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Jeff Hornacek: "Down Home Guy."

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With Jeff Hornacek, what you see is what you get. As Jerry Sloan puts it, Jeff is a…

“Down Home Guy.”

by Dan Sorensen

Jeff HornacekWatch Jeff Hornacek during the pre-game warm-up. A lot of guys toss up shots as though they were squandering an afternoon on the playground. Hornacek, however, looks like the solitary kid playing an imaginary game on the family driveway. He flips the ball to his left applying backspin to simulate a pass, moves to the ball, snatching and shooting it in one quick motion. You’ll see the same moves during the actual game against a real opponent, Hornacek getting open for the pass and the quick release.

But Hornacek can create plays on his own if the occasion demands it. He practices for this, also. Before a Bulls game in November, Hornacek practiced a running hook shot across the foul lane, a softly arched shot over the reach of imaginary defenders. In the game itself, two minutes into the second quarter, Hornacek drives to the hoop from the left corner. His path blocked near the basket, he veers toward the foul line and hooks a high shot over three Chicago players. It’s the exact shot he sank before the game. This one also goes in.

He’s Come a Long Way

Michael Jordan thinks Hornacek is one of the best players in the league. “He’s come a long way.” Indeed he has. Back when Hornacek was a senior at Lyons Township High School outside Chicago, his future as a basketball player didn’t look promising. He had gone to the public school instead of playing for his father, a coach at St. Joseph High, a private school featured in the documentary Hoop Dreams. Hornacek wanted to avoid any suggestion of favoritism. But at Lyons Township he found himself stuck in a slow-down game without much chance to show what he could do.

The only college interested in Hornacek was Western Michigan. “It came down to me and another guy for the last scholarship,” Hornacek says. “They gave it to him.” Hornacek took a job rolling paper at the Sweetheart paper cup factory, waiting for an opportunity to enroll at Cornell, a place where he could play, but a place without athletic scholarships. It was also an expensive place, too much of a stretch perhaps for a high school coach supporting four kids on less than $30,000 a year.

It looked like the pinnacle of Hornacek’s athletic career might have already been achieved: At age nine, Jeff had gone to the World Series in Atlanta and won the national pitch, hit and catch title. He could console himself by having his name on a plaque in Cooperstown.

After a few months at the factory, however, Hornacek headed for Ames, Iowa with enough money for tuition and a belief in himself. “I knew I could play,” he says. He walked on as a skinny 145 pounder and won a spot on Johnny Orr’s Iowa State team. After one semester, they gave him a scholarship. He had a good career, setting a Big Eight career assist record (665) and earning honorable mention on the Associated Press All-American team. He still knew he could play, but just in case no one else did, he put on a suit and tie and drove down to Des Moines and interviewed for accounting jobs at Touche Ross and Coopers & Lybrand.

The NBA

Phoenix picked up Hornacek in the 1986 Draft; he was the last of their three second-round choices, right behind Joe Ward and Rafael Addison, both of whose hoop dreams faded long ago. During his six seasons with the Suns, Hornacek kept working on his game. He had always been a good shooter, but he was nevertheless dissatisfied with sudden gusts of inconsistency. The problem was side-spin from a left thumb that insisted on putting in it’s two cents on the jump shot. Hornacek quieted the thumb by taping it to his palm and his shooting improved. But some of his shots continued to be afflicted with traces of side-spin. He spent more hours in the gym with his wife, Stacey, rebounding for him. Weary of chasing down rimmed shots, Stacy started to study Jeff’s technique. She noticed something.

Jeff Hornacek“Point your first finger at the basket,” she said. Hornacek had been flicking his fingers to the right on his follow through. Following Stacy’s suggestion, the seams of the ball now rotated perfectly on its horizontal axis. Today, he is one of just five guards in the league who hit at least half his shots.

“Hornacek’s a throwback,” says Frank Layden. “He’s a shooter, but he can do everything. He reminds me of Ramsey.” Frank Ramsey played for the Celtics from 1955 to 1964. Red Auerbach called Ramsey the most versatile player in the NBA, making him the prototype of the Celtics crucial “sixth man.”

