The universe often has a way of steering people towards the place they were meant to be. And as many travelers ultimately discover, that destination is oftentimes the very same place where the journey began. This was most recently evidenced again on Tuesday, when the Phoenix Suns introduced Jeff Hornacek as their next head coach.
Drafted by the Suns in 1986 with the 46th overall pick, the guard out of Iowa State University knew he would have a lot to prove if he wanted to land a roster spot with his new team. The fourth of nine rookies selected by Phoenix in that year’s draft, it did not take Hornacek long to separate himself from the pack.
“The focus for me was just putting it all out there and not being able to look back with any regrets,” the head coach told Suns.com. “I just went out there and tried to play my game and hope that the coaches saw something in me.”
Alvan Adams, an 11-year veteran at the time Hornacek was drafted, roomed with the guard during that rookie season on the road, and says he remembers Hornacek as a player who did not hesitate to display his leadership abilities.
“We had a number of first-year players on that team, and I remember both he and Kenny Gattison standing out as kind of the leaders of that rookie group,” Adams said. “We obviously had some leaders on that team among the veterans, but Jeff and Kenny just seemed to take the game very seriously which helped to set them apart from the other rookies on that team.”
Adams calls Hornacek among the only teammates he remembers ever viewing as a future coach. It’s high praise from a center who has shared the court with such names such as Pat Riley and Paul Westphal. But while a large part of that had to do with Hornacek’s knowledge of the game, Adams also credits the timing in which they were teammates.
“Keep in mind that earlier on in my career, I wasn’t looking at guys and wondering whether or not they would make good coaches or not, I was just focusing on playing basketball,” Adams said. “But by the time I was playing with Jeff, I had been around the league a while and was seeing things differently. Jeff was somebody who stood out to me, not because he was a high flyer, but because he was a student of the game with a very high basketball IQ.”
Adams only had the opportunity to play with Hornacek for two seasons, retiring in 1988 and leaving the team in the capable hands of the guard along with players like Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and Mark West. Following the addition of Tom Chambers, that core of players would help Phoenix to one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history when they went from winning 28 games during the 1987-88 campaign to 55 games just one season later.
“He was a great player and a tough competitor,” West said of Hornacek. “A lot of people see his laid back attitude, but on the court, he’d cut you with a knife to win.”
In 1990, that same core of players helped the Suns to their first-ever elimination of the Los Angeles Lakers, a moment that Hornacek says still ranks among the greatest memories of his career. Were it not for Kevin Johnson’s pulled hamstring, some contest that year’s Suns team could have gone on to win the NBA Championship. But with playoff eliminations following in 1991 and 1992, many began to feel the Suns needed to make a move if they ever wanted to reach the postseason Promised Land.
Hornacek specifically remembers being in the weight room with then-Vice President of Player Personnel Dick Van Arsdale when reports began to surface of Charles Barkley’s discontent playing in Philadelphia. Ironically, Hornacek even commented that Barkley was exactly the kind of player the Suns could use on their ballclub. Little did he know at the time, however, that the largest acquisition in franchise history would soon be coming at his expense. For while the 1991 All-Star had emerged as a fan favorite, he had also become an attractive commodity to opposing NBA teams. Both of those factors led to former Suns President Jerry Colangelo finding himself with a very difficult decision to make during the 1992 offseason.
“On a personal note, Jeff was one of my favorite players, so to make a trade that involved moving him out to a team like Philly, we felt badly,” Colangelo explained to Suns.com. “That’s one of the parts of the business that you don’t really enjoy, and although he handled it like a professional, I know he was hurt deeply at the time. But we were in a position where we wanted to continue climbing that mountain and felt that the addition of Barkley would help us. But acquiring him came at a price, and that price included Jeff, a player we’d have liked to have kept in a Suns uniform for a long, long time.”
JoAnn Fitzsimmons, the wife of legendary Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, remembers the decision to send Hornacek to Philadelphia also being a difficult one for Cotton as well as herself.
“Cotton always called Jeff his ‘coach on the floor’,” JoAnn recalled. “He was a player who did all of the things that didn’t show up in stat sheets, and it was so tough for both Cotton and I. (Laughing) I remember pleading with Cotton to see if there was anybody else we could give, but Cotton explained that without Jeff we couldn’t make the deal. I remember when the news broke, I went over to their house, and Jeff’s wife and I cried as we watched the news. It was tough, really tough.”
On June 17, exactly six years to the day after Phoenix had drafted Hornacek, the Suns and 76ers agreed on a deal which sent he, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry to the “City of Brotherly Love” in exchange for “The Round Mound of Rebound.”
“It was tough,” Hornacek said of discovering that he had been dealt. “I felt I was part of a rebuilding process here and we were all young so we all felt that we would be with this team forever. So it was a little shocking and very difficult.”
For the Suns, it may have been a tough decision to make, but it did not take long for the transaction to pay dividends on the court. In Barkley’s first season in the Valley, the team captured the Pacific Division title and reached the NBA Finals. The 76ers on the other hand, finished the season with a record of 26-56, finishing sixth in the NBA’s Atlantic Division. Less than two seasons after acquiring the sharpshooter, the 76ers dealt Hornacek to the Utah Jazz where he would receive the opportunity to play under the organization’s legendary coach, Jerry Sloan.
