"That isn't Keith Van Horn, is it?"
This is an article from the Jan. 19, 1998 issue
So said one NBA security man to another upon finding a young man
sleeping in the hallway of a hotel in Charlotte, wearing only
blue plaid boxer shorts. Naturally, there's a very good
explanation for this. Really.
About seven hours earlier at the NBA draft, Van Horn had been
chosen second overall by the Philadelphia 76ers; the next day he
would discover that he had been traded to the New Jersey Nets.
To celebrate his first night in the NBA, Van Horn, still dressed
in his fancy blue suit and wearing his 76ers baseball cap,
joined his wife, Amy, and a small group of family and friends at
a local bistro. The merry revelers closed the place, singing
karaoke to Marvin Gaye's Our Precious Love, eating Buffalo
wings, drinking too much chardonnay and smoking way too many
cigars. They left the restaurant and returned to their hotel bar
for more wine and stogies. When Keith finally returned to his
room at 5 a.m., he was seized by a persistent and noisy case of
hiccups that threatened to wake up his four-week-old son,
Nicholas. Amy, who had never seen her normally teetotaling
husband so much as tipsy in the four years that she'd known him,
banished Keith to the hallway with a pillow. An hour or so later
the security men arrived.
Thus began a series of memorable NBA exploits featuring Van
Horn, many of which have ended with similar exclamations of
wonder. For instance, on Jan. 2 the 6'10" New Jersey rookie
forward scored 16 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter of a
benchmark 103-98 victory over the New York Knicks, highlighted
by a dazzling move with the game tied at 79 and 7:45 remaining.
Playing in just his 13th pro game, Van Horn held the ball at the
top of the key facing New York's intimidating 13-year veteran
power forward Charles Oakley. He teased Oakley with a series of
head fakes, used a deft crossover dribble to penetrate the lane
and then scored on a sweet finger roll that brought the sellout
crowd at Continental Airlines Arena to its feet and gave the
Nets the lead for good. Later in the quarter Van Horn sank two
three-pointers, then clinched the win by making a pair of free
throws with 6.8 seconds left. During a late timeout, New Jersey
center Jayson Williams walked back to the Nets' bench, where he
was met by reserve forward David Benoit. Said Benoit, "Damn,
that Van Horn boy can play."
Williams looked askance at Benoit and replied, "Where've you
been? He's been busting your booty in practice every day."
Truly, if anybody should have sensed Van Horn's explosive
potential, it's Benoit, a seven-year veteran who guarded the
rookie in one-on-one drills for six weeks during New Jersey's
summer camp. "Keith tore me apart until I finally figured out
that the only way to stop him is to foul him," Benoit says.
"Still, I had no idea he'd abuse the rest of the league the way
he abused me."
By week's end Van Horn was, if not abusing the league, certainly
making it take notice. After sitting out the Nets' first 17
games with a partially torn tendon in his right ankle, he had
come on strong enough to lead NBA rookies in scoring and playing
time, with 20.5 points and 40.4 minutes per game. In his first
five games he scored 11, 16, 23, 24 and 30 points, and he had
finished in double figures in all of his games. Most important,
he had become the man the Nets looked to at crunch time, as they
did against the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 17, when his clutch
three-point play broke open a tie game with just over a minute
remaining and gave the Nets their first win against the Pistons
in their last 12 tries. Van Horn's teammates have marveled at
his fearlessness. "His confidence is far greater than that of
any rookie I've ever seen," says Nets forward Kendall Gill.
"Most rookies start off timid, but right away he's willing to
take big shots."
"Van Horn's so polished and he's got so many weapons that it's
hard to believe he's a rookie," says Orlando Magic coach Chuck
Daly, who saw him drop in 19 points in New Jersey's 89-87 home
win over the Magic last Thursday. "He'll be an All-Star in this
league, and sooner rather than later."
