LA GRANGE — For a basketball player who would go on to have his jersey number retired by the Utah Jazz, Jeff Hornacek wasn’t all that accomplished initially during his playing days at Lyons Township High School in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“I came in freshman year and started that year,” Hornacek said in a phone interview recently while on the road in Portland as an assistant coach for the Jazz.
“I started part way through sophomore year. Junior year, I wasn’t playing much either. One of my friends got into a car accident and got suspended and that gave me an opportunity to play,” he said.
Hornacek grew up in North Riverside, and his family moved to La Grange when he was in eighth grade. Basketball and sports were always a big part of his life.
“My dad was one of the coaches at St. Joe’s in Westchester,” Hornacek said. “He was the assistant basketball coach and the head baseball coach. I’ve been around basketball my entire life.”
Two of Hornacek’s brothers and his parents still live in La Grange today.
After his time at Lyons Township, Hornacek starred at Iowa State University before eventually moving on to the NBA — where many in the Chicago area will remember him for his battles with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the ’90s.
“As a player, you like to get to a level that you’re playing against the best,” Hornacek said. “Win or lose, you enjoy going out there and playing against the best guys. It was a dream come true being back in the Chicago area and playing against those teams. I grew up watching Jerry Sloan and he coached me on the Jazz.”
Michael Jordan’s final shot as a Bull took place with Hornacek on the court — and, as many have speculated, may have been aided by a push-off.
“That’s just part of the game,” Hornacek said. “Michael’s a strong guy. I didn’t make a big deal out of it. It was a big play by him and he stopped on a dime. Byron Russell had to take an extra step or two and Michael hit it.”
Hornacek is currently in the top 15 of all-time free throw percentage in the NBA. His pre-shot ritual is even better remembered than his effectiveness from the line.
“My kids wanted me to wave to them on TV,” Hornacek said of his children, who are now, 18, 22 and 24. “I said, ‘I can’t really wave to you, but we will have a secret wave. I’ll wipe my cheek three times before.’ It ended up not being so secret.”
Some of the best players in the NBA struggle with free throw shooting. Hornacek said all it takes is a little practice.
“You can explain it to them, and then it is up to them to have faith in it and continually do it,” Hornacek said. “I’ve seen guys get a hint and try it 15 or 20 times and then miss a couple and then they go back to their old habits. You can give instruction, but they have to put the work into it.”
After retiring from the NBA, Hornacek took six years to spend time with his family and enjoy time with his kids. Then, the Jazz came calling to bring him in as a coach on a limited basis.
“I always thought I’d end up coaching,” Hornacek said. “There was a year that Andrei Kirilenko was having some woes and they called me to come up to work with him. I did that for four years. I lived in Phoenix and would fly up to Salt Lake City once a week for a couple of days to work with Andrei. I could schedule it around my kids’ sporting events and activities.”
After Jerry Sloan stepped down as head coach, Hornacek joined current head coach Tyrone Corbin’s staff as an assistant. As recently as this offseason, he was being considered for the Orlando Magic’s head coaching position.
Whether in college or the NBA, Hornacek sees his future as the head of a program.
“I would look at everything,” Hornacek said. “It’s a crazy business, coaching. I think everybody keeps their options open. I like being around basketball and being a part of the strategy. Strategizing is the game of basketball.”
The Jazz will play host to Hornacek’s hometown Bulls this Friday, Feb. 8.
I asked Hornacek how the backcourt of John Stockton and himself would fare against some of the quick guards of today such as Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving.
“You’re always playing against guys with more speed,” Hornacek said. “A lot of our stuff was based on knowledge of the game. Work on your positioning and get into different parts of the court. You don’t think there were fast guys when I played?”