“I remember when we acquired him, Cotton told me that Jeff was going to help make me a better coach, and that’s pretty much how it worked,” Sloan recalled. “He was obviously a terrific shooter who made every shot look like it was going in, but he also knew how to do other things on the floor too. He helped give us another passer on the floor which worked well with John (Stockton) obviously being a good passer and Karl (Malone) being a very good passer for a big man.”
With a Hall of Fame foundation like Stockton and Malone already in place, Hornacek was a perfect fit to play alongside what is arguably the greatest dynamic duo in NBA history.
“Along with John Stockton, Jeff is definitely one of my all-time favorite teammates,” Malone told Suns.com. “I just wish I’d had the opportunity to have played with him when he had two healthy knees. A lot of people don’t know this, but Jeff would be hobbling around before a game because of his knee. But once it was game time, he would do such a great job of hiding it from opponents once he got onto the court.”
Sloan agreed that Hornacek helped add an element of toughness to the ballclub, one that was especially beneficial when the team was playing outside of Salt Lake City.
“I remember before acquiring Jeff, we had a tough time winning on the road,” Sloan recalled. “But that changed rather quickly once he came to our team.”
After being eliminated from the first round of the playoffs in the season before acquiring Hornacek, the Jazz would go on to reach at least the Conference Finals or better in four of their next five seasons following his acquisition. Included in those postseason runs were two appearances in the NBA Finals where the Jazz fell to the Chicago Bulls. Following a 55-win season with the Jazz in 2000, Hornacek retired from the game of basketball to spend more time with his family. When he and his wife were looking for a place to call home, Hornacek says it was a no-brainer that Phoenix should be in the conversation.
"Along with John Stockton, Jeff is definitely one of my all-time favorite teammates."
- KARL MALONE
“We were here for a long time and this just felt like home for us,” Hornacek said of the Valley. “The people here have always been great, and I think it’s always been a place both she and I always viewed as one we could move back to at some point. And after having been with the kids so long in Utah, we looked forward to introducing them to a different part of the country.”
Following the family’s return to Phoenix, however, work came calling back up north. But what began as a part-time position soon evolved into something larger.
“Andrei Kirilenko asked the Jazz if I would come in and work with him,” Hornacek explained. “It was a good situation for me because I could set my own schedule and head up (to Utah) for basically a day and a half every week to work with him. At the same time, it still gave me the opportunity to come back to Phoenix and watch my kids’ games and the sporting events that they were in.”
As time went on, however, Hornacek began finding himself called upon for assistance from players other than the Russian forward.
“What would happen is when Andrei wasn’t on the court, other guys would ask me to work with them too and I found myself doing more and more,” Hornacek said. “Then when Jerry Sloan quit, I was asked if I wanted to go full time since I already knew all of the players and the offense. My daughter was going to be a senior in high school the next year, so I was wishing the timing was maybe a year later, but I think at that point, the opportunity to get in full time was something I had to do.”
While the timing of the opportunity may not have been perfect, Hornacek says he found the experience to be invaluable.
“You really learn a lot more when you’re sitting on that bench,” Hornacek explained. “You can be a part-time guy and think you see a lot, but once you’re there on that bench night in and night out, it’s quite different and you learn a lot of lessons.”
Having been dubbed Cotton Fitzsimmons’ “coach on the floor” twenty years earlier, it doesn’t appear to surprise anybody to see Hornacek now tackling the responsibility of “coach on the sidelines.”
“He was an astute player who could see things that not everybody else could see,” Sloan said. “I think those are the kinds of things that let you know whether or not a player has an ability to someday be a good coach in the league.”
West agreed, “He came from a basketball background under his father, and had the opportunity to play under great coaches like Cotton and Jerry Sloan. Of all the guys I played with in Phoenix, he was the one who always appeared destined to become a coach. He just understood the game at a different level.”
“I’m so proud and excited for him,” Malone told Suns.com. “This just helps show that good things happen to good people. I was lucky enough to get to know both Jeff and his family during our time in Utah, and am happy to see him getting a chance to coach in the place where his playing career started.”
The story of Jeff Hornacek making the leap from second-round draft pick to NBA all-star has been well chronicled. What is not so often discussed, however, is how many transactions needed to take place in order for the Suns to even acquire that 46th pick to begin with. It wasn’t until being in the possession of the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks that the Suns even managed to obtain the pick ultimately used to select the Iowa State Cyclone. Now, two decades later, that same Cyclone finds himself back in the Valley, ready to begin his career as an NBA head coach where he began his career as an NBA player. And much like in 1986, he finds himself with the responsibility of helping a 50-lose team rise from the ashes.
As JoAnn Fitzsimmons puts it, “You just never know how things are going to work out. But everything happens for a reason, and there couldn’t be a better place for Jeff to be or a better time for him to be here.”
Yes, JoAnn. The universe has a funny way of doing that.