Jeff Hornacek was the difference-maker for the Utah Jazz.
After years of coming close to the NBA Finals during the John Stockton-Karl Malone Era, the Jazz finally took that giant step — twice in two years — after acquiring Hornacek.
An undersized shooting guard with a sore knee and buttery jump shot, Hornacek became the third wheel that every championship-caliber team needs when he came to Utah.
On Friday night, the Jazz and Hornacek cross paths once again. He is the rookie head coach in Phoenix, where Utah goes in search of its first victory of the young season.
“It will be a little weird,” Hornacek says about playing the Jazz. “… But the bottom line is they’ll try to beat us and we’ll try to beat them.”
The Jazz acquired Hornacek from Philadelphia midway through the 1993-94 season, launching the most successful run in franchise history.
During Hornacek’s 61/2 years with them, Utah went 350-137, including a 64-win season, a 62-win season and a 60-win season.
With Hornacek teaming with Stockton in coach Jerry Sloan’s backcourt, the Jazz went to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998. They also reached the Western Conference finals in 1994 and 1996.
Times change, of course.
Hornacek’s knees forced him to retire in 2000. After a few years away from the game, he started working with the Jazz as a shooting consultant. Then, when Sloan abruptly resigned on Feb. 9, 2011, Hornacek became a full-time assistant.
That’s why his first game against Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin and players like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors will be a little emotional.
“The coaches are my great friends, and the players, I got to know some of them very well,” Hornacek said. “At first, I’ll probably look out there and think it’s one of our old scrimmages or something.”
The Suns hired Hornacek as their head coach last summer, after what new general manager Ryan McDonough called a “long and grueling process” that Hornacek — a popular former Sun — “passed with flying colors.”
“We have a very good coach on our hands,” McDonough said. “… He was the overwhelming choice of our fans. With me being a bit of a contrarian, that probably worked against him. But he did so well in his interview, he blew me away.”
So far, so good for Hornacek. In his first game as a head coach, the Suns defeated Portland on Wednesday night, 104-91.
“What stands out to me,” McDonough said, “is Jeff’s attention to detail — for every game and every practice. He has a cool, even-keel demeanor. On the rare times he does raise his voice, the players know he’s serious.”
Said Hornacek: “We’re trying to give them little hints about the things we learned over the years. Everybody on our staff has spent time in the league, so guys are listening to what we have to say and trying to do what we ask.”
In Phoenix, Hornacek takes over a team in a similar situation as Utah. The Suns are rebuilding and the roster is loaded with players who are trying to establish themselves.
“We have a bunch of young guys who, I hope, will play hard,” Hornacek said. “We’re like Utah, I think, although they have a guys with a little more experience than we do. … When you don’t have veteran guys, there’s a lot of teaching that goes on.”
With McDonough in charge, the Suns are looking beyond this season.
Their intentions came into sharp focus last week, when Phoenix traded valuable center Marcin Gortat and three others to Washington for Emeka Okafor and — more significantly — a first-round pick in the loaded 2014 draft.
Asked if anything about coaching has surprised him, Hornacek mentioned the timing of the trade.
“… With Gortat, we thought it might happen sometime during the season,” he said. “But we had a couple of other guys playing well, so it was good. A little surprising, but good.”
Like Hornacek, Hayward called the prospect of seeing his former coach on the Suns’ bench “kind of weird, but only because he worked with me so much — and helped me so much — during my first three years” in the NBA.
“He has a high basketball IQ,” Hayward continued. “He understands the game. He’s able to see plays before they happen and knows how defenses are going to react to different things. He’s really good an anticipating things.”
Jazz at Suns
O At USAirways Center (Phoenix)
Tipoff • 8 p.m. MST
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1280 AM, 1600 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 0-1; Suns 1-0
Season series • First game
About the Jazz • They have won four of their last five against Phoenix. … They went 13-28 on the road last season. … They’ve started 0-2 twice in the last three years. … They come off a 101-98 loss to Oklahoma City. … They committed 22 turnovers, missed 10 of 30 free throws and went 6-for-22 on three-pointers against the Thunder.
About the Suns • Under new coach Jeff Hornacek, they scored a 104-91 victory over Portland in their season opener. … Guards Goran Dragic (26) and Eric Bledsoe (22) combined for 48 points on 19-for-31 shooting. … Rookie Miles Plumlee was also outstanding. In 40 minutes, he scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
Jeff Hornacek file
Born • May 3, 1963
Hometown • Elmhurst, Ill.
High school • LaGrange Township
College • Iowa State
Position • Shooting guard
Career highlights • Selected in the second round (46th overall) of the 1986 NBA Draft by Phoenix. … Averaged 14.3 points and 4.9 assists during his 14-year career. … Spent six years with the Suns. … Played in the 1992 All-Star Game. … Traded to Philadelphia prior to the 1993-94 season. … Traded to Utah on Feb. 24, 1994. … In 61/2 season, he helped lead the Jazz to two NBA Finals and two conference finals. … Scored a career-high 40 points against Seattle on Nov. 23, 1994. … Played in 477 of 478 games after being acquired by Utah. … Was a two-time winner of the Long Distance Shootout at All-Star Weekend (1998, 2000).