By C.J. McCollum, for NBA.com
Following his interview with incoming NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, getting the nod for his fashionable mix of checks and plaid, Blazers rookie guard C.J. McCollum sits down with newly appointed NBA President of Basketball Operations, Rod Thorn. In a behind-the-scenes look at NBA league headquarters, McCollum gets to the bottom of the new Finals format, talks about the early-in-the-career injury he shares with Michael Jordan, and gets advice for his future — always maintain the best conditioning, learn as much as you can about the game, and don’t forget about what goes on off the court.
C.J. McCollum: What is your day-to-day schedule like now, being in such a position in terms of controlling the fines?
Rod Thorn: I get here anywhere from 8 to 8:30 (a.m.), and we have people that work here who have a series of reports that I go through when
I get in. Did we have any flagrant fouls last night? Did we have any technical fouls? Did we have any altercations, fights, anything of that nature? I’ll have a report on all of that. We want to make sure that we’re on top of everything so that’s the first thing I do when I come in. If there is an altercation anywhere, I will always get a phone call, no matter what time it is. If there is an altercation, you interview the players to see what they felt about it and you end up making whatever decision you end up making.
Normally we have anywhere from three to five meetings a day on a range of subjects. We’re also involved in international here, we have 18 people that I’m responsible for that work internationally so we get reports from them, talk to them, and see what’s going on in their lives.
I’m also in charge of the referees so we’ll have meetings regarding what’s going on with the referees, what are the trends, are the games getting too rough, are there certain calls we’re not doing a good job with. If there are any problems that we’re having along those lines, we’ll try to address them. So that’s a big part of this department, overseeing and running the referee operations.
Days go by pretty fast here, there’s basically something going on all the time.
CM: You’re putting in some serious hours there. You’ve been a player, coach, general manager, and at the league office. What are the differences you see working for a team versus working for the league?
RT: If you work for the league, you’re thinking about what’s best for the league and how you can grow the business. You’re thinking about a lot of things that may not be just happening today. You don’t care who wins or loses, but you’re thinking about the good of the league. When you work for a team, I would compare it to being in a silo. You’re more concerned with what’s in the best interest of your team and your players, and you tend to live and die with every victory and every loss. You have more instant gratification, or sometimes it’s not gratifying, if you’re with a team that’s not winning, in that there’s feedback every day. Players are getting better, players aren’t getting better; we’re winning, we’re losing. It’s more short-term as far as that goes. The league is more long-term and you don’t care who wins and losses, with a team it’s a little more short-term, and you live and die with wins and losses.
CM: NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver is taking over soon, what do you think will change, and what has it been like transitioning in to this season? I see you guys are changing the format of The Finals, that’s a huge change.
RT: [Commisoner] David [Stern] has been the commissioner for 30 years, he has a style, he has a personality. Adam has been here 21 years, so he has worked very closely with David for the last 10 to 15 years. I’m sure a lot of things will be very similar, but Adam has a different personality than David, so I am sure there are a few things Adam will do differently. We have a lot of new owners in the league now, and the old line owners, there aren’t very many of them left. There are a lot of new, young guys, so it’s a different group to deal with. I’m sure there will be some differences, but I think it will be a very smooth transition, because Adam has been a big, big part of what has transpired here over the years because he’s worked so closely with David.
As you pointed out, we do have a difference in The Finals, in the schedule from a 2-3-2 to a 2-2-1-1-1 format. When that was put in place in 1984, we didn’t have charter flights, you flew commercial. It was harder to get the media from one place to another. The feeling was, we’ll get more stories if you get the media in a place for three games, and it will reduce the travel. Now those aren’t as big issues. The competition committee felt there was a competitive disadvantage in it in that three of the first five games will be on the court of a team with the lesser record. Usually in a seven game series, if the series is tied 2-2, 86 percent of the time the team that wins Game 5 goes on to win the series. Also, the committee felt the team that had to go on the road for three games would be gone for seven or eight days so there would be a competitive disadvantage for them. There were a lot of things that went in to it and the reasons we did it originally are not nearly as important as they were at the time.
CM: Rumor has it that you played a role in drafting Michael Jordan. When you saw him playing at North Carolina, did you think he was going to become one of the best players of all time? What did you think his ceiling or basement was, and did he exceed your expectations for him?
RT: You know something, when we drafted Michael, my feeling was that we had a need for a lot of different things, but we definitely needed a wing player. I thought Michael would be a very good player. I wish I were prescient enough to even consider that he might turn out to be what he was, but the reality is, I had no idea he was going to turn out to be what he turned out to be. I was very hopeful that he’d be a very good player, and be an All-Star type of player one day. To be arguably the greatest player ever, certainly one of the greatest players ever, I had no idea of that.
