Hornacek faces stern test as New York Knicks' new leading man

ByIan Begley ESPN logo
Thursday, June 2, 2016

To get to know Jeff Hornacek -- really get to know him -- it's instructive to ask Jeff's mother, Sue Hornacek, about his first job.

"Jeff had a paper route, and he would get up and he would do it -- rain or shine," Sue said. "He always folded his papers nicely and made sure they were double wrapped for the rain. He always went above and beyond. He's prepared like that for every job that he does."

That patient, dogged, meticulous approach will certainly serve Hornacek well in his next gig. The 53-year-old Hornacek will beintroduced Friday as the new head coachof the New York Knicks, the team's fifth in six seasons.

Hornacek will inherit a team that's won a total of 48 games during the past two seasons, a club seemingly caught between building around the promising future of rookie Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony's closing window.

The team Hornacek inherits is also mired in a bit of an identity crisis.

The Knicks' triangle offense, brought to New York by team president Phil Jackson, has taken a beating publicly. It's deductive to blame the triangle for all that has ailed the Knicks, but it's also hard to ignore that the club has ranked in the bottom five in offensive efficiency during the past two seasons.

Some around the league say the stigma surrounding the triangle turned off potential free agents last summer. The hope around the Knicks facility in recent days is that Hornacek can tweak the offensive scheme, thereby enticing top free agents to come to New York.

It's probably unrealistic to view Hornacek as a cure-all for the Knicks. But if he can help push the club forward, it will be viewed as a win for Jackson in a presidency that thus far hasn't had an abundance of them.

If you talk to enough people who know Hornacek well, you start to hear the same phrases: mild mannered, polite, family man, quiet demeanor. But Gene Pingatore warns against painting Hornacek with a broad brush.

"If you look at him, he's a choir boy, he's a gentleman. You probably wouldn't know how fierce of a competitor he is," said Pingatore, long-time head coach at St. Joseph High School (Illinois) and Hornacek's family friend.

"He wants to win. That's the way he's been his whole life. You don't change those things. That's part of his personality and his character. Good person, intelligent and if you put him in a competitive situation, he's going to win."

Hornacek found himself in plenty of competitive situations growing up in La Grange, Illinois. He was one of four brothers in an athletically-inclined family. The Hornacek boys grew up on basketball and baseball in the backyard. They also watched their father, John, coach freshman hoops games at St. Joseph -- where Pingatore coached the varsity -- and play softball in a competitive men's league on the weekends.

"It's was all about sports, that's all it was," Sue said.

Hornacek didn't play for his father at St. Joseph; he attended nearby Lyons Township High School, where he earned All-State honors but little attention from Division I schools. Hornacek was prepared to play basketball at Cornell -- but before he left home, a coach at Iowa State asked John if Jeff was still available. The answer, of course, was yes, and Hornacek walked on at Ames.

Four years later, the gangly wing player with the unorthodox jump shot left the school as the all-time leader in assists and led the Cyclones to their first NCAA tournament win in more than 40 years.

"He wasn't the flashiest, athletic wise, but he went on to become the best NBA player we ever had here," then Iowa State assistant Jim Hallihan said.

Hallihan noticed something else about Hornacek that teammates in Phoenix and Utah would come to recognize: He was a coach on the floor.

"He knew how to manipulate the game in his favor to do what he needed to do to be successful and helped the guys around him be successful," ex-Suns teammate Dan Majerle said. "He was one of those guys you knew would coach."

Hornacek had a calm, welcoming demeanor that endeared him to teammates throughout his 14 years in the NBA. Majerle remembers Hornacek inviting the rookie to his home for dinner in one of Majerle's first nights in Phoenix. Ex-Jazz teammate Thurl Bailey remembers late nights with Utah when he, Hornacek and John Stockton eschewed the club scene and instead talked hoops over steak dinners.

"There are no crazy stories about Jeff," Majerle said. "He was a family man, really fun-loving, happy-go-lucky. He got along with everybody."

