Former BYU, WNBA player Erin Thorn talks Cougars women, growth of women’s basketball

Thorn recently received the 2022 Leader for America award for her dedication to supporting youth.

(Jenna Isaacson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU’s Erin Thorn (11) fends off Utah defenders during a 2001 basketball game.

Erin Thorn enjoyed a remarkable career in women’s basketball from her high school days at Mountain View, to her four seasons at BYU, to her decade-plus professional career in the WNBA and overseas. She is first all-time in Cougars history in 3-pointers made and free throw percentage, and top five in total points and assists.

When her playing days were over, the Orem native started a nonprofit organization called Erin Thorn Elite Basketball that consists of club basketball teams, training opportunities and other services for aspiring girls.

Thorn recently received the 2022 Leader for America award from The CrisCom Company in recognition of her “lifelong dedication to youth” and “mentoring students on life skills, community engagement and college preparation,” according to a news release.

The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with Thorn to discuss her time at BYU, what she thinks of her alma mater’s women’s basketball program, the state of the sport for women and what it means to her to receive the award.

This question-and-answer session was edited for length and clarity.

How much do you keep track of the BYU women’s basketball program today?

Interestingly, Amber Whiting, the new coach, is one of my good friends. So I keep in touch with her quite regularly. Obviously, she’s busy and I’m busy coaching all these teams. But we check in every once in a while and see how they’re doing, and of course we keep track of the results and how she’s doing.

What is your assessment of the program’s progress this year under Whiting?

I just think every time there’s a coaching change, it’s a little bit of a culture shift. And in the beginning, it’s hard – especially since many of the players are upperclassmen – to move a culture with people who are used to doing it a certain way. So obviously there were some bumps in the road along the way. But overall, now that they’re getting into (West Coast Conference play) and figuring some things out, I think they’ve been playing a lot better lately.

With the growth that women’s basketball has seen in the last few years, what is still needed for it to reach the next level of attention, respect or anything in that world?

That’s all. I think it’s a combination of everything. You hear it all the time: NBA guys love the WNBA. And yet you get the layman in society who thinks women’s basketball is trash. So it’s basically a shift in mindset as far as that goes. And then it’s obvious that any media coverage – which has gotten much better – any media coverage helps to maintain it. And then just really having quality youth programs, and for the right reasons, that’s going to benefit girls basketball. I think volleyball and soccer start them so young that a lot of times you have to have some kind of (kindergarten through third, fourth grade) something to offer them just to get them in the door and make it fun for them and help. they realize that basketball can be fun and then just grow from there.

In terms of the popularity of women’s basketball, the way it’s marketed, how much media coverage there is, etc., how have you seen that change over the last several years and how do you feel about its progress?

There has been tremendous growth on that side of things. I think the WNBA has been big on that as far as the exposure, especially here in Las Vegas where we have the Aces. Within the last four years they moved here and then won the championship this year. Any kind of bump in the women’s game in your community helps the youth side. I know volleyball is big, soccer is big. So just getting the exposure of a professional league here in America for basketball, especially in our community, helps us grow the sport, especially here in Las Vegas.

You mentioned Las Vegas. That franchise used to be in Utah when it started. You lived in Utah, you played high school and college there. What do you think about the potential of Utah once again being a market for the WNBA?

I really think there are many places that could be markets. I think Utah would be a great market. The hard part about the WNBA is getting ownership support, right? It’s the same with any professional sport. You need ownership support to expand anywhere. I think with the right people involved in Utah, I think it would be great. I think people love Jazz. I myself think back when people loved Starzz. I think it was more of an ownership decision to just move on from it than anything else. So it’s just about getting hold of the right investors and getting the right ownership group. I think the community would get behind it and it would be good for youth basketball there in Utah, just like it is for Vegas here with the Aces. It basically puts role models right in front of you and gives you a chance to be within reach of something you aspire to do, or puts those goals right in front of you and allows the kids to see that they really can be if you put in the work.

How does it feel to be recognized for this award?

It is of course a huge honor. And probably everyone who gets it says, ‘that’s not why we’re doing it,’ right? It’s not for recognition, it’s not for any of this. It is only for these children. I always tell people: This is my pay it forward. I was fortunate to do a lot of things with basketball and make it my career for a while. Now it has come full circle and I get to teach it to the next generation.

When did you realize that working with children was something that was important to you?

When I was playing, I thought, ‘There’s no way I can work with young people. I’m not patient. I just want to work with people who are very talented and just develop and refine what they’ve already figured out. So in 2015 a friend of mine connected me with a boys program here in (Las) Vegas and I started training with them. Slowly but surely I thought: Okay, this is great. You can really see the changes these kids make in their game and the growth more than you would at the higher levels. At the higher levels, each change is minute and not so drastic. My first year I had a mixed boys and girls team that started the year losing to a team by 30. The next time we played them we lost by 10. And then the next time we played them for the championship, actually beat them. So just the growth that you see in those kinds of circumstances and situations is kind of what drew me to the youth side.

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