After defying odds as player, Jeff Hornacek may be man to do same with Knicks

BY KEVIN ARMSTRONG, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

There is a framed photograph of two 1992 NBA All Stars that is affixed to a wood-paneled wall in the finished basement of a two-story house on South Stone Ave. in La Grange, Ill. It features Jeff Hornacek, then of the Western Conference, and Isiah Thomas, a starting guard for the Eastern Conference squad. Both beam in their respective colors: Hornacek in blue, Thomas in white. They are separated by a small space in the picture and two years by age, but claim similar Midwestern basketball roots. Hornacek’s father, John, served as the dean of students at nearby St. Joseph High, where Thomas leapfrogged the freshman team that John coached to play on the sophomore unit. John, his leg in a cast from ankle to hip after falling from a step and fracturing his knee cap, laughs about the image of the stars he once watched rise from up close.

“Can you imagine how good a player Isiah would have been if I coached him?” he says.

Truth is, John never coached Jeff in high school, either. Jeff Hornacek grew up as one of four boys — Jeff, Jay, Jim and Johnny — in North Riverside, Ill., first shooting on a hoop in the neighboring alleyway, before the family moved to the house in La Grange when he entered the eighth grade. John continued work as the dean of students and didn’t want to cause a conflict of interest with his son in the school. Jeff attended Lyons Township High School instead, and earned all-conference, all-suburban and all-state honors with a sure shot that came off sideways instead of the traditional end-over-end rotation. He wore white Converses, high white socks and brown hair over his ears. Legend has it that his personal mandate was to make 100 free throws before retiring to dinner. St. Joseph varsity coach Gene Pingatore, a close friend of the Hornaceks who played 16-inch softball with the father seven days a week, regrets one decision regarding his staff.

“I wish I could have coached the sons,” Pingatore says. “The mistake I made was that I should have fired the father!”

Ribs are poked and laughs are shared outside Chicago as Jeff plans to re-join Thomas, now the president of the Liberty, in Madison Square Garden’s maelstrom. Ready to head a team that has missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons, Hornacek, 53, has agreed in principle to be the second head coach of Phil Jackson’s tenure and the team’s fourth coach in the last five seasons. Never a Knick before, he comes east with a reputation for shotmaking and resourcefulness during a 14-year NBA career that saw him average 14 points per game. He remains as resolute as the former walk-on he once was at Iowa State before starring in the Big 8 while studying accounting to the point of lining up jobs with Big 8 firms in Des Moines following commencement in Ames, Iowa. He is the son of a coach and the father of three who re-entered NBA circles once his three children were all but raised. Forever valued for acumen over athleticism, his pliability will be tested in a work atmosphere dotted by Jackson’s triangle, Kristaps Porzingis’s promise and Carmelo Anthony’s career clock. Known best for shots that former coaches refer to as “organized off balance,” the highlight reel of which includes runners off the wrong foot with the ball arcing high over shot blockers’ hands, Hornacek will seek to bring steadiness to a team that boasts little at the moment.

“I heard his meeting with Phil Jackson went 5½ hours,” John says. “Jeff must have said something right.”

Most of the Hornaceks were together to celebrate the graduation of Jeff’s daughter, Abigail, from USC, last week. Jeff mentioned interviewing for new jobs after being fired by the Phoenix Suns following a 101-112 record in two and a half seasons. His family has always kept close tabs on his career, from trekking to opposing college campuses across the Midwest to take in his Cyclone games to bar hopping in La Grange in order to watch his NBA games on satellite. His mother, Sue, remembers one of her grandsons mentioning that the family needed to change shirts from the Suns to the Knicks this week. She thought he must have been confused, but learned the next morning in the doctor’s office that her son was likely going to be the next coach of the Knicks.

“Such a huge mecca,” she says. “I’m overwhelmed. Jeff is private. Jeff is quiet. But he is committed. We’re quite excited, and we have DirecTV now, too.”

“Jeff could shoot accurately in a windstorm,” says Gordon Chiesa, a former Manhattan College coach who served as an assistant to Jerry Sloan with the Utah Jazz. He is back in Holiday, Utah, fresh off a cross-country flight from JFK Thursday morning. He lives in the mountains, and is laughing on the other end of the phone line as he notes the previous night’s newsbreak that Hornacek, a former pupil of his, is set to become coach of the Knicks. Chiesa talks about a time warp amidst jet lag. He comments on the backpage of the News that he eyed in the terminal while awaiting takeoff back in New York, and the photograph of Jackson, general manager Steve Mills and Hornacek, smiling with jutted jaw outside Nino’s Tuscany Steakhouse on 58th St. Chiesa is thrown back to the 1998 NBA Finals, and Michael Jordan’s Game 6. Hornacek, a knee brace on his left leg, was matched up against Chicago swingman Toni Kukoc as Jordan took the measure of Bryon Russell on the left diagonal with under 10 seconds left. Chiesa shouted the code for double teaming the ballhandler. “Go green! Go green! Go green!” Hornacek never heard the color call across the court from Utah’s bench. Jordan saw red, crossed his dribble over, pushed off Russell, pulled up and finished the sequence with a game winner and iconic follow through. A John Stockton three fell short. The Bulls took one more title. Jordan threw up six fingers to count his rings won before embracing Jackson with a hug on court. Jackson will soon be Hornacek’s boss.