Another player Hornacek reminds you of is Bill Bradley, formerly of the Knicks, soon to be formerly of the U.S. Senate. Like Bradley, Hornacek is always on the move, always looking for a way to get open. When he’s playing two-guard, Hornacek sprints down the court, jaw leading, arms pumping, his hair bouncing like a koosh ball. He heads for the right corner, then circles under the basket to the left corner, shaking off his man to get open. Sometimes, he stops abruptly under the basket and reverses direction or he stops, fakes a reverse, and continues into the far corner. Sometimes, he makes several such circuits, curling, bumping, picking. During a game Hornacek accumulates more mileage running circles than he does running up and down the court.

Like Bradley, Hornacek has an uncanny sense of where he is on the court. He doesn’t have to look at the basket to know where it is. A typical Hornacek play: a give and go that culminates under and behind the backboard, where he jumps and spins the ball back over his head, somehow banking it in while facing completely away from the basket.

Hornacek is also crafty with the ball. According to Jazz assistant coach, Gordie Chiesa, Hornacek is an expert with ball tricks, like backing off a defender by faking an overhead pass. “But it’s always for a purpose, not to show off.” Chiesa echoes Layden’s evaluation of Hornacek: “Jeff’s like a 60s guy. He does everything well. He plays to win, not for fame. If he wanted to, he could score 25 points in a windstorm. And I’ll tell you something else. He’s the first player we’ve had on a the perimeter who’s made Stockton a better player.”

Always Thinking

A final comparison with Bill Bradley: Hornacek is always thinking. He’s watching, assessing, analyzing. After the Jazz’s first game with the Bulls, Michael Jordan is invited to provide a one word description of Hornacek. Jordan narrows his eyes and says without hesitation, “Smart.” But one word is not enough. Jordan pauses, then adds, “Savvy.”

Hornacek admits that he’s always thinking, even when he’s on the bench you can see that he’s watching, analyzing, sizing things up, his head tilted back as he takes everything in. “Maybe sometimes I think too much,” he says with a characteristic chuckle.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving and Hornacek sits on a gray leather sofa in the Delta Center’s Wives’ Room, which is just down the concrete corridor from the Jazz locker room. They should call it Romper Room. Toys are scattered all over the expanse of gray carpet. Over in one corner is a Little Tykes place structure, it’s slide jutting out into the room like a blue tongue. Tucked into the opposite corner is a crib, changing table and two Danish-Modern rocking chairs.

“Sometimes things go easier when you’re not thinking,” Hornacek says, in reference to the night last season when he scored 40 points against Seattle, hitting a record eight 3-pointers in a row. Hornacek pulls on his socks. The nails on his two big toes are black and precariously attached; a basketball player’s feet take a brutal pounding.

“Making two; making three shots gives you a green light. If you miss your first or second shot, you might hesitate to shoot.” Hornacek interrupts the leisurely lacing up of his shoes to scratch his thigh. "But the time you go five for five, you feel you can take a freebie kind of shot. But I wasn’t really aware of the record." Hornacek pulls on the skin just under his chin. “You get into the flow of the game.” Hornacek crosses his legs. “Maybe after eight I was aware of it. But I thought ten in a row was the record – Dumars or Brian Shaw.”

Hornacek’s fidgeting betrays his discomfort at focusing so much on the record. You can tell he doesn’t spend a lot of time congratulating himself on the achievement. Nor does he consider himself a celebrity of any sort.

A Normal Next-Door Neighbor

“The biggest misconception people have is that it’s a glamorous life. On the road we rest. Just rest. And here at home, I’m just a normal next-door neighbor. We go to the mall, Fashion Place, Cottonwood, or to Sam’s Club or Albertson’s.” Hornacek hesitates and laughs. “And Smith’s. Better say that; they’re a big sponsor.”

Hornacek can probably go about his business more easily than most. He’s not quite as conspicuous as his taller colleagues. If you saw him scrutinizing potatoes in the produce department, you might mistake him at first glance for a tall fireman on his day off. People do recognize him all the time, of course. If you’re a Jazz fan you’ve seen him not only on the court, but in various commercials, like the one for Hot Tubs Unlimited where he stands with basketball in hand in front of a hot tub, intoning, Mr. Mac-style, “Tell ‘em Jeff sent ya!”, or the one for America First Credit Union where he tosses paper wads into a toy basket.

Most fans just say hello or ask for a quick autograph. “But every once in a while you’ll be in a hurry and some guy will want to have a half-hour conversation with you.”

