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A Conversation With Iowa State Legend Jeff Hornacek

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Jeff is in Sioux City Iowa on Saturday (today) November 20th at the Tyson Events Center for the Disney On Ice from 4-8pm. If you're in the area and aren't able to make it to Ames for the football game, it sounds like a great way to take the family out for something to do, along with meeting a former Cyclone great.

On Friday night I had the pleasure of having a conversation with Jeff Hornacek. For the younger guys like me who remember him mostly from his Utah Jazz days, Hornacek was a former walk-on who holds the Iowa State career record in assists (665), and has his #14 hanging in the rafters at Hilton Coliseum.

In addition he is known for making the game winning basket over Miami (OH) in the 1986 NCAA Tournament in what was Iowa State's first NCAA Tournament win since 1944:

 

Onto the conversation:

Tell me about what you have going on this weekend in Sioux City.

This weekend is a joint effort by Alltel and AT&T to remind all of its Alltel subscribers who are know having to go to AT&T to replace their current phone or data device. AT&T and Alltel wanted to do something fun, to go through the process and that's where I come in.  One of their options was to go to www.weekendoffun.com and pickup two free tickets to one of several events. There's three events going on in Sioux City: (Friday) at Promenade Cinema, tomorrow (Saturday) what I'll be at is the Disney On Ice, and on Sunday the Roller Rama. So Alltel subscribers can get the two free tickets, come here, they can transfer their information, pick out a new device or a new phone. We really don't want any of their wireless service to be interrupted, so it's a good way to come and get that taken care of and have some fun.

What do you remember most from your Iowa State days?

First of all it's the great fans. I don't know if there's a better place in the country to play. You just look at the home record that Hilton Coliseum has had, and that started when I was first there. The year I was on the team but not dressing, I think we maybe got 6-7 thousand people at most in a game. By the time sophomore year came around, it didn't matter what game was it was, the place was packed, screaming, yelling. Johnny Orr comes rolling out of the locker room with his fists up in the air, to the "Here's Johnny" song, and the crowd went crazy. The biggest thing as a player that I used to always laugh about was, we were used to it because we saw it all the time, but during warm-ups I used to love to just watch the opposing teams. Usually when you're on the road you're really focused, you're not trying to pay attention to anything that goes on, and almost every single time, that visiting team would stop their layup line and just WATCH.... Coach Orr go down the sideline (laughs). We knew we had the advantage right there because they had already lost their focus. Those were just great times. The Cyclone fans were a raucous crowd, and always fun to play in front of.

What does Fred Hoiberg have that you think will make him a successful coach at Iowa State?

Well whenever you're a player and you end up playing in the NBA, you know the game. Especially a guy who's not 6'11. Guards usually know how to play the game of basketball and Fred knows how. If you end up making it to the NBA, first of all, you probably had a great high school coach, a great college coach, and probably some great pro coaches. You take a little bit from all of them, and you know, Fred will do that. Not only did he play in the league, he was in the front office over there in Minnesota, so, you know, part of his job was evaluating talent. So he knows (laughs). He can see a player and that's really going to help him in the recruiting process; to be able to see a player and not only judge him for does he have NBA potential, but is he going to make a good college player. I think Fred will do a good job.

You went from being a walk-on to an Iowa State Great. You were drafted lower than most people that have successful NBA careers like you had. What was the key to your success? What led you to becoming a successful basketball player?

Well, I think when you have a player my height, 6'3, they had me listed at 6'4, but I don't think I was quite that height. I wasn't the fastest guy, I wasn't the strongest guy, but my father was a coach, and I knew just about everything about basketball. That's what got me through. When I came to Iowa State as a walk-on, I just felt that I was probably overlooked because they looked at the athletic ability and [thought] there's gotta be guys who are more athletic that could do the same thing. But I just knew how to play the game.

The same thing happened in the NBA. Phoenix took a chance, they saw that "hey he knows how to play the game and can he adjust to the NBA game?", and luckily for me I was able to. I always had to figure out how to take advantage of what's going on. The guy guarding me was 2-3 inches taller, and 15-20 lbs heavier, and bigger, stronger, and faster, I knew I had to do something different to offset that. So one thing I always did was try to outsmart them and be one step ahead of those guys. And I think Fred [Hoiberg] is kind of that same mold. He knew how to see 2-3 plays down, 2 or 3 options ahead on the play, rather than just 1 or 2. And that's what I think make good coaches.