If recent history is any indication, that temperament may be tested in New York. The club has employed four coaches in the past five seasons, and one of the more frequent cheers at Madison Square Garden during that span has been "Fire (insert Knicks coach's last name here)."

The media can be tough and the expectations can be as high as the skyscrapers.

But those close to Hornacek believe he's well-equipped to handle the daily melodrama (and real drama) that comes with the Knicks job.

"He's been around the NBA, and he knows New York is different than Phoenix," an NBA source who knows Hornacek said.

One of the more intriguing early storylines in the Hornacek tenure is how he changes the triangle offense. The general expectation is that Hornacek will implement more pick-and-roll and play at a quicker pace than the Knicks did while running the triangle the past two seasons. But it would surprise many in the organization if Hornacek completely scrapped Jackson's famed offense.

"Everyone uses a version of the triangle. Everybody does," one veteran Eastern Conference executive said. "It's called basketball. Playing off of the elbow; moving the ball side to side; cutter goes through, screen for the short corner spacer. It's basketball. Jeff already used some of that (in Phoenix)."

Hornacek's Suns also played at a much quicker pace and shot 3's more frequently than the Knicks. Some of the Knicks are already anticipating -- and excited about -- potential changes Hornacek will make to the offense, according to sources.

Of course, if Hornacek gets leeway to change the offense, he'll be given a liberty that wasn't afforded to ex-Knicks coach Derek Fisher. Fisher tried to push the pace last season and implement more drag screens and high ball screens but was met with resistance from Jackson, sources say. It was one of several sources of discord between Fisher and Jackson, according to people familiar with the dynamic.

Fisher and Jackson also didn't have the type of "simpatico" relationship that Jackson said he was looking for in his next head coaching hire. Both men said they'd communicate with each other regularly entering last season but those plans never came to fruition, according to people familiar with the situation. Will the lines of communication be open with Hornacek?

"Jeff will be the kind of guy that will be picking his brain," Pingatore predicts. "Good coaches don't just believe that they're good coaches because of (what they know). The really good coaches are the ones that know they need to learn and keep on learning and be picking the brains of people who have been successful."

Hornacek doesn't have a prior relationship with Jackson, but Jackson's fondness for Hornacek dates back to the shooting guard's playing days, particularly when the Jazz and Bulls played each other in two consecutive Finals in 1997 and 1998.Hornacek cemented his reputation as a winning player with the Jazz; Utah won more than 65 percent of its games with Hornacek on the roster.

Wins were scarce for Hornacek in Phoenix last season. He comes to New York with a 101-112 career coaching record after being let go by the Suns in February. His messy final season obscures how well things started in Phoenix. Hornacek finished second in the Coach of the Year voting to Gregg Popovich in his first, leading the Suns to 48 wins -- 23 more than one Las Vegas sports book predicted.

"He got everyone to play at a high level; a number of guys had career years. And then the team makeup started changing," an NBA source who knows Hornacek said. "They didn't bring Channing Frye back, they brought in Isaiah (Thomas), which caused a logjam in the backcourt and the team chemistry just flipped in a short period of time."

The guard trio of Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe didn't work out, and Thomas and Dragic were both traded during Hornacek's second season. The chemistry issues came to a head this season when Hornacek and Markieff Morris had a run-in on the bench in which Morris threw a towel in Hornacek's direction and Hornacek threw it back at him. The Morris issue -- and injuries to several key players -- essentially swallowed the season.

"If you can't go to your best players and have an understanding or relationship with them and have that trickle down to the rest of the team, obviously you're going to have a problem," Baileysaid. "That's not always the coach's fault."

It's impossible to say, of course, how much of the Suns' demise was Hornacek's responsibility. but the sour ending in Phoenix will be all but forgotten if Hornacek can lead the Knicks back into contention. It will also create a new chapter for Jackson, who has had an up-and-down tenure as Knicks executive.

That may be a lot of pressure to put on the former paper boy from La Grange. But those closest to Hornacek believe he can handle it.

"He pursues things until he can get them done," John Hornacek said. "He was always determined to do well and he always will be."

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