It may be that Hornacek has earned his “normal” life by insisting on being normal. When fans see Hornacek and his family having hamburgers at the Cottonwood Mall food court, they see the basketball star, but just as important, they see a family man who is one of them. A star who hides from the public, on the other hand, is insisting on his celebrity status in a way that might provoke the menacing attention he seeks to avoid.

Jeff HornacekHis Focus is his Family

Unlike a lot of professional athletes, Hornacek is not a sports fan himself. He doesn’t watch football on the tube. Stacy says he doesn’t even watch basketball games. “I think that he ought to be scouting out the other teams,” she says, “especially during the playoffs.” Nor does Hornacek talk basketball at home. When Stacy and Jeff were dating in college, two months went by before she found out he was a basketball player.

Something even more amazing: Hornacek doesn’t play golf, the universal pursuit and pipe dream of professional athletes. “Maybe when the kids grow up. Now it takes too much time. Four or five hours,” says Hornacek. When he was a kid, Hornacek played a lot of baseball and hockey. The only extracurricular sport he permits himself now is street hockey, which he plays with his boys, along with kids from the neighborhood in his cul-de-sac in the Cottonwood area. “After he got his rollerblades, he became a street hockey fiend,” says Stacy.

Hornacek likes to putter around the house. “Just the other night I woke up and heard the washing machine humming,” Stacy says. “It was Jeff doing laundry. He wants to help out all he can. He feels guilty about being away so much.”

Hornacek surprised his wife on her birthday last year by baking a Waldorf Astoria Red Cake. “My birthday is February 15, and my mother always made me the red cake. Jeff went out and bought three packages of cake mix in case he messed up. It was very sweet of him.” How was the cake? Stacy laughs. “It tasted like a brick.”

Stacy confirms that with Jeff Hornacek, what you see is what you get. “He’s so humble, and he never gets mad. Sometimes I wish he would.” Jeff Hornacek’s habitual grin is for real. As Jerry Sloan puts it, “Jeff’s a down-home guy.”

A Day in the Life

It’s game day and Hornacek has returned home after practicing and watching film of the Sacramento Kings. He cleans leaves out of the rain gutters. He plays with Abby, his 20-month-old daughter. He and Stacy straighten the house. There’s some soap opera on TV, but they’re not paying attention to it. Instead of taking a pregame nap, like a lot of players, Hornacek putters some more. “I don’t like naps,” he says. “I feel too lazy when I wake up. Once I took a nap before a game and played crappy,” he says with a laugh.

Hornacek is scheduled to come to the Delta Center early to sign autographs. But Tyler, his five-year-old, isn’t feeling too well, so Hornacek calls in to say he won’t be able to make it. A Jazz official says Hornacek’s phone call is typical. “He didn’t have to call in. A sick kid is a pretty legitimate excuse.”

When Hornacek arrives at the Delta Center he has seven-year-old Ryan in tow. He leaves him with Janet in the Wives’ Room and wanders down the corridor to dress for the game. After a quick change, he walks barefoot back up the corridor to check on Ryan, a blond mini-version of himself. Ryan has already polished off an order of nachos and is now lobbing a little green and gray ball toward a plastic basketball standard. Ryan tells Janet the basket is too low, so she dutifully notches it up another six inches. Ryan circles behind the snack table and launches a left-handed jump shot the length of the room.

In his new role as sixth man, Hornacek comes off the bench against the Kings midway through the first quarter. After missing his first two free throws, producing gasps from the crowd Hornacek settles down and ends up with 22 for the night, four for four from 3-point range, seven of eight altogether from the field. After a post game interview, his knees swathed in ice-packs, he climbs into the stands and fetches a sleepy Tyler from Stacy, who has held him in her lap most of the game. Hornacek carries Tyler back to the locker room. He showers quickly and slips into a white thermal jersey, denim jeans, and jacket. He eases his sore feet into his size 12 Timberland boots, and answers a few more questions while on the move, good-humored as ever. His hair still wet, he hurries off to meet his family.

Hornacek says he will play two more seasons after this one. “Stacy’s done all the hard work taking care of the kids and house. It’ll be her turn to do something. She wants to write kids’ books. I’ll be Mr. Mom for awhile.”

Dan Sorensen is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City.