We take a look back at one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, Jeff Hornacek, with a feature from SLAM 27.
Horny could easily have been satisfied with all he had accomplished in college. His No. 14 would be retired in ’91, and legions of kids took after him. “[Hornacek] was probably the guy I most looked up to growing up,” says current Indiana Pacer and fellow Iowa State grad Fred Hoiberg. “He’s probably the best all around player to ever go there.”
As it turns out, Hornacek never did have to worry about picking the right pocket protector. He was drafted in the second round (46th overall) by the Phoenix Suns in ’86 and easily made the squad. He averaged 5.3 points in his first season in limited minutes. By ’91-’92, Horny was an everyday starter, a team leader and an All-Star. He led the team in scoring with 20.1 ppg and the Suns were finally starting to make some noise—winning 55 games in ’90-’91 and reaching the Western Conference Finals twice. He had done more than the franchise could have ever expected. Still, that off-season, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, as part of a deal to bring Charles Barkley to Phoenix.
“You’d think there’d be loyalty, but—that was tough,” Hornacek says. “But you learn it’s a business, and no matter how much you give to a team, there’s always the possibility.”
Hornack went from a contender to a team that could only wish they were good enough to be a pretender. With Barkley, the Suns won 62 games and went six in the Finals with the defending champion Bulls. With Hornacek, the Sixers won 26 games and the right to draft Shawn Bradley. It wasn’t Horny’s fault. He averaged 19.1 points and 6.9 assists that year, and received the third highest All-Star vote total for Eastern Conference guards behind Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. But he was not selected as a reserve—probably due to the Sixers abysmal record.
The next season started in a similar manner: losses, losses and yes, more losses. Then, 27 games into the season, salvation. When the Utah Jazz knocked on Jeff Hornacek’s door, his bags were already packed.
“I had played against John and Karl 50 times before I was even traded there; we seemed to play the in the Playoffs every year,” Hornacek says. “I knew what kind of guys they were and what kind of players, and from Day One, it was so easy a fit.
There was one big difference, however: The Jazz may be the least-aptly named team in basketball. Besides the fact that the Mormons want as much to do with Miles and Thelonious as they do with Rodman, the Utah offense has traditionally been a disciplined one. A by-the-books one, where pick-and-rolls are an every-play occurrence. (Hornacek laughs when asked if he knew he’d have to set all those picks. “Yeah, I knew some of it, ’cause I can remember the days in Phoenix when I was guarding the two-guy and he was settin’ those picks for Karl, and I had to bump Karl. So I knew I had to set ‘em.”) Stockton and Malone are virtually one-note guys—extraordinarily successful, soon-to-be-in-the-Hall-of-Fame one-note guys, to be sure—not noted for their improvisational techniques. Horny, on the other hand…
“I’m the type of guy…I kind of improvise sometimes,” he says. “You know, we run the basic plays, but there’s little nuances in there I read off of. There’s not many other guys that could pick up on that stuff, but with John and Karl, they do the same things. So all three of us, when we get our little three-man game going, you don’t even have to tell ‘em, ‘John, I’m goin’ backdoor this time—it’s just one of these numbers,” he cuts his eyes left, “and he knows it’s comin’.”
Against the Knicks on March 22, Horny puts that knowledge to work right away, hitting a wide-open Stockton in stride right under the basket. Two points. Minutes later, double-teamed on the right baseline, he fires a bullet that finds Greg Foster at the top of the key. Two more. He has yet to take a shot.
With under 15 seconds remaining in the fourth, Hornacek only has 9 points and 4 assists, but he picks up his fifth with a sweet dish to Byron Russell that gives the Jazz a 1-point lead. Allan Houston hits a free throw to tie it up, and the game goes to overtime. And then a second.
The second overtime starts at 106-106. Immediately, Horny finds Stockton to put the Jazz up 108-106. For the Knicks, Larry Johnson misses. Hornacek rebounds and throws a touchdown pass to a streaking Malone. 110-106. On their next possession, he beats John Starks for a tough lay-up. 112-106. He fouls Chris Mills—his first foul of the game—but by then it’s all over. Hornacek finishes with 16 points, seven assists and zero dunks. (Sorry, Mr. Morris.) But once and for all, can this particular white man jump? Has he ever thrown one down? “Uh…no.” He pauses. “Not at all.” He takes another pause. A long one. “In practice.”
Foster hasn’t witnessed it. But, like Agent Mulder, he wants to believe. “I heard he can dunk,” Foster laughs. “I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen it. I’ll betcha he could, though. If I bet, I bet he could.”
The odds are definitely against him. Hornacek is in the first year of a two-year deal he signed following last year’s NBA Finals loss. He is fairly sure that when the contract runs out, so will his playing career. “The situation I’m in in Salt Lake with my kids and my wife—my wife writes, and she’s put off her career for 12 years now, so it’s time to trade,” Hornacek says. “I’ll be Mr. Mom for a while.”
Some of you might say that’s exactly where he belongs. And, if you’ve paid attention to anything you’ve read, you’ll know just how wrong you are.