The Professional

by May 16, 2012

On this day 12 years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers knocked the Utah Jazz out of the Playoffs with a 81-79 win in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. That game would also turn out to be the final time Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek would step onto an NBA court; “Horny” would retire that summer after 14 years in the NBA. The 6-4 guard was one of the best shooters the game has ever seen (his career shooting percentages: 49.6 percent from the field, 40.3 percent from three-point range and 87.7 percent from the free throw line), and a pretty good passer as well (he averaged 4.9 assists per game), but as Russ Bengtson discovered in the following feature, which ran in SLAM 27 (August, 1998), there was one thing he couldn’t do. Read on… —Ed.

by Russ Bengtson

It’s 11:25 a.m. in New York—9:25, Salt Lake time—and whichever way you look at it, it’s far too early for Chris Morris. The Jazz forward is minding his own business, sitting quietly in the visitors’ locker room of Madison Square Garden, lacing up his purple-and-white And 1s. Answering inane questions is the furthest thing from his mind. He just wants to rub the sleep from his eyes, get his warmups on and go shoot a couple of 30-footers. So when he’s asked whether he’s ever seen teammate Jeff Hornacek dunk, it catches him completely off-guard.

“No,” Morris says slowly. “I wish he could, you know? I mean, he can shoot, now he’s just gotta put another thing to the top of his game. We don’t know how long he has.”

Morris is serious. Does he actually believe a 6-4, 34-year-old with bad wheels (four operations and counting on the left knee alone) can learn to dunk? “But Chris,” I plead, “isn’t it getting a little late for that?”

Morris looks up. “Yeah,” he agrees. But you never know. You can always bring out something.”

The normal reaction is to laugh and walk away. Cautiously. Because Morris means every word he’s saying.

As if to illustrate the ridiculousness of Morris’s last statement, Hornacek himself walks out of a (closed to the media) back room. He stops at his locker, grabs his logo-free white socks and a pair of nondescript white Nikes and returns to the privacy of the back. He doesn’t say a word.

Hornacek, dunk? Yeah, right.

In his civvies—a pale yellow Hilfiger button down, decidedly un-baggy black jeans and low cut black boots—standing an unassuming 6-4, he looks more like the accountant he almost was than the NBA starter. Look at him in uniform, that Coors-Light lookin’ No. 14. This guy’s an NBA player? Maybe at a fantasy camp. Or maybe in the late ’50’s, when everybody ran around in shorts with two-inch inseams, shooting 30-foot set shots and dribbling out the clock to preserve 29-26 wins. Yeah, Horny’d be right at home in grainy black-and-white film, runnin’ the break with Russell and the Cooz. But the NBA in the ’90s? In Mike’s house? This guy? Get real.

Look at Hornacek’s stats, and you might think you understand. Through 70 games this season, he was averaging 14 points, 4.3 assists and 3.4 rebounds per. Shooting 47 percent for the field, 43 from behind the stripe. He even won the three-point shootout at All-Star weekend this year. “Oh,” you say to yourself. “he’s Mark Price.” Wrong again.

What you see—the dorky haircut, the scrawny physique, the goofy smile, the three-point precisions—is not all you get. There are no records kept for “picks set,” no rewards for passes that would surprise even Dionne Warwick’s friends. I could tell you that Jeff Hornacek is the most complete two-guard in the league, and I’d be lying. But if you can name one other NBAer who has made the most out of so little—one other player who does so much and get absolutely no recognition—I’ll be waiting. Horny may look like a YMCA weekend regular, but he’s as much a warrior as anyone else in the league. Remember that.

“The guy’s incredible to me, man” Jazz center Greg Foster says. “He shoots the ball better than anybody I’ve seen. And it’s not just his outside shot—he’ll go to the hole and give you some schoolyard shit, too.” Foster laughs. “That’s what really messes us up—we’re like ‘Damn, did you just see that shit?'”

Oh yes, that’s another element of Horny’s game the stat line won’t tell you about. He may be on point from 23-9, but let him drive to the hole, and he’ll lay something on you that wouldn’t be out of place at Rucker. Haven’t seen that part of his game? Feel free to ask the Blazers about it. They’re probably still reeling from an April 1 loss when Horny poured in a season-high 31, mostly on off-balance runners—straight schoolyard shit.

“Hornacek was at another level,” Portland coach Mike Dunleavy said afterward. “He makes shots people shouldn’t even shoot. Damon Stoudamire agreed: “He wasn’t even looking at the hoop on half the shots.”

Horny’s teammates see that stuff every night, and even they get startled now and then. “Aw, shhhhhh, everybody is [surprised],” Shannon Anderson says. “I think sometimes he’s surprising himself—you see him comin’ down the court smilin’. But you know, that’s the nature of his game—his game is to make those crazy shots comin’ down the stretch.”

Always has been. “It started in grade school,” Hornacek says. “I went into high school at 5-2, so I’ve always had to shoot it up high, and I’ve always just done that.

“I might be one of the worst practice players in the world, ’cause I shoot all those shots in practice—you gotta shoot ’em in practice before you ever shoot ’em in a game. I may miss a bunch in practice, but all of a sudden, in a game, it’s not that difficult a shot.”

Maybe it was the height, maybe it was the practice habits, maybe it was just the fact that his sweet J was still a long way off—but Hornacek didn’t get much burn his first two-and-a-half-years at Lyons (IL) Township High. [Editor’s note: Can you imagine going through high school nicknamed “Horny”?]. It took a teammate’s suspension to land him a starting spot. He grew to a whole 6-2, 150 by his senior year. And while the increased PT got him some local recognition, and he even made some state all-star teams, no major DI schools acknowledged his existence. Then again, neither did any minor ones.

“We played in a system that was a slow-down game,” Hornacek says, “and I think that people believed I couldn’t play the up-pace game, man-to-man and stuff like that. I wasn’t recruited.”

What he did get was an invitation from an Iowa State assistant who knew his father. “He said, ‘Hey, if you want to come out and practice with us, and basically try out, come on up,'” Hornacek remembers. Having no other offers, he accepted. “I practiced with ’em from the end of January to the end of their season, and they they decided to give me a scholarship.”

The next year, he averaged 5.4 ppg as a freshman. He went on to become the school’s fourth-leading all-time scorer, despite running the point his final three years and never averaging more than 13.7 per. Hornacek led the Cyclones to two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Still, he was a low profile players on an low-profile team. No one was dying to draft him. And, despite his consistent play, he was certainly no lock for the League.

“[I started to think about the NBA] about three-quarters of the way through my senior year,” Hornacek says. “I had never planned on it, and even after that, when coaches said that ‘teams are calling for films,’ and ‘you’ll get drafted in the second or third round’—I knew even then the odds of making it were still slim. So I actually had two job interviews in Des Moines, Iowa, at accounting firms, and I told ’em, ‘Hey, are you gonna let me go try out, and if I don’t make is it still offer me a job?’ Both of ’em said yes, so I knew if I didn’t make it, I’d just head back there, and I’d have a job set up.”