With little fanfare the Jeff Hornacek Farewell Tour stopped in
Philadelphia recently, and when the Utah Jazz guard appeared for
pregame warmups, a fan at midcourt encouraged his young son to
observe Hornacek's dexterity as a shooter. As if on cue Hornacek
swished four straight three-pointers, then nailed medium-range
jumpers from various points on the First Union Center floor.
Finally, he tossed in a series of bank shots and layups,
employing angles that would have left Euclid scratching his
head. There is something almost hypnotic about watching the man
shoot, yet when Hornacek walked off the court, the child turned
to his father and asked one question: "How come he didn't dunk?"
If outside shooting is a dying art in today's gravity-defying
NBA, it will take a major step toward extinction within the next
few months when Hornacek retires. A player who has spent the
better part of his 14 pro seasons in what marksmen call "the
zone," Hornacek is winding up what might be the best shooting
season in history. At week's end he was second to the Dallas
Mavericks' Hubert Davis in three-point accuracy (48.2%), second
among NBA guards to teammate John Stockton in overall field goal
accuracy (49.0%) and not only the league's best free throw
shooter (95.7%, sinking 156 of 163) but also within a few
successful foul shots of Calvin Murphy's record 95.8%, set in
1980-81. "Enjoy Jeff while you can," says Karl Malone, "because
there may never be another shooter like him."
Since the All-Star break--when he won the three-point shootout for
the second straight time and then paired with the WNBA's Natalie
Williams to win the 2Ball competition--Hornacek has drained 28 of
43 threes. (For perspective, scoring 84 points on 43 three-point
attempts is tantamount to shooting 97.7% on the same number of
shots from within the arc.) Not coincidentally, shopworn Utah has
gone 19-3 in that span and has suddenly emerged as the most
viable threat to the Lakers in the West.
Hornacek's long-range shooting has always been, well, trey bien.
But unlike other top gunners, such as Davis, the Toronto Raptors'
Dell Curry and the San Antonio Spurs' Steve Kerr, Hornacek is no
mere spot-up shooter. Averaging 12.6 points through Sunday, he
scores frequently on runners, floaters and spin-laden reverses
that would make him the top draft pick were there ever a
professional H-O-R-S-E league.
Still, what makes Hornacek so effective, particularly now that
he's playing on a bum left knee? For one, he has the hair-trigger
release of an arcade junkie playing POP-A-SHOT. It often seems as
though the 6'4" Hornacek isn't actually shooting so much as
redirecting a teammate's pass toward the basket. "When the ball
arrives, I try to be in my motion already," he says. "It's just
catch-release-bang, catch-release-bang." Hornacek also has
immense powers of concentration. Johnny Orr, his coach at Iowa
State, recalls Hornacek's speaking to a group of kids at a summer
basketball camp 10 years ago, all the while shooting long
jumpers. "Jeff was talking, but his eyes never left the rim,"
says Orr. "He went around the horn twice and didn't miss a shot."
What's more, Hornacek is an outstanding athlete. Don't laugh.
True, he unabashedly admits he's incapable of dunking (there's
your answer, kid) and, yes, he took stitches during the 1998
postseason after he tripped on a rake in his garage and cut his
head. But his extraordinary hand-eye coordination compensates for
his lack of speed and leaping ability. The national Pitch, Hit &
Run champion as a nine-year-old in 1972, Hornacek also has soft
hands and a keen sense of anticipation. "He looks like he's going
in slow motion, but his shot never gets blocked," says Jazz guard
Howard Eisley. "That tells you something."
Hornacek will turn 37 in May, but his shooting hasn't diminished
with age. In fact, here's a rule of thumb: The longer the shot,
the longer the teeth of the deadliest shooters. The average age
in the NBA is 28.3 years, but at week's end every player among
the league's top dozen three-point shooters was older than that.
The most proficient three-point shooters of the past two seasons,
Curry and Dale Ellis, were 34 and 37, respectively, when they won
their titles. This is in part because shooting is a skill of
repetition that improves with practice, but also because it's a
matter of professional self-preservation. As an aging player's
other skills start to decline, he figures--correctly--that shooting
might be a way to prolong his career (see Perkins, Sam). "You
also get more comfortable as you get older," says Hornacek. "You
realize that if you make it, great. If not, there's always
Befitting an accounting major, Hornacek is steadfastly rational
about his shooting. He is without superstition--his ritual of
stroking his right cheek three times before each foul shot to
acknowledge his children (Ryan, 11, Tyler, 7, and Abigail, 5)
notwithstanding--and rarely waxes philosophical on the subject. He
even claims to scarcely remember the important shots he's missed.
