When Kevin Johnson was traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Phoenix Suns in February 1988, he was not exactly quaking over the prospect of meeting the Suns' incumbent point guard.
"Tell you the truth," said Johnson, leaning back in his dining room chair last week and smiling, "I couldn't get a handle on who he was. I knew Phoenix had these two white guards, both about the same size. Hornacek and Gondrezick. But I didn't know one from the other."
Actually, Grant Gondrezick had been waived earlier that season. Jeff Hornacek was the man.
In the Valley of the Sun, meanwhile, Hornacek was not exactly rolling out the red carpet for the newcomer. Hornacek assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that a Johnson was coming in to take his job, and all he knew was that it wasn't Magic. "Kevin Johnson was just a name," said Hornacek last week while idly shooting baskets with his 21-month-old son, Ryan, into a mini-hoop in the living room of his suburban Phoenix home. "Just another rookie I didn't know anything about."
As the Suns began their Western Conference final series against the Portland Trail Blazers this week—Game 1 was played Monday night in Portland—the Phoenix guards were a little more familiar with each other. And the rest of the league was more familiar with them, too. KJ and Horny—"The nickname is based solely on my last name," says Hornacek—are suddenly the NBA's new dynamic duo, the backcourt combo that shot down the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Western Conference semifinal and put the rising Suns into the Western final for the second straight season. The difference is, this year the Suns have a chance to win; the Lakers swept them in '88-89.
KJ and Horny, however, are still the least known of the four remaining backcourts in the NBA's second season—Portland's Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, Detroit's Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, and Chicago's Michael Jordan and John Paxson are all more established. But then, most observers rated KJ and Horny below the Laker tandem of Magic and Byron Scott, too, and that turned out to be a miscalculation.
Though neither outplayed Magic individually in the Laker series—he averaged 30.2 points per game, after all—both were far more effective than Scott. KJ, who averaged 22 points and 11.2 assists, shredded Scott, against whom he was matched most of the time, with his quickness and versatility. "Once he gets a step on you, you might as well give it to him," said the Lakers' James Worthy after KJ scored 37 points in the Suns' series-clinching 106-103 win on May 15. "Either he'll get a layup or the free throws." There are few players in the NBA to whom the Lakers extend that kind of accolade.
Hornacek, meanwhile, negated Magic's help-oriented defense by making jump shots whenever Magic drifted away from him. "I could see it in their eyes early in the series," said KJ. "They were asking each other, 'You mean Hornacek's this good?' " By the end of the series, during which Hornacek dropped in 36 of 69 field goal attempts (52.2%) and averaged 20.8 points, a lot of fans who didn't know a Hornacek from a horned lizard a few weeks before were calling him underrated. Sacramento Kings guard Danny Ainge had beaten them to it. "Jeff is the single most underrated player in the league today," Ainge said earlier in the season. "He reminds me of myself." One must assume that is the highest praise in Ainge's book.
Let's be realistic here, though—it is Johnson who draws up the master plan for the Phoenix offense, and Hornacek who waits, analyzes and fills in the empty spaces. It was KJ, not Hornacek, who appeared on Arsenio Hall's show the night after the Suns' decisive win in L.A. And it was KJ, not Hornacek, who made the All-Star team this past season and will probably become a perennial. "Kevin carries me," Hornacek says with a laugh, and there's a degree of truth to that.
Johnson is one of those players who come along only a few times a decade, a wunderkind whose talents are uniquely tailored to the pro game. Besides Jordan, is there any other player who so quickly became that much better than anyone thought he would be? Utah's Karl Malone? Dumars, perhaps? At any rate, it's a short list. By the midway point of last season—only his second in the NBA—KJ had already elevated himself into that class of point guards just below Magic, where he is clustered with Detroit's Thomas, Utah's John Stockton, and Mark Price, the man for whom KJ was sacrificed by Cleveland.
Hornacek's rise was hardly spectacular. He is, rather, like the small company that does quality work, posts steady, even earnings and suddenly discovers one day that its stock is hot. "Horny kinda grows on you" is how Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons puts it. Hornacek came to Phoenix as the last of three second-round picks the Suns had in the 1986 draft (the other two were Joe Ward and Rafael Addison, neither of whom ever made it) at the worst possible time. A drug-and-gambling investigation ripped the franchise apart late in Hornacek's rookie season, and though he was never even remotely considered a suspect, it was not the best situation for a wide-eyed rookie from Iowa State. "We were just basically going through the motions of playing by the end of that season," says Hornacek. "I was glad to be getting a chance in the NBA, but it was tough." Sun president Jerry Colangelo acted swiftly and decisively, however, and by the beginning of the 1988-89 season only one player remained from the '86-87 team—Hornacek, the good soldier, a guy who had played hard through all the misery.
The teaming of KJ and Horny was one of those fortuitous happenings that, years from now, management will probably claim was part of a grand plan. But it wasn't.
