June 25, 1997
Nah. You're not thinking what he thinks you're thinking. Or are you?
Keith Van Horn is sure he knows where the question is going. If he were a
baseball player, he could easily take a bat to this slow curve of a
query and send it toward a center-field fence.
But the basketball player with the buzz cut waits. Just as he thought. Here it is:
"You've heard of Michael Smith . . .?"
Van Horn laughs. He knew you were going to stop there. Van Horn stands 6
feet 10 inches. Same as Smith. Van Horn went to college in Utah. Same
"Except he went to BYU," the former University of Utah forward cracks. "That was the problem."
Van Horn made his reputation as a gifted, high-scoring shooter (a career average of nearly 21 points). Same as Smith.
At this point you could close your eyes and still get the rest of the
story. A Celtic fan would suddenly appear and complete it for you. Smith
was taken by Boston with the 13th pick in the 1989 draft. He played two
seasons, averaged about 5 points, and was waived, in part, because his
feet and shooting release had the same glitch: too slow.
Eight years have passed since that draft. But many Boston fans are
fearful of Utah. So much so that when they look at Van Horn, they see
Smith in his shadows. Many are spooked by the possibility of Van Horn,
21, possibly going to the Celtics with the third pick in tonight's
draft. The echos resound: Michael Smith, Smith, Smith . . .
Well, Van Horn tells you, when Smith was introduced to Boston, there
was a 14-year-old kid living in Fullerton, Calif., thinking about the
Celtics' biggest rivals, the Lakers.
"Yeah," Van Horn says, "that was my team. A couple years before, I was
into that back-to-back championship team of 1987 and '88. I liked Magic,
but I really didn't look at him as my favorite player. I just liked the
way they played, the whole concept."
can be seen in his game. He runs well. He jumps well. He's smart. He
can shoot. He stayed four years at Utah and posted the worst field goal
percentage of his career last season: .492. His 3-point field goal
percentage: .492. He will never have to worry about an opposing coach
daring him to make a 20-footer. Those coaches will instruct their
defenders to crowd him, forcing him to pass and dribble.
He knows there are weaknesses. He knows he has to add about 8 pounds of
muscle to play consistently in the pros. If he were to play in Boston,
would make sure the soft spots are erased or, at the least, hidden.
That was obvious when Van Horn visited Boston earlier this month and
"Some teams bring you in for a couple hours and give you a decent workout," he said. "Pitino's
was different. It was only about an hour, shorter than the other ones,
but I was definitely more tired. He has you do a lot more running than
the other teams. It's obvious that he's a great coach with good ideas.
I'd like to play for him."
He pauses. Nah.
You're still not thinking about that. Or are you? If so, maybe someone
should set up a bottle race between him and Smith. A bottle race. You
know, baby bottles. You can talk about a first step past a defender. How
about a first step to your three-week-old son's room when he's crying
at 6 a.m.?
"Yeah, I do all that. Bottles.
Diapers," he says. "I think being a father has helped me as a basketball
player. I know it hasn't hurt."
with him. You're surprised he's 21. He certainly looks the part. Not
much facial hair. Casual clothes. A smile that would not look out of
place in a high school yearbook. Then he talks. About his infant son and
2-year-old daughter. About his wife. About how his daughter recognizes
him on television. About how he explained to his wife that the travel in
the NBA won't be as bad as college because so many teams have their own
planes and precise travel times. About how he promised his late father
he would stay in school and get a degree.
He talked about all that yesterday, sitting at a small table. Some
people had to lean toward him because of his soft speech. Not timid.
"He's very mature," Pitino
said earlier this week. Van Horn proved it yesterday. Someone, about 20
years older than he, asked a question. He answered. The questioner
seemed surprised before replying, "Yes. You're right. That's a good
It's funny what people assume
about him. Like the Michael Smith thing. He doesn't even remember much
about Smith's game. Anyway, he says, one of the reasons people compare
him to Smith is that they both have pale skin. Smith never could run
like Van Horn can. Frank Layden, the president of the Utah Jazz, has
rarely settled for an understatement. Layden said earlier this year that
Van Horn was further along at 21 as a basketball player than Kevin
McHale was at the same age.
It's not just basketball, either.
"I was an uncle when I was 13," Van Horn says. "I was married at 20.
I've enjoyed that. It helps me keep my priorities in order."
Many have heard what is now a famous Van Horn story. His wife was
giving birth to their first child. Van Horn had a paper due for class.
He was present for the birth. The paper was completed on time.
"Whatever I've done," he says, "I've always tried to make sure I was taking care of business."
Bruce Woodbury certainly appreciates that. Woodbury is the sports
information director at Utah. This time of year, Woodbury could be
flooded with calls about interview requests. No problem. Van Horn told
the SID to have some people call him at home. Ultimately, that meant
some calls about Van Horn would go directly to him without going through
a third party. There aren't many players who do that. Is he tired yet?
"Physically, some of the flying around the country made me tired," he said. "But all the other stuff? No, no. It's OK."
Tonight, he may have to make plans to fly to Boston. He's hoping that happens. Pitino's teams eliminated his from the NCAA tournament two consecutive seasons. It would be nice to see Pitino
and Antoine Walker on his side for a change. If he plays in Boston, Van
Horn will call the FleetCenter home. That would be another area in
which he and Smith differ.
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