When it comes to looking like an NBA All-Star, Phoenix guard Jeff Hornacek falls somewhere between Richie Cunningham and Wally Cleaver. OK, so he's easy to miss. People in the Eastern time zone are seeing his face more these days but still seem to be trying to decide whether he's famous, or just the guy who changes their oil.
"Jeff hates it when I tell him he looks like a paper boy," Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons told the Arizona Republic.Hornacek only smiles wearily when asked about being "discovered." He's been around the league for six years, but only recently has drawn major attention. Last year he was profiled in a Sports Illustrated story. This year he was named, for the first time, to the NBA All-Star team. All-Star weekend brought more publicity than he's received in his career. Still, he seems baffled by the sudden increase in attention.
"It seems funny to me," he said. "The last couple of years I've done basically the same things. I'm still getting my five assists, four rebounds, two steals. The only difference is the 17 points a game I was averaging. There's something with the magical number 20 that suddenly everyone then thinks I'm having a great year," he said.
Certainly the Jazz know what Hornacek can do. They watched him grow up with the Suns. The longtime Western Conference rivals meet for the third time this season, today at 1:30 p.m. (MST). The game will be aired live on national television (KUTV-Channel 2 in Salt Lake).
Hornacek's story is your basic regular-guy-makes-the-big-time scenario. The son of a high school basketball coach, he walked on to get a spot on the Iowa State team, but ended up an honorable mention All-American. At 6-foot-4, with suspect shooting form out of college, he was picked 46th in the 1986 NBA Draft by the Suns - not exactly a ringing endorsement.
But as Hornacek stayed with the team, his game progressed commensurately. He became a good rebounder for a guard and improved on his already adequate passing game. He went from the team's 11th-best scorer in his rookie year to ninth the next, to fifth the next, to third the last two seasons, and now leads the Suns with a 21-point scoring average. He was selected to the All-Star team ahead of perennial All-Stars Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson, both teammates on the Suns.
Hornacek's paycheck kept pace with his increasing effectiveness. It soared from $97,000 a year to $400,000 to $1.4 million.
Regardless, Hornacek works at staying unaffected by his increasing stardom. Surrounded by players who often make it a point to look bored at All-Star weekend, Hornacek admitted to a Phoenix reporter, "I hope it's not my last one (All-Star Game) because this was a great weekend. The league really does a fantastic job for the players, and especially with this one being at Disney World."
He added that being at the All-Star Game "was fun even when I wasn't in the game, sitting and watching it all from a front-row seat."
When teammate Kevin Johnson suggested he buy a new suit to attend All-Star festivities, Hornacek reportedly insisted the six-year-old suit he already had was fine.
Hornacek is equally low-key in his style of play. "He's not flashy," said Jazz guard Jeff Malone. "That's not his game. But what people don't realize is that not everyone's a Clyde Drexler or Michael Jordan. A lot of guys get caught up in the one-handed drives to the basket. But players need to stay within themselves. Jeff does that."
To their credit, the Jazz have had relatively good luck keeping Hornacek in check recently. Last season against the Jazz he averaged 16 points, though he scored 25 in one game. This year he scored 17 in the first game - a 134-125 overtime Suns' win at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum - and added only 16 in Utah's 117-116 overtime win at the Delta Center.
Nevertheless, the Jazz consider him a dangerous commodity.
"He's a great shooter," continued Malone, who guards Hornacek. "Any time you can shoot you're going to be good. And he also moves without the ball. He knows how to move and get open for that little jump shot. Then he'll shock you and drive on you. He's a lot like me. He likes to move and get the screen and get to his spot."
GAME NOTES: Malone said Saturday his thumb and part of his arm were still numb from being hit by an elbow in Thursday's loss to Seattle. However, he practiced with the team Saturday morning and is expected to start against the Suns . . . Phoenix leads the all-time series with the Jazz, 51-29, but the teams are 3-3 over last year and so far this year . . . Phoenix guard Kevin Johnson has knee and shin injuries but is listed as probable for today's game while Dan Majerle sprained his ankle Friday against Dallas and is listed as questionable.