KJ arrived in Phoenix during the massive housecleaning of Feb. 24 and 25, 1988. In the space of those 48 hours, the Suns traded away Larry Nance, James Edwards, Jay Humphries, Mike Sanders and a draft pick in exchange for five players: KJ, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin, Craig Hodges, Ron Moore and five draft picks. (Two of the players traded by Phoenix, Edwards and Humphries, had been implicated in the drug scandal, but the charges against them were later dropped.) Hornacek was a point guard at that time, not necessarily because everyone was enamored of his quarterbacking skills, but more because no one could envision him as a shooting guard.
"You look at him and you just don't see a two-guard's body," said Fitzsimmons, squinting over at the 6'3", 190-pound Hornacek during a Sun practice session in Phoenix last week. "He just doesn't look that impressive. Jeff's fine running your half-court offense when you're going to call a lot of plays, but he's not the one to run your fast break all the time."
Johnson is, however. KJ had spent only a few days with the team when coach John Wetzel—who would be fired at the end of that season and replaced by Fitzsimmons—handed Johnson the ball and said, "This team is yours." It was an organization-wide decision endorsed by Colangelo and especially by Fitzsimmons, then the Suns' director of player personnel. Fitzsimmons's son, Gary, Cleveland's director of player personnel, had done nothing but praise KJ to his dad.
Hornacek, however, was not so taken with the idea. "It was frustrating for someone to come in like that and just take over," says the good soldier. But Hornacek, a former National Honor Society member who graduated from Iowa State with a degree in accounting, is an intelligent man, and deep down he realized that he did not have the talents, as either a point guard or a motivator, to jump-start the Suns. Only KJ, a true pocket Magic, could do that.
Almost by default, Hornacek moved to shooting guard for the remainder of the '87-88 season, but the Suns were obviously not committed to him. They selected 6'6", 220-pound swingman Dan Majerle with their second pick in the first round of the 1988 draft, and it was Majerle, not Hornacek, who was in Phoenix's opening-day backcourt with KJ last season.
"I have to admit it was the size thing," explains Fitzsimmons. "Majerle is so much bigger, so much more physical, and we liked that, particularly since Kevin (6'1", 190) is no giant. But I found out pretty quickly that I needed Jeff's shooting in there."
Pretty quickly—like two games into the season. Majerle was found to be much more effective as the Suns' wild card, an aggressive, off-the-bench player who scraps for his points and is a tough re-bounder and defender. And Hornacek—presto!—was suddenly the classic off-guard, the ideal, jump-shooting complement to the slashing, dashing KJ.
"I had Jeff pegged as the typical guy who was in the right situation, a guy who stayed around just because he was heady, tough, and did what the coach wanted," says Johnson. "You know, all of those clichès of the white player. But I was wrong. He's not real quick, real fast, real strong or a real jumper. But he just does everything well. And he's tricky. He makes shots that have a high degree of difficulty."
Off the court, KJ and Horny, both friendly and accessible, constitute one of the least intimidating backcourts in NBA history. Johnson is an idealist whose religious principles and charity work have yet to come across as anything but heartfelt—without a speck of irony, KJ once listed, on a team publicity form, Benji the dog as his hero because Benji is unselfish and "makes so many sacrifices so all groups of people can get along." Yikes! Hornacek is the quiet family man who picks up Ryan at the baby-sitter's and defers to his wife, Stacy, who is pregnant with their second child, on any number of issues.
Even a wispy mustache cannot make KJ look a day over his 24 years, and he seems even younger when he flashes one of his frequent, cherubic smiles. Hornacek, who just turned 27, looks like the kind of guy who wears his letter sweater to bed. His prominent jawline suggests Dick Tracy or some other impossibly virtuous character of yore.
Everything else about the Suns' backcourt is contrast. Johnson was raised by his grandparents, under difficult circumstances, in Sacramento. Hornacek is the product of a middle-class background in Elmhurst, Ill. His father, John, is the varsity baseball and freshman basketball coach at St. Joseph High in Westchester, Ill., where he once coached Isiah Thomas. KJ stepped into Fitzsimmons's wide-open style and played as if he had been running an NBA team for 10 years. Hornacek, on the other hand, was a plugger.
Johnson already makes a star's salary of about $1.5 million per year, while Hornacek, who began his career at $94,000, just above the NBA minimum, now makes about $350,000. Colangelo has promised him a new pact when the season is over, however.
"You know who Horny reminds me of?" says Fitzsimmons. "My damn paperboy. The kid who rides his bike up to the house every afternoon at five and drops it in the box."
How about your point guard, Cotton? "Special," answers Fitzsimmons immediately. "That's the only word that comes to mind. Special."
Fitzsimmons smiles as he ponders the backcourt that has given him his best chance at a title in 17 years at the helm of five different NBA teams. "We're happy with 'em," says Cotton. And now that KJ and Horny are better acquainted, they're happy with each other, too.