“The whole sports world is two blocks long,” Chiesa says.

It was as close as Hornacek came to the game’s apex. Twelve seasons into a career that commenced as a second-round pick out of Iowa State, where he had walked on, Hornacek’s line on the night was 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting. He grabbed six rebounds and poached a ball but was sent home after six NBA Finals games for the second straight year. He walked off humbly and managed two more bone-on-bone seasons with a bum left knee before bowing out of the league at 37. Chiesa remembers the mettle of the man, namely the treatment sessions and extra stretching in the Marriott workout rooms to get his knee loose enough to hoof up and down the hardwood for one more run on the court.

“When you have to spend more time getting ready physically than mentally, it’s usually time to call it quits,” Chiesa says. “Jeff gave everything to us.”

There were plenty of years spent developing muscle memory to pop off shots. At five years old, his first target was the rim in the alley, but he progressed to his father’s gym at St. Joseph and the basket over the garage in his family’s second home. There was an electrical wire that needed to be cleared on high-arcing shots, and his mother rebounded for him when brothers were busy. It was a simple setting. The Hornacek children played flashlight tag in the neighborhood while parents congregated in living rooms or on porches for card games. There was one rule in the house each evening. All Hornaceks had to be accounted for around the table before dinner commenced.

“I’m glad they grew up the Midwestern way,” Sue says.

He carried the core values to college at Iowa State, where he met Stacy, his wife of 30 years, and left as the career leader in assists. She lived with his parents for a time as he made it to the NBA pre-draft camp and the Suns selected him with the No. 46 pick. General manager Jerry Colangelo informed Hornacek that he needed to straighten out his stroke, despite his accuracy, to succeed as a professional. He moved his left thumb off the ball, taped fingers together to follow proper form and survived a 1987 roster purge in Phoenix following a drug scandal that involved multiple players. Three Suns — James Edwards, Jay Humphries and Grant Gondrezick — were indicted by a grand jury investigating cocaine trafficking. Hornacek was clean and developed steadily. He hit more than 50% of his field goal attempts in his second campaign, eventually returned to Iowa State for a preseason game against the Bucks that was preceded by his No. 14 being retired to the rafters. By 1992, he earned his lone All-Star appearance. He thought he would be a Sun for life until he was shipped east to Philadelphia in a trade for Charles Barkley soon after. He found out in a phone call from a friend in Chicago who asked if he was all right.

“We were shocked, stunned,” says Johnny Hornacek, who runs Hornacek’s Golf Store in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Utah later traded for Hornacek to bring him back west. He walked into the coaches’ locker room at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City the day he was acquired and thanked the staff. He proved to be the perfect complementary piece to the long-running show of Stockton-to-Karl Malone. He thrived under the team-oriented intensity fostered by Sloan, and reached back-to-back NBA Finals in 1997-98. He retired in 2000, only to return to the Jazz as a part-time shooting instructor to assist Andrei Kirilenko, who was struggling with his confidence, heading into the 2007 playoffs. Hornacek helped him, and eventually spent more time around the team, working with the likes of Kyle Korver. The Jazz requested more of his time, and Hornacek brought his development prescriptions to Phoenix for his first head coaching job. He mixed the enthusiasm of Cotton Fitzsimmons and Sloan’s toughness into a brew that won 48 games his first season with plenty of guard play at a fast pace before bottoming out this February with 19 losses in his last 21 games.

“I know the way it ended, he was upset,” Johnny says. “He wanted to finish the job.”

Jeff Hornacek at Iowa State.

Hornacek seemed headed to New York once before. It was 35 years ago. He was a senior in high school then, but no Division I scholarships had come his way. His youngest brother, Johnny, remembers that there were two phones in the family’s house: one upstairs and one downstairs. Johnny answered once after a few rings and it was a college coach who asked to speak with Jeff. Younger brother continued to listen as Jeff picked up and the coach informed Jeff that he was no longer being recruited as a prospect by that college. It was a common conversation. Hornacek decided to head to Cornell, but took the first semester off as a cooling period. In the interim, Hornacek rolled paper at a paper cup company, and a coaching friend of his father’s inquired about Jeff’s whereabouts. Iowa State was now interested after failing to land a faster point guard.

“Jeff was that kid who college recruiters love to say was too slow or too small,” Pingatore says. “My question when people tell me how tall or fast a kid is was always: OK, but can he play?”

Iowa State provided a stage to establish himself on. Hornacek’s father paid his son’s way for a semester, and Jeff proved to be worth the tuition. He worked out with the Cyclones that first winter without playing in games, but produced immediately when granted a spot in the rotation as a freshman. Hornacek went on to lead the Cyclones to an NCAA tournment win for the first time since 1944 and then onto the Sweet 16. Colangelo took a chance on the sharpshooter in the NBA then, and now Jackson is giving Hornacek, an even-keeled killer on court, a second shot at the Garden’s sideline.

The question that trails him all the way to New York is set: OK, but can he coach?

 

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