(Of course, moments later, he describes the errant free throw
that snapped his streak of 67 earlier this season. "It was right
on line, but hit the back of the rim and just popped out," he
says, wincing. That was on Jan. 6.)
Further, Hornacek lacks the so-called shooter's mentality: If I
miss my first nine shots, I'm still jacking up a 10th. Ever the
realist, Hornacek does his own accounting on that point: "If I
miss my first nine shots, I might shoot a 10th--but I better be
wide open, because it's probably not my night." Having notched
more than 5,000 assists in his career, Hornacek passes up scads
of open looks. "Like all great shooters, Jeff has supreme
confidence," says Utah assistant Gordon Chiesa, "but he doesn't
need to shoot whenever he can."
If there's any mystique to shooting, any be-the-ball Zen,
Hornacek thinks that it's in the mechanics. Throughout his
career, when his shot has felt particularly good, he has jotted
down all the reasons; after an off night, he checks the list to
figure out what he was doing wrong. Also, he has constantly
tinkered with his technique. Early in his career, for example, he
discovered that the thumb from his guide hand was adding backspin
to his shot and detracting from his touch; he taped the thumb to
the index finger until he broke the habit. "With shooting, you
can do 99 things right," he says, "and if the hundredth thing is
off a little bit, your shot won't go in."
The embodiment of a coach's son--his father, John, was a longtime
assistant at St. Joseph's High outside Chicago--Hornacek was a gym
rat growing up. Yet he concedes that his wife, Stacy, had the
biggest influence on his shot. In 1987, after Jeff's rookie year
with the Suns, he was practicing at the Phoenix Jewish Community
Center and had recruited Stacy to rebound. Tired of retrieving
her husband's errant shots, Stacy took a break to watch Jeff's
form. Almost immediately, she suggested that he point at the
basket after his release. Jeff recalls thinking, Yeah, what do
you know? You're going to teach me how to shoot? Still, he tried
his wife's suggestion. "I had always picked a spot on the front
of the rim and aimed right over that spot," he says, "but my
follow-through was all over the place. She was right. When I
pointed at my target when I finished, more often than not the
shot went in."
Like any practitioner of a skill that isn't valued as it once
was, Hornacek is concerned about the future of jump shooting. He
sees kids who were weaned on Michael Jordan enter the league with
a full palette of drives and one-and-one moves, but no clue as to
how to shoot a jumper. "It's true that I changed my shot when I
got to the NBA, but I practiced so much when I was younger that I
developed my shooting eye," he says. "Guys get by with bad habits
in high school and college, and then they come to the NBA and
it's another story."
As for his own future, Hornacek says that when the season ends,
he'll "play Mr. Mom for a while" so his wife can return to the
writing career she put on hold after college 14 years ago. He'll
work on his golf game, which, he notes wistfully, does not
benefit from the touch he exhibits on the court. He also plans on
coaching at a high school in Salt Lake City. "Even if my body
could handle another season, I'm not sure my kids could," he
says. "It's time to move on."
That may be the case. But as retirement fast approaches, Hornacek
is going out with a resounding catch-release-bang.
Only four NBA players are in the top 30 in career three-point and
free throw shooting for both the regular season and the playoffs.
Through Sunday's games Jeff Hornacek had the best cumulative
ranking among them.
REGULAR SEASON POSTSEASON
PLAYER 3-PT.%(RANK) FT%(RANK) 3-PT.%(RANK) FT%(RANK) SUM OF
Jeff Hornacek 40.2% (15) 87.7% (8) 43.5% (3) 88.8% (7) 33
Reggie Miller 40.4% (12) 88.1% (7) 40.9% (8) 87.4% (11) 38
Hersey Hawkins 39.4% (20) 87.0% (12) 39.8% (9) 91.1% (4) 45
Chris Mullin 38.3% (30) 86.6% (16) 41.7% (5) 86.1% (19) 70