SALT LAKE CITY — Nobody needed to tell Jeff Hornacek which way to turn. The visiting team’s bus always parks in the lot behind EnergySolutions Arena. Players and coaches go down a hall and take the first right.
The only difference now is that he stops at the first locker room. The second — the one he could find in his sleep — is where the Jazz dress for games.
Hornacek returned to ESA on Friday for the first time as coach of the Phoenix Suns. He didn’t look nervous. Did he ever? The guy had antifreeze in his veins.
He always kept his temperature just right.
In coming back, the former Jazz guard and assistant coach delivered a painful reminder how far Utah has slipped. Though the Jazz took a 9-0 lead, it was gone in two minutes and 15 seconds, as the Suns went on to a 112-101 win.
So much for gliding home on an early lead.
Like Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin, Hornacek has a team of mostly young, nearly unknown role players.
“It’s a lot similar, a lot of young players,” Hornacek said, comparing the teams. “They were always good here with chemistry, that was never an issue in Utah.”
Well, there was that Deron Williams thing, but otherwise
“We’re kind of in the same boat,” Hornacek said. “We have a couple more veteran guys but the other guys — Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green, the Morris brothers — have played some, but now they have to play 35 minutes a night. So in that sense, they’re pretty similar.”
Except in the standings.
The Suns are 9-7, second in the Pacific Division. The Jazz have the league’s worst record.
In fairness, Phoenix has had an easier schedule, having played just six teams that are currently .500 or better; that's half the number the Jazz have faced. Still, comparisons happen. Corbin was an assistant when Jerry Sloan quit in 2011. Hornacek had been working as a part-time shooting coach. Why didn’t the Jazz hire him as the head coach?
That’s where the comparisons get unfair. When Sloan retired, Hornacek had virtually no coaching experience. He had only been a part-time shooting coach for four years, keeping things low key while his kids finished high school. Corbin had been a fulltime assistant for 6½ years.
One had a coaching resume, the other didn’t.
The Jazz might have fired Corbin and hired Hornacek after last season, but that would have been divisive in the organization. Corbin had both experience and fan appeal. Hornacek was still an unknown coaching commodity. He only had 2½ years as a fulltime assistant. But now the Suns are playing over-.500 basketball, with five losses by a combined 16 points. The Jazz have regularly been manhandled, losing games by 24 (twice), 22, 19, 16, 14 and 11(twice).
The Suns have lost only one game by double digits.
Hornacek’s return couldn’t have been more predictable. He politely greeted arena workers and one Utah reporter by name as he entered. The crowd delivered a big cheer as he was introduced. Asked about his homecoming, he called it “a special feeling” but added that once the game begins, it’s all business.
Hornacek remains one of the most popular players in team history. There are many reasons for that, only some related to on-court skills. It’s true he ranks 25th in NBA career 3-point percentage and 14th in free throw percentage. But he also had an amenable temperament that endeared him. His number was retired in a 2002 ceremony at ESA.
As interesting as it was to consider him one day being the Jazz coach, his ties to Phoenix were equally strong. He played six years for the Suns — just a half-season shorter than his career with the Jazz. It was in Phoenix that he made his only All-Star appearance. He lived in Phoenix after retiring as a player.
On Friday there was no shortage of material for comparisons, and Hornacek had the advantage. After the early deficit, the Suns built a 20-point lead.
Just like their coach, they were unflappable.
Would the Jazz have been better with Hornacek as coach? It’s a moot point. Like da Vinci’s airplane sketches, it might or might not have worked. Either way, the timing was wrong.
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