Jeff Hornacek's retirement isn't about going away; it's about coming home. As much as he enjoyed his accidental career as a professional basketball player, there were always the painful goodbyes, the hugs and kisses at the door and the endless long-distance calls.
"He still calls 15 times a day when he's on the road," his wife, Stacy, said a few weeks ago.While trying to watch her kids' little league games, Stacy would field calls "every five minutes" on her cell phone -- Jeff, in some far-away NBA city, wanting the play-by-play and score. A few years ago, Stacy made a pillow case for Jeff to take on road trips. It is decorated with pictures of each of the children, along with their messages and drawings.
"That way he could sleep with them every night," says Stacy.
The retirement from basketball isn't about the bum knee and the 37 years, either; it's about being a dad. It's about a guy who, as every fan knows, says hello to his kids before every free throw -- 1-2-3 wipes of his right cheek, one each for Tyler, Ryan and Abigale.
He always felt guilty about his frequent absences over the years, leaving Stacy a single mom during road trips. He did his best to compensate. He once instructed his kids over the phone, step-by-step, through the preparation of French toast and sausage so they could serve Mom breakfast in bed. He has been known to leave a pasta dish in the refrigerator that he prepared before he left town. He has done his own laundry after games so his wife could sleep (gentlemen, you could learn to hate this guy).
"I am blessed to have him," Stacy once said. "Sometimes I think he's too good to be true."
But there is only so much a father and husband can do from his room in the Marriott. So, he will retire from the spotlight to drive carpools and sit in the stands at soccer games and tend kids while Stacy pursues her own aspirations as a writer. It's her turn, he says. What seemed to bother him most about his career was that it demanded that his family bend their lives to his schedule.
So there he goes, off into retirement, one of the most beloved Jazz players of all time, a better fit in Utah than even his popular Hall of Fame teammates; a warmer, naturally gracious person who is so ordinary in many ways that he is extraordinary. As one fan observed recently on a talk radio show, "He's one of us. He's like a neighbor."
He is a player universally admired, both for his skill and his comportment. Gordon Chiesa, the Jazz assistant, captured Hornacek best when he said, "He has inner peace." He is a remarkably relaxed, comfortable, imperturbable man who was never changed by the NBA pitfalls of money and adulation. What a man does for a living is not important, he said. He is still the aw-shucks, family man from mid-America who married a farmer's daughter.
"He's one of the few guys that you get a Christmas card and a birthday card from," says Frank Layden, the former Jazz president. "My wife's brother passed away, and he acknowledged it. He called. He was very concerned. That's the type of guy he is."
Hornacek of course never expected to be a professional basketball player; he was going to be an accountant and then got sidetracked -- permanently, it turns out. Every step of the way his career was given a nudge by quirks of fate or accidents, in some cases literally. He cracked the starting lineup as a high school junior when a teammate was suspended after an auto accident. Hornacek went to work in a paper cup factory following graduation, but his father, John, a freshman coach at another high school in Chicago, arranged a tryout with Iowa State. ISU gave him a scholarship when several teammates flunked out of school. Ignored by NBA scouts, Hornacek interviewed with several accounting firms after graduation, but his father called Bob Knight, who called Jerry Colangelo of the Phoenix Suns, and Hornacek was invited to a pre-draft camp. The Suns made him the 46th pick of the draft.
Even after he was drafted, Hornacek interviewed with another accounting firm. He only hoped to survive the first couple of months with the Suns because league rules would then guarantee a full season's salary. Later he hoped only to make enough money so his wife wouldn't have to work and could stay home with the kids. Fourteen years later, Hornacek is one of only 20 players ever to collect 15,000 points and 5,000 assists.
As a player, he was an earth-bound oddity, an Oldsmobile in a field of Ferraris. He can't even dunk, for crying out loud. Much has been made of his lack of athleticism, at least as it is commonly measured today. His coaches concede that Hornacek ranks among the bottom half of his teammates in speed and jumping ability, but his hand-eye coordination, so essential in shooting, passing and ball-handling, is uncanny.
"He's not the fastest guy or the best jumper," says teammate Adam Keefe, "but if you had him play the bar sports, nobody would touch him. Pool. Ping-pong. Darts. I've seen it. We (Jazz players) play those games when we get together, and he beats the snot out of everybody. His hand-eye coordination is amazing."
Hornacek made his name as the best pure shooter in then NBA. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who preaches defense and rebounding above all else, once noted, "He's one of the guys that when he's open from 15 to 18 feet you almost feel like you don't have to go to the basket (to rebound) . . . If I were a player, and I was having a problem shooting, I'd rent a place at his house."
Layden once said of Hornacek, "Above all, he can stroke it."
It wasn't always that way. When he first entered the NBA, Hornacek had what was essentially a two-handed shot. He used the thumb of the left hand as a sort of guide, which put a strange side spin on the ball, and his shooting was always erratic. He resisted his father's attempts to correct his shot, but, as was the case throughout his career, help came in an unlikeliest way. His coaches didn't fix his shot; his wife did.
Following his rookie season, Hornacek made daily trips to the gym to practice his shooting, often with Stacy rebounding. He tried everything to correct his shot, including taping his left thumb to his hand. One day Stacy grew weary of chasing his missed shots and stepped back to observe. Why don't you point at the basket after you release the ball, she suggested. You can imagine what Hornacek thought. Great, now the wife's telling me how to shoot. But he tried it, and it worked. Hornacek says Stacy had the biggest influence on his shot. His shooting accuracy improved from 45.4 percent in his rookie season to 50.6 a year later. He has been a 50 percent shooter ever since.
