East legend Thoren reflects on his amazing high school, college and pro career

Sports Connection

Duane ‘Skip’ Thoreen is one of the legends of Rockford high school basketball. Later this month he’ll be inducted into the Rockford Public School District’s Athletics Hall Of Fame.

Thoren carried the East Rabs to the state tournament and he later starred for the Fighting Illini. He set records for both programs. He reflected on those great days with me in a phone interview from his current home in Louisville, Kentucky.

(Skip Thoren) “I wasn’t what I would call athletic. I was obviously very tall for the time when I played.”

Thoren says he was 6’8 when he played for the East Rabs in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

“I was pretty agile and pretty quick because I was vey thin at that time as I was kind of growing into myself if you well,” said Thoren.

What a player he was. He earned honorable mention All-State as a sophomore and All-State honors again as a junior and a senior.  When he graduated in 1961 he was East’s all-time leading scorer with more than 1300 points. The hook shot was his specialty.

“I could shoot it with either hand and the reason I developed that is because I was getting it blocked a lot in high school, so I went to that shot because it was unblockable.”

His senior season Thoren led East to the State Tournament. The Rabs lost there in the quarterfinals to the eventual state champion Collinsville.

“I remember it was a hard-fought game,” says Thoren. “They fullcourt pressed us. I remember that. We really had no ability to be able to break the press,  and that was really the reason we lost.” “I can remember sitting in the locker room and just crying after that loss. It was that emotional for us.”

Thoren says he wasn’t really interested in basketball until his freshman year.

“Basically I really didn’t like basketball. When I was at Lincoln Junior High the coach John Costello, he was actually the assistant coach, he’s the one in the hallways who kept saying, ‘You need to come out and play basketball. You need to come out and play.’ So in ninth grade I went out and played for the first time and I was pretty clumsy and awkward. I really didn’t like the game a lot.

Fortunately for East fans that soon changed. The big mystery with Thoren is where he got his size from.

“My mom was 5’8 and my father was 5’10.  My paternal grandfather had some heighth. He was about six feet, but my mother’s mother was 4’11.  I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

When his days at East were over Thoren played for the Fighting Illini and he became a star with them too. He was the team’s MVP his junior and senior years when he averaged more than 20 points and 14 rebounds a game.  He set the school’s single-season rebound record.  In one memorable game at UCLA he pulled down an Illini record 24 rebounds.

“I still remember that game. In fact I fouled out of that game,” says Thoen. “That was when Goodrich and Walt Hazzard played on that team.”

And the head coach of UCLA was the legendary John Wooden who actually complimented Thoren on his performance after the game.

“He did. Yea, in fact he said, ‘I wish I would have recruited you coming out of high school,’ and I said, ‘Yea I wish you did too.”

Thoren’s next step was pro basketball. In 1965 he was drafted by the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets, currently the Washington Wizards. He was taken in the fourth round, but he didn’t sign with them.

“Understand that the NBA had 12 teams at the time,” explained Thoren. “Today they have 30 teams so if you weren’t drafted in the first or second position in the first round the chances of you playing in the NBA….there’s not many opportunities for a ballplayer to play in the NBA.”

Shortly after that he got a phone call from a pro team in Italy. He played there for two seasons. Then he came back to the United States to play in the American Basketball Association or ABA. That league produced stars such as Julius Irving, Rick Barry, George Gervin, and Moses Malone.

Thoren played one season with the Minneapolis Muskies and two seasons with the Miami Floridians. He averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds in his ABA career. One season he finished second in the league in rebounding and he was an all-star.

“It was enjoyable to be able to play at that level. To me it was the finality of my career, but it was shortened because when I ended up getting injured in the third year I came down on someone’s foot and twisted my knee and at that time they didn’t do arthroscopic surgery as they do today. Had they done that I would have been able to continue playing, but because they didn’t I had to come back to Rockford and go to work for a living.”

It’s been 58 years since Thoren set East’s career scoring record. It wasn’t until this season  that that record fell. Current East senior Chris Burnell broke it. Thoren never imagined that record would last so long.

“No, I had no idea.”

Even though he has lived in Louisville most of his adult life Thoren says Rockford has a soft spot in his heart.

“Oh, absolutely. It was my home. It’s changed dramatically as we all know, but it’s one of those things that everything changes. It definitely is a wonderful place to live.”

Believe it or not several of Thoren’s records with the Fighting Illini still stand. He holds the marks for the most rebounds in a game, the most rebounds in a season and the top rebounding average in a season.

By the way Thoren also says it was his dad who gave him the nickname ‘Skip’ because when Thoren was an infant he often was dressed in a little navy outfit and his dad thought he looked like a skipper.

The RPS 205 Championship Ball and Hall of Fame Ceremony will be held Saturday, February 23 at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Rockford. More information is available on the RPS 205 website.

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