on how to manage a 2-26 team.

He only listens to the soldier who taught him how to survive and advance.