Phoenix • Here’s a story that’s been told a lot in Phoenix over the last few days, in the newspaper, on talk radio, by a Suns executive and by Jeff Hornacek, who was introduced Tuesday as the new coach of the team that drafted him.
In 2004, Hornacek, then 41, four years removed from retiring as a player with the Utah Jazz and with zero coaching experience, was tabbed by Boston Celtics’ executive Danny Ainge as a candidate to coach the Celtics.
The job ultimately went to Doc Rivers. The Celtics won a championship in 2008 and became one of the best teams of the decade. Hornacek, meanwhile, stayed out of the league for three more years, watching his kids grow up.
NBA history is littered with well-hyped, but ultimately flawed head coaches who come and go. Hornacek, who spent the first six years of his playing career in Phoenix, took a more patient approach. He returned as a special assistant to the Jazz in 2007, tasked specifically with helping Andrei Kirilenko, and became a full-time assistant in 2011.
“I probably thought I could have coached Boston when Danny called me nine years ago,” Hornacek said Tuesday. “I probably wouldn’t have been successful, or as successful as I’m hoping to be now.”
After being considered in the last year by Orlando, Philadelphia and Charlotte, Hornacek finally found the right fit with the Suns after spending the last 2½ seasons with the Jazz as an assistant under Tyrone Corbin.
The Suns parted ways with interim coach Lindsey Hunter after a 25-57 season and after firing head coach Alvin Gentry mid-year.
In a statement released by the Jazz, Corbin, who played with Hornacek in both Phoenix and Utah, said, “I want to thank Jeff for his hard work, loyalty and dedication. Whether it be as teammates, working together under Jerry Sloan, or as part of my key staff, Jeff is a good friend and I am sorry to see him go.”
But the circumstances under which Hornacek becomes a head coach are undeniably like a storybook. His family lives in Phoenix, and, despite having only a small suitcase of clothes with him in the Valley of the Sun, Hornacek is already moved in.
Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey called Hornacek’s return a “pretty picture.”
Hornacek promised an up-tempo offense, not unlike the one he played in under former Suns’ coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. But just like he picked up traits as a player by watching Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson, he learned from all of his coaches, notably Sloan.
“Hopefully I can take Jerry’s toughness,” Hornacek said, “and Cotton’s enthusiasm and confidence building and blend them all together.”
Hornacek told stories about playing alongside Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson, about lessons from Fitzsimmons and about the time in 1992, when in a conversation with then-GM Dick Van Arsdale about Charles Barkley, he said, “That’s the guy we need.”
Hornacek couldn’t have guessed that the Suns would fulfill his request — by shipping the popular guard to Philadelphia in exchange for Barkley. When things didn’t quite work out for Hornacek in Philadelphia, he was traded 20 months later to the Jazz.
As much as Tuesday brought a reintroduction between Phoenix and Hornacek, it also brought an end to an association between Hornacek and the Jazz that lasted two decades.
He is considered the piece that pushed the Jazz, anchored by Karl Malone and John Stockton, over the top and into back-to-back NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998. He is the best 3-point shooter in Jazz history, with career accuracy of 42.8 percent. His No. 14 is one of seven retired by the Jazz.
“It’s hard to leave there,” Hornacek said, “knowing that the great tradition and all the history we had there, playing-wise. It’s going to be very, very weird when I go back there with another team to coach.”
Corbin is left with a large hole to fill on his bench. Hornacek was a skills coach who worked closely with young players Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, which he said was the highlight of his tenure on the bench.
“He was an advocate for our young players,” Lindsey said. “Quiet confidence, poise. He won’t throw guys under the bus to save his own hide.”
Before joining Corbin’s staff after Sloan abruptly resigned in 2011, Hornacek said, he didn’t realize the amount of work that went into getting young players ready for the NBA level. The “one and done” culture of heralded college players, he said, means they come in less ready for the NBA.
“You can’t assume these guys know some of the stuff we learned back in college,” he said, “because they didn’t have that experience.”
Hayward, in particular, spoke often of the benefit of having Hornacek around and the two were close.
“Having a great shooter like that work with me helped a lot — not just with mechanics, but with my confidence,” he said earlier this season.
Aware that the chances of leaving Utah for another job were increasing, Hornacek recently reached out to Hayward.
“I just told him, if I do get a job somewhere, even though I’m coach somewhere else — I feel a pretty good bond with him — if he needs some sort of advice on something to give me a call.”
Jeff Hornacek file
Age • 50
As a player • Named NBA All-Star in 1992. ... Shot 49.6 percent from the field in 14 NBA seasons, including 40.3 percent from 3. ... Played for Suns, 76ers and Jazz. ... Appeared in 477 games with the Jazz from 1993 to 2000. ... Number retired by Jazz on Nov. 19, 2002.
As a coach • Joined Jazz as special assistant in 2007. ... Hired as full-time assistant in February 2011. ... Previously a candidate for head coaching openings in Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and Charlotte.
Jerry Sloan coaching tree
Four current NBA head coaches who have played for Jerry Sloan:
Jeff Hornacek • Phoenix Suns
Tyrone Corbin • Utah Jazz
Jacque Vaughn • Orlando Magic
Mark Jackson • Golden State Warriors