Van Horn is excelling partly because, despite his lofty draft
position, he is continually underestimated. "He doesn't look
like an athlete," Detroit forward Grant Hill says, taking note
of Van Horn's stringy, 230-pound body, "but he's more athletic
than I thought he'd be." Even some of the Nets' brass admit they
underrated Van Horn until they scouted him at a workout two
weeks before last June's draft. "Keith shows up with his
funny-looking body and his socks pulled up high like a dork and
that choirboy face," New Jersey coach and vice president John
Calipari says. "Then I watched the guy hit 32 of 40 from the
three-point line and knock down 50 straight free throws and jump
to the top of the square on the backboard and run faster than
our guards, and I was just blown away. I said to myself, Holy
cow, am I really seeing this?"
Calipari telephoned his close friend Larry Brown, the
Philadelphia coach, under whom Calipari worked as an assistant
at Kansas in the early '80s. Calipari asked about Brown's
intentions with the second pick in the draft and then candidly
said, "If you're not taking Van Horn, I'll do whatever I have to
do to get him." At 3 p.m. on draft day, after approximately 30
calls between the two coaches, the Nets traded two starters,
guard Jim Jackson and center Eric Montross, and two '97
first-round picks (the higher of which, No. 7, became forward
Tim Thomas) for the rights to Van Horn and three
players--forward-center Michael Cage, guard Lucious Harris and
forward Don MacLean--whom Philadelphia was looking to dump for
salary-cap reasons. It was a monumental gamble for New Jersey.
"I'm a horseplayer, and I've seen a lot of 2-year-olds who were
very impressive in the morning but lost their luster at post
time," Nets general manager John Nash says. "But you get very
few opportunities in this business to get this kind of
The next step was to convince Van Horn's skeptical new teammates
of his value. "The first time I saw Keith walk on the court,"
Williams says, "I was like, Damn, what are we thinking now,
giving up half our team for Huck Finn?" Moments later Williams
watched in awe as Van Horn drained 18 of 19 three-pointers. When
the 20th shot hung on the rim, the rookie dashed in and dunked it.
Williams has since nicknamed him Pale Rider, a reference to Van
Horn's ghostly white pallor. The color of Van Horn's skin has
drawn nearly as much attention this season as the quality of his
play. After a Dec. 11 game against Detroit in which Van Horn
shot 13 free throws, Pistons center Brian Williams suggested
that Van Horn was getting special treatment from the officials
because the league needed a white superstar. Williams called Van
Horn "the great white hope" and went on to describe the rookie
as "a kid who looks like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell
painting...who carries the weight of every guy who plays with
four knee guards and glasses on him."
Van Horn, New Jersey's only white player (unless you count Jack
Haley), dismisses the racial stereotyping. "It's sad society has
to think like that," Van Horn says. "I look forward to the day
when everybody looks at me as just a player, not a white player."
Van Horn is a sage 22-year-old who's going on 40. His maturity
comes from having spent four years in college at Utah and from
already being married with two kids. (He and Amy have a
daughter, Sabrina, 2.) His ability to maintain his equanimity is
extraordinary. "Sometimes I'll say things just to try to rile
him, but Keith never bites," Amy says. "Whenever we argue, I
feel like screaming at him, 'Get upset!'"
When doctors informed Van Horn that a right ankle sprain he
suffered in an Oct. 23 preseason game was more serious than was
first believed, Calipari searched desperately for the right
words to calm the rookie's fears. Van Horn turned to Calipari
and said, "Don't worry, Coach. I'll get better from this. It
will give me a chance to work on my upper-body strength."
Van Horn's college career served as a thorough NBA tutorial.
Utah plays strictly man-to-man defense, and the Utes run
offensive plays that coach Rick Majerus, a former NBA assistant,
learned from pro coaches such as the Los Angeles Lakers' Del
Harris and the Seattle SuperSonics' George Karl. Van Horn also
benefits from playing what he calls a 3 1/2, floating somewhere
between the power and small forward positions (and occasionally
even becoming a point forward, as he did briefly last Saturday
in the Nets' 108-101 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves). His
size and versatility pose matchup problems for many opponents.
"If they put a tall guy on me and I hit a few jumpers, I have
the guy on a string like a puppet," Van Horn says. "If they put
a smaller guy on me, I can post up and shoot over him."
