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

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

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

The Salt Lake Tribune caught up 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 receiving the award means to her.

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

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

Interestingly enough, Amber Whiting, the new coach, is one of my good friends. So I keep in touch with her fairly 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 obviously keep track of the scores and how she’s doing.

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

I just think any time a coaching change happens, it’s a shift in culture a little bit. And in the beginning, it’s hard — especially since a lot of the players are upperclassmen — to shift a culture with people who are used to doing it a certain way. So obviously, there was some bumps in the road along the way. But overall, now that they’re in 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 that next level of attention, or respect, or anything in that realm?

It’s all of it. I think it’s a combination of all of it. You hear it all the time: The NBA guys love the WNBA. And yet, you get the lay male in the community that thinks women’s basketball is garbage. So it’s a shift in thinking, basically, as far as that’s concerned. And then obviously, any media coverage — which has gotten a lot better — any media coverage helps to perpetuate it. And then just really having youth programs that are high quality and in it for the right reasons is 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 them realize that basketball can be fun and then just growing 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?

It’s been tremendous growth on that side of things. I think the WNBA has been big in that just as far as 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 to have 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 first 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 a lot of places that could be markets. I think Utah would be a great market. The hard part with the WNBA is getting the backing of ownership, right? It’s the same with any professional sport. You have to have the backing of the ownership to expand anywhere. I think with the right people involved in Utah, I think it would be great. I think people love the Jazz. I think even back when, people loved the Starzz. I think it was more an ownership decision just to move on from it than anything else. So it’s just about getting 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 puts role models right in front of you, basically, and gives you a chance to be within arm’s reach of something you aspire to do, or puts those goals right out in front of you and allows kids to see that they really can be if you put the work in.

How does it make you feel to be recognized for this award?

Obviously, it’s a huge honor. And probably everybody that gets it says, ‘It’s not the reason why we do it,’ right? It’s not for recognition, it’s not for any of this stuff. It’s just for these kids. 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’s come full circle and I get to teach it to the next generation.

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

When I was playing, I thought, ‘There’s no way I can work with youth. I’m not patient. I just want to work with people that are highly skilled and just develop and refine what they have already kind of figured out. Then in 2015, a friend of mine connected me with a boys’ program here in [Las] Vegas, and I got started coaching with them. Slowly but surely, I was like, Okay, this is awesome. You get to really see the changes that these kids make in their game and the growth more than you would at the higher levels. At the higher levels, every change is minute and don’t see it as drastically. My first year, I had a mixed team of boys and girls that started off 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, we actually beat them. So just the growth that you see in those kinds of circumstances and situations was kind of what drew me to the youth side.