Individually, who was your toughest foe? Was there a guy that gave you an especially hard time?

Well for me every night you had to get ready to go. Defensivley it was Michael Jordan. One guy that probably some guys your age don't remember, I always had pretty good success against Reggie Miller, Joe Dumars, and Clyde Drexler, even though he had the height advantage, the one guy that I always kind of dreaded to have to guard was a guy named Vernon Maxwell. Like I said before, my advantage was I knew what everyone else was doing probably at the same time they did,, but Vernon didn't even know what he was going to do. So I had no way to prepare for what he was going to do. He was just kind of a crazy, wild player, and for me to have success I knew from playing against the guy or watching tape I knew what he was going to do most of the time, but with [Vernon] he was just one of those guys that was a wild player. You didn't know if he'd shoot 15 threes that night, or if he was going to drive it to the basket every time (laughs).  Seems like an odd one, but obviously Jordan was difficult. There was a lot of great players.

How do you think today's game compares to when you played?

I think what was unique during the time I ended up playing, you just had a ton of great players who were not only athletic, but they also knew how to play the game. Jordan had the athletic ability, but he also knew how to play the game. Bird was playing at that time, Magic, you know, all those guys. They were great athletes, you know. You had to be on your game every single night. I think in today's game you got a lot of great athletes, and maybe the athletes are even better than back then, but I don't know if the basketball knowledge is where it was at that time. It was a unique time with the whole Dream Team group. There wasn't just 5 or 6 guys across the league that were great. How many guys are in the Top 50 players of all time from that era? You know, there's 15 of them.

Lastly, how are you enjoying retirement, and what's next for you down the road?

Well you know when you retire, you end up doing a lot of things you weren't able to do while you were playing. My thing was I quit playing so I could watch the kids grow up. I had one that's graduated from college already, one that's a sophomore in college, and our youngest daughter is a junior in high school. I've been able to see them grow up, coach them a little bit. In the last four years I've been working with the Utah Jazz as, I don't know what they call me, a "special assistant shooting coach". I go during the week, two or three days, and I just work mostly with Andrei Kirilenko and some of the other young guys on the team, trying to help them get better. I'm probably at the point where I'm going to start to look at full time coaching. I never wanted to do it before because of the kids growing up. But like I said, my youngest is a junior. In a year or so, I can really start to look at all the different options in my life.

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Many thanks again to Jeff Hornacek for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me. It was an honor to talk with a Cyclone legend.

Thoughts About The Conversation After The Jump!

I think it is always awesome to hear about guys who overcome some of the athletic ability in the professional sports realm by working hard and using their brains. I heard an interview with Cal Ripken Jr about him playing shortstop and how he didn't have the range of many of the greats, but his studying of players and their tendencies allowed for him to be a good fielder. Hornacek kind of reminded me of that as well.

It is also fun to hear stories about the Johnny Orr years. Those days were when I was an infant and kid, and I never got to experience the craziness everybody talks about during the time. It really was one of those special things. Hopefully Coach Hoiberg can bring the Hilton Magic back to Ames and we can make Hilton Coliseum what it once was! It had its moments in the early part of my years as a student, but to get back to it being a place that's packed regardless of the opponent would be awesome!

Lastly, in today's sports world it seems as though athletes are either labeled "athletic" or "smart". It was very interesting to hear about Jeff discuss the legends like Bird, Magic, and Jordan, and what makes them different from today's superstars is their knowledge of the game. With Jordan, we saw how he could fly, but his basketball knowledge was an area that was not brought up as often as it probably should.  I had a conversation with a friend recently about how the NBA during that period was appointment TV that everybody watched, and how today it has lost a lot of its luster. When discussing, it was really hard to get to the core of what's different because when you look at the athletic side, it has only gotten better. I think the basketball knowledge Jeff talked about may be a key thing that we are all seeing, but we just couldn't quite isolate or place it. There are probably other factors involved with comparing eras of the game, but it was fun to hear his take on that, and think about it.

There were a slew of things I could have asked Jeff, but time was limited. Maybe one day down the road, I can hook up with him again and touch on some of the other things. It was a great conversation, and there are some fun things to think about!

One last thing: I concur with Jeff his assessment of Vernon Maxwell. Ron Artest is this generation's Vernon Maxwell. I thought it was so awesome he brought "Mad Max" up, as I with the recent release of NBA Jam, I was just thinking about playing as him when I owned NBA Jam for my SNES back in the day!