Opponents no longer allow Van Horn to roam free on the perimeter
and in recent games have begun to shadow his every movement.
Van Horn has struggled mightily, however, against stronger
players such as the Cleveland Cavaliers' Shawn Kemp and the New
York Knicks' Larry Johnson, which partly explains his relatively
low 41.3% shooting from the floor through Sunday. When his ankle
is fully healed, he hopes to improve not only his inside
shooting but also his rebounding (6.6 per game) and assists
(1.0). It's scary to think that by Van Horn's own estimate, he
has played at just 75% for most of the season. If he can regain
his full mobility, he might even make a charge at the Rookie of
the Year award, which had seemingly already been conceded to San
Antonio Spurs center-forward Tim Duncan.
At halftime of the game against the Magic, the Nets hosted a
ceremony honoring their 1976 ABA championship team. Van Horn,
who was born at the beginning of the '75-76 season (Oct. 23),
represents a human life span of the franchise's despair. New
Jersey joined the NBA in 1976-77 and has averaged fewer than 33
victories per season and won but one playoff series.
Though the Continental Arena is only about six miles from New
York City, on the NBA map it might as well be a million and six.
For two decades--to borrow the words of Garden State legend
Bruce Springsteen--the Nets have been nothing but "darkness on
the edge of town." Perhaps it's fortunate that when the
California-born Van Horn was drafted, he needed to consult a
globe just to locate New Jersey and had no clue about the
long-standing misery of the Nets franchise. "Jayson told me some
sad stories when I got here, and I got a little depressed for a
few days," Van Horn admits. "But this is a new era, and we can
erase the curse by winning."
At week's end New Jersey, 26-56 last season, seemed on its way
to accomplishing that goal. The Nets had an encouraging 18-16
record (12-4 at home) and trailed their rivals from across the
Hudson, the second-place Knicks, by just 1 1/2 games in the
Atlantic Division standings. With New York's All-Star center,
Patrick Ewing, almost certainly out for the season after wrist
surgery, Van Horn could supplant Ewing as the city's most
popular player. Jersey jerseys (especially those with Van Horn's
number 44) are suddenly turning up in Times Square, and the eyes
of Gotham have begun to peek westward toward the Meadowlands.
Says Gill, "We've put a lot of people on notice that we're not a
It's all part of "changing the culture," a catchphrase Calipari
utters every day. "People don't like me saying this, but let's
face it, how many organizations were as bad as the Nets?"
Calipari says. "I think Keith is the perfect guy to finally
steer us in the right direction. He's a gym rat fully committed
to winning a championship for the New Jersey fans."
Williams, the Nets' senior member in terms of service with the
club (six years) and a possible free agent at season's end,
admits that he no longer fantasizes about fleeing the franchise.
"I must have played with 97 players since I've been here, and in
the past, whenever I saw my old teammates, they looked at me
like I was in purgatory," Williams says. "It feels different
this year. When somebody asks me, 'What did Santa bring you for
Christmas?' I say, 'That guy.'"
Williams points across the Nets' dressing room at a young man in
his boxer shorts. That isn't Keith Van Horn, is it?
After only 17 NBA games, Keith Van Horn's versatility has been
prompting comparisons between him and some of his multiskilled
predecessors. Here's how Van Horn's numbers through Sunday stack
up against the rookie averages of five All-Pro forwards from the
last two decades.
NAME, TEAM/SEASON MIN. PTS. REB. ASSTS. FG % 3-PT %
LARRY BIRD, 36.0 21.3 10.4 4.5 .474 .406
CHARLES BARKLEY, 28.6 14.0 8.6 1.9 .545 .167
CHRIS MULLIN, 25.3 14.0 2.1 1.9 .463 .185
SCOTTIE PIPPEN, 20.9 7.9 3.8 2.1 .463 .174
GRANT HILL, 38.3 19.9 6.4 5.0 .477 .148
KEITH VAN HORN, 40.4 20.5 6.6 1.0 .413 .313