It isn't just that Hornacek could shoot accurately that raised eyebrows; it's that he could do it from so many angles and in so many ways -- falling away, leaning, looking the other way, over 7-footers, under 7-footers, half-hooks, running jumpers, underhand, overhand, whatever -- and all of them with the quickest release in the NBA. When necessary, he actually shots the ball at the same time he was catching it. It's as if Hornacek has a microchip in his brain, which, in a split second, calculates distance, angle, body lean, trajectory needed to clear a defender's hands, precise ETA of the in-coming defender and the latest possible launch time allowable to beat the block. He sees things in slow motion, which allowed him to pick apart defenders and defenses. All of this compensated for any lack of jumping ability and speed. His shot was rarely blocked, even though he often ventured into the lane. The first time Hornacek faced Ralph Sampson, the 7-foot-4 sensation, he took the ball right at him twice and flipped the ball into the basket over Sampson's outstretched arms.
"He could shoot accurately in a windstorm," Chiesa likes to say.
In the first round of this year's playoffs, Hornacek was spinning through the air, back to the basket, when he flipped a no-look shot over his shoulder that banked off the glass and into the net. Earlier this season, he made a similar shot while darting through the lane. The curious part of it is this: It wasn't a fluke. Anyone who has observed Hornacek knows it.
Nothing Hornacek did was unpracticed or uncalculated. He practiced those shots, or something close to them, and if he hadn't then, that computer in his brain did the rest. He studied and honed his shot, as well. Hornacek kept a notebook in which he recorded details and observations about his shooting technique and then referred to them when he hit the rare slump.
When he first came into the league, Hornacek was reluctant to attempt his unorthodox shots, such as his signature running jumper, because he was uncertain how coaches would respond. According to all standards of technique, a shooter should check his body's drift and take a balanced shot. Hornacek thought otherwise, and eventually coaches not only accepted it, they asked him how he did it and began teaching it to others.
"We call it the Hornacek Drill," says Chiesa. "We're teaching other guys to shoot off balance but under control. We've taught it to Howard Eisley and Jacque Vaughn and Quincy Lewis and Scott Padgett. Jeff taught me that. I looked at it, studied him every day and then asked him how he did it."
No one was ever quite certain how Hornacek did much of what he did. Part of the Hornacek mystique was that he looked like such a regular guy, on and off the court. Minutes after a game, dressed in a polo shirt and Dockers, with children following in his wake -- as they did on weekend nights walking through the Delta Center to the parking lot and the Suburban -- he could have been any Jazz fan headed for home. If you lined him up with nine other guys down at the YMCA to choose sides for a pickup game, he might be the last guy picked. Look at him: No muscles, medium build, a middle-aged white man, and that knee!
It wasn't enough that he lacked athleticism; he also got stuck with this bum left knee, which placed major limitations on him. He played 14 years and half of his college career on a knee that doctors say will need to be replaced one day. Most people have a cushion where the bones meet in the knee; he has bone on bone. There were nights when he didn't know if he could pull up for a jumper without his knee "hiccuping" on him, as he called it. After one game this season, a reporter happened to find himself following Hornacek as they walked from the Delta Center to the parking lot and was struck by the how severely he limped when he was out of the public eye. But two nights later he was back on the court. In the past few years, Hornacek didn't run a step or pick up a ball in the off-season; he had to save the few remaining miles left on his knee for the basketball season. He had to play his way into shape. To the casual observer, Hornacek was a casual player: always the last one to arrive for games and practices, always the first one to leave. But what he could he do with the knee -- extra running?
And yet, to the end, Hornacek was still playing at the top of his game, despite his years and his knee. In his final regular season, he ranked first in free-throw accuracy (missing just nine shots all season), third in three-point accuracy and 18th in field goal percentage. At the All-Star Game, he defended his three-point shooting title and teamed with Natalie Williams to win the 2-ball contest.
All along, of course, there were appeals from within and without the Jazz organization to return for another year, just as there was a year ago when he contemplated retirement. For the Jazz, Hornacek's departure marks the first step in the long-anticipated breakup of the golden oldie Jazz. He came to the Jazz seven years ago and was such a natural fit -- for the city, the fans, John Stockton, the offense, Jerry Sloan, his own family -- that owner Larry Miller has long regretted that Hornacek didn't spend his entire career here.
Hornacek proved to be the piece of the puzzle had been missing for years. Rudy Tomjanovich, the coach of the archrival Rockets, was reportedly stunned when the trade for Hornacek was completed. "It's so hard to make meaningful trades these days," he said at the time. " . . . If you would have looked at Utah's team and tried to find the perfect fit, you'd have picked Hornacek."Comment on this story
The season before Hornacek arrived, the Jazz were 45-37. The following years brought records of, in order, 53-29, 60-22, 55-27, 64-18, 62-20, 37-13 (the lockout year), 55-27. That stretch included appearances in four conference finals and two NBA finals.
"We were missing something, and that something was Jeff Hornacek," Sloan says.
Now the Jazz will miss him again. Hornacek is quitting the game to spend more time at home -- and home is Utah. The Hornaceks considered moving their family to Salt Lake City even before he was traded to the Jazz because of the family atmosphere. Seven years later, he has adopted Utah and vice versa. He's one of us.