CM: I had to ask that. He broke his foot his second year, I broke my foot in the first year, no one remembers that!
RT: He certainly did. At the time it was widely reported that when he was about ready to come back toward the end of the year, the Bulls were very skeptical about bringing him back. Michael’s retort was ‘I want to play now, I feel good, and I never want to play on a team that doesn’t make the playoffs.’ So he came back, and the Bulls made the playoffs and that’s when he scored 60-some points in one of the games. He had the same injury you had, and hopefully it will work out for you the same way.
CM: Going back to the NBA, how do you think the league has changed since you played and since you have been involved with the NBA up until now?
RT: Dramatically. When I came in the league as a 2nd pick, I got a one-year contract, and I had to make the team, it wasn’t guaranteed. There was no other league to play in, nobody played overseas. Our meal money was $8 a day on the road and we traveled commercial, in coach. It was an entirely different league — not nearly as popular, not nearly what it is today. The athletes are so much better today than they were back when I came in the league. It’s much more international, we have 92 international players this year, that’s almost a quarter of the league. There were none in the league at that time I played. Now we’re watched all over the world by 215 countries, we’re popular everywhere. We weren’t even popular in the States at that time. I can recall even when Magic Johnson played, The Finals were tape delayed. They weren’t on live, and that wasn’t that long ago. This league has come an incredibly long way. With the great athletes in this league and how many good young players such as yourself we have coming into the league, I think the future is even greater.
CM: I had no idea. [Blazers player development director] Hersey Hawkins was saying how you always had to take the earliest flight the next day.
RT: If you played on a Friday and Saturday, you took the first flight out the next day. If it was 6 a.m., you had to take that flight. In my first year at the league, we played five games in five days. Now, you probably have 20 back-to-backs over the course of the season. We stayed in motels the majority of the time, not the first class hotels you stay in today.
CM: We’ve got it good! What type of success do you think Jason Kidd will have? A lot of people have said he was a great leader and motivator as a player, so what do you think about him and the Brooklyn Nets this year?
RT: I think Jason is as smart as any player I’ve ever been around as far as understanding the game and as far as understanding what you need to do to win. That’s a plus. I think Jason gets instant respect because of who he is and he’ll be a first ballot Hall of Famer. He also has good players on his team, and he’s got veteran players. He is going to be a terrific coach, they are going to have a really good team. You are going to go through times that are difficult and things aren’t going that well. Everybody has to learn how to do that, particularly if you’re a first time coach, but I see nothing but really good things for him. He’s a terrific guy, knows the game, and he’s going to do great.
CM: I agree. I think he is going to do tremendous things for that team.
RT: When we got him in New Jersey, we had won 26 games. The year we got him, it went up to 52, and we won the Eastern Conference and played in The Finals. We were a bad defensive team, we were a bad rebounding team, we had bad chemistry, and he helped us in all those areas. His ability to pass and do team type things – he was just unbelievable. A great player.
CM: I’ve done a lot of research on your career and have a tremendous amount of respect for you and what you have accomplished. What would be your advice for me for my basketball career and transitioning into the working world? I am interested in journalism and sports broadcasting, but I would also like to be a general manager. Any advice on the court and off?
RT: I think as you’re coming into the league, your first order of business is to become the best player you can be. Always maintain the best conditioning as you can, learn as much as you can about the game. Secondly, don’t forget about what goes on off the court. You’ll be in a position to make great contacts, you’ll be in a position to have a tremendous reputation not only as a player but also as a human being. If you work at your playing, if you work at making all the contacts you can, doing all you can when you’re not playing, there are so many other things you can do. You’re in a position to make a difference with kids, with other people, and in the business world. Learn all you can about it, don’t waste time. Do all you can with the many advantages you are going to have for as long as you play in this league. If you do, then you are going to have a heck of a playing career and you are going to be in a position to do things after your career is over, whether in the business world, the NBA, or wherever it is. Don’t let this opportunity go by. Too many live for only the moment and don’t try to branch out or think about what is going to happen to them. Hopefully your career will be a long, long one, but it will come to an end someday, so make sure that when it does, you’re ready for whatever comes after that.
CM: Thank you I appreciate that and it’s great advice. I look forward to maximizing and taking advantage of this opportunity. Thank you again for the opportunity to do this interview.
RT: I really appreciate it C.J. I was still in Philly when you came through and did a workout for us. You made a good impression not only with your basketball ability, but also with how you conducted yourself during the interview and workout. Everyone was very impressed with you and I’m sure you are going to have a heck of a career and good luck.