Keith Van Horn sat in the corner of the hospital room on the
evening of May 29, 1995, and began writing a 10-page term paper
that was due the following day for his health-education class at
Utah. All the paper had at that point was a title--"Personal
Resilience"--but because Van Horn isn't a connoisseur of irony,
it never occurred to him that he might simply chronicle the
events that were swirling around him at that very moment.
A few feet away from where Van Horn sat resolutely drafting the
paper, his girlfriend, Amy Sida, was in labor. As Sida's Lamaze
coach, Van Horn eventually helped out with the delivery, and
during the slower moments he wrote. At 1:30 a.m., Van Horn cut
newborn Sabrina's umbilical cord. He slept that night in the
hospital, woke early the next morning, returned to his apartment
and typed the paper in time for the 4 p.m. deadline. "There were
two things due on the same day," Van Horn recalls
matter-of-factly. "Amy and my paper. Both worked out great." He
wound up with a daughter and an A.
Van Horn's mastery of personal resilience was even more evident
a year later when he chose not to cut the cord. Thirty-five
college underclassmen and three high school players declared
themselves eligible for the NBA draft last spring, and none of
them had sounder reasons to leave school than the 6'10",
230-pound Van Horn. After averaging 21.4 points and 8.8 rebounds
per game as a junior to win his second straight Western Athletic
Conference Player of the Year award, he had cause to believe
that if he left school, he would be one of the first 10 players
taken in the NBA draft. Good news for a guy with a family to
Van Horn had already discussed the matter over dinner in Salt
Lake City with Utah coach Rick Majerus a week after the final
game of the 1995-96 season. Majerus listed the pros and cons of
jumping to the NBA, estimating that with the league's rookie
salary cap, Van Horn's first contract would pay him around $6
million for three seasons. Then the coach commenced the
Majerus: What kind of car do you want?
Van Horn: A Lexus.
Majerus: What kind of house do you want?
Van Horn: A house with a swimming pool.
Majerus: What does Amy want?
Van Horn: She wants to go to nursing school.
Majerus: What do you want for Sabrina?
Van Horn: A stroller that she can't escape from.
Majerus sized up those substantial desires, took a deep breath
and told Van Horn about the Al McGuire Refrigerator Theory. The
theory goes that the less one has in the fridge, the more avidly
one ought to seek wealth. "I can look in my refrigerator and
I've got the hors d'oeuvres section, the Ben & Jerry's section,
every section you can think of," Majerus told Van Horn. "I look
in your refrigerator and you're lucky if you've got a quart of
Van Horn's roommate, Greg Riolo, supplied the advice of the
common man. "I'd leave in a heartbeat if millions of dollars
were staring me in the face," Riolo said.
But even though two of his closest confidants were urging Van
Horn to take the money, his mind kept rewinding to something he
had said on the frigid morning of Jan. 25, 1994. Shortly before
2 a.m. on that day, Majerus received a call from Keith's mother,
May. She told him that Van Horn's 57-year-old father, Ken, had
died the previous evening of heart failure, and she asked
Majerus to deliver the news and stay with Keith for as long as
her son wished. Majerus, who had performed the same dismal
service for no fewer than five other players during his coaching
career, woke up Van Horn in his dorm room and drove him to a
24-hour diner, where they talked until dawn. Majerus had lost
his own father three years earlier, so the two reminisced about
As they spoke, Majerus couldn't help but notice how Ken's son
sat before him, composed in the face of tragedy. Van Horn talked
about the day he had destroyed the transmission on his father's
boat and how Ken, who owned a fire sprinkler business, had
handled the news with his customary calm. In that way father and
son were similar: inclined to see all sides of an issue and
reluctant to react strongly until they were sure of how they
felt. Then Van Horn told Majerus about the promise he had made
to his father before he left home for Utah. He had told his dad
that he would graduate from college.
Actually, there was a time when Keith Van Horn announced his
intention to go pro. After a particularly successful afternoon
of shooting at the family's backyard rim, Keith strode up to his
mother and said, "I've decided to play in the NBA." He was eight
years old. May took her son at his word, especially after he
grew from a guard into a power forward, sprouting six inches
between the ninth and 10th grades at Diamond Bar High in
suburban Los Angeles.
Van Horn stood out on the L.A. playground scene, not only
because he could dominate games both inside and outside, but
also because his fair skin and sandy bangs made him look as if
he had escaped from an episode of The Waltons. "I once played
ball in a league at Fremont High in South Central," Van Horn
says. "There were eight teams in that league, and at every game
the only other white people in the gym were the college
Utah assistant coach Donny Daniels remembers scouting Van Horn
during a pickup game at Ronald Reagan Park in Diamond Bar.
"Keith was humiliating the competition, draining 20-footers from
all over the court," Daniels recalls. "I was sitting on a park
bench with some of the locals, and all they kept saying was,
'Damn, that white boy can play.'" Daniels was so smitten with
Van Horn that he once attended a Diamond Bar game even though he
knew Van Horn had a sprained wrist and wouldn't suit up. Daniels
went to watch him watch.
Because he liked Majerus and thought he would get considerable
playing time as a freshman, Van Horn chose Utah over Cal and
Arizona State. Since coming to Salt Lake City, his reputation
has grown with his muscles. "He showed up here at 190 pounds and
thin as a thermometer, so at the beginning, the way guys moved
past him, it was like opening Boulder Dam," Majerus says. "But
he's a self-made player, and he worked hard in the weight room
so that nobody could push him around."
Though his debut season included his father's death and a
disappointing 14-14 showing by the Utes, Van Horn became the
first freshman in 21 years to lead the team in scoring. Last
season he showed his versatility by finishing second in the
conference in rebounding, scoring, three-point field goal
percentage (.409) and free throw percentage (.851). During one
stretch he sank 39 consecutive foul shots. "Keith's out of the
Larry Bird mold," says BYU coach Roger Reid, who saw Van Horn
pour in 38 points in Utah's 96-85 victory over the Cougars last
March. "It's tough to find volunteers to guard a guy who can
beat you down low or behind the arc. And he has great court
About the only thing Van Horn can't do is grasp his own
celebrity. "Keith is never one to showboat," says Utes junior
center Michael Doleac. "He doesn't have the slightest clue how
to act like a star."
In fact, on the night Utah clinched the WAC regular-season
championship in Van Horn's sophomore year, the team fanned out
across Salt Lake City to celebrate. Majerus went to a Denny's
off the freeway, and an hour later Van Horn walked in with his
mom, four cousins and a group of family friends. "I'll never
forget that night because Keith could have been the prince of
the city," Majerus remembers. "But he chose to celebrate with
his family, eating ice-cream sundaes with a bunch of people
twice his age."
One person who wasn't at Denny's that night was Sida. She and
Van Horn have had an up-and-down relationship since they met at
a bonfire on their second day of college. In August '94 the
couple visited a Planned Parenthood clinic, where it was
confirmed that Sida was pregnant. Both cried at the prospect of
having to inform their parents. They were engaged a few months
afterward, but when Van Horn waffled on a wedding date, it
became evident to Sida that he had proposed only out of a sense
of duty. A month later she gave him back the ring, and shortly
after Sabrina was born, they broke up. "There was a lot of
pressure on us to get married, and we had built up some hostile
feelings for each other," Amy says. "We needed to spend some
time apart so we could make our own decisions."
Van Horn had an opportunity to flee his responsibilities, to run
away to a new life in the NBA. But the more he reflected on his
choice, the more Ken's death reminded him about the importance
of having a father. He visited his daughter almost every day and
worked to repair the relationship with Sida. Last Christmas Eve,
Van Horn dropped to one knee and offered Sida that same
engagement ring. This time she had no reservations, and the two
were married in August, two months before Van Horn's 21st
With his nuclear family in place, Van Horn is concentrating on
his senior season. His goals are simple. He wants to complete
his degree in sociology and lead Utah to its first appearance in
the Final Four since '66. Last Saturday he scored a career-high
41 points, to go along with 15 rebounds, in Utah's 83-48 win
over Weber State. He was averaging 20.2 points and 10.5 rebounds
for the No. 9 Utes.
Van Horn's maturity on and off the court impresses pro teams.
"He's an NBA lottery pick because he's a big man who can run,
jump, post up and shoot threes, and he's clutch at the foul
line," says Utah Jazz president Frank Layden. "But most
important, he does all that with a very even temperament. Keith
is the Clark Kent of college basketball. There's an S somewhere
underneath his jersey."
At the end of this season Van Horn will likely trade in his red
pickup, which has 107,000 miles on it, and buy that Lexus. Amy
will leave behind her three-nights-a-week waitress job and
eventually attend nursing school. Sabrina will get that
non-escapable stroller. The family will probably wind up with a
ticket to one of the same NBA cities that had wanted Van Horn 12
months earlier. Van Horn will be a good young player on a bad
But these days Van Horn rarely thinks beyond the next diaper
change. "We went to the WAC media luncheon in Las Vegas on
October 31, and all Keith did was worry about getting home in
time for trick-or-treating," Majerus remembers. "His daughter's
not even two years old. She'll never remember if she was dressed
as the Tooth Fairy or the Wicked Witch of the West, but Keith is
a very responsible dad."
Says Van Horn, "I don't think any 17-year-old kid goes into
college thinking that by the time he graduates he'll have his
father die, become a father and get married. Heck, when I came
to Utah, I was just hoping to play basketball a few minutes a
game and get my degree. I love my wife and daughter, and I look
forward to playing in the NBA, but sometimes I do feel like I'm
30 years old, and I wonder, How did I grow up so fast?"
How could Keith Van Horn ever have anticipated how much he would
learn in college? One proud father is gone, replaced by another.
"Personal Resilience" is more than a title for a term paper.