Is Super Van for Real?
Utah's mild-mannered Keith Van Horn emerges as one of the country's premier players.
by Anne Palmer Donohoe
There was absolutely nothing ordinary about the recently concluded University of Utah menís basketball season. Not the play, not the hype, not even the weather. None of the usual imperiling blizzards struck on game nights. In fact, on the walk across campus, north to south from the golf course parking lot, past the new languages building, under the lindens beside Ballif Hall and weaving through the HPR complex, there was rarely enough snow on the ground for a good snowball fight.
Conditions also were rare inside the Huntsman Center. Utah opened the basketball season holding back-to-back conference titles and ranked 14th in the nation. The kind of hope and doubt that temper every diehard college fanís existence hung around the arena, intensified perhaps by pride in the previous yearís 27-7 record and lingering memories of a not-so-Sweet Sixteen. In that final outing the year before, Utah had suffered a drubbing at the muscular hands of eventual national champion Kentucky. The team had looked positively shellshocked in the expanse of the Minneapolis Metrodrome, bullied into a 31 point loss in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Still, prospects looked uncommonly good going into í96-97.
So good, in fact, that even row 25 behind the basket had become a hot ticket, remarked Athletics Director Chris Hill PhDí82. Buoyed by the Utesí hometown winning streak, crowd interest had turned from paltry to prevalent.
Like no other season in 30 years, the Utes managed to build and sustain momentum with play that elevated Keith Van Horn, a young man from Diamond Bar, Calif., from burgeoning star to nightly phenomenon to WAC tournament miracle worker.
Van Horn is not an altogether stylish player (his knees point slightly inward, causing a certain shuffle to his gait and his elbows flap out from his sides)
but he is lean and sinewy and his narrow shoulders have served him well for slipping into the lane. He is not the fastest, but what he lacks in speed is compensated for with anticipation, and positioning, and an iron will to succeed. His stamina is remarkable.
Kelly Leonard, a senior who was a freshman walk-on the same year Van Horn made his quiet debut, remembers Van Horn outclassing the Uís seniors straight out of high school. "He didnít really talk to anybody; he just went out and played and he was already better than anyone on the team,"Leonard says.
A graduate of Highland High, Leonard didnít have the ACT scores to play his freshman year. But that didnít interfere with the friendship between him and Van Horn. The two still play pool on occasion, and shoot hoops at least two afternoons a week. Leonard was Van Hornís roommate for two years when the team was on the road. As a secondary player, his role was to play against starters like Van Horn, to run the opponentsí plays. Itís an unglorified role. And the fact that Van Horn remains so tight with Leonard is evidence of the loyalty teammates and coaches say Van Horn exhibits in every aspect of his life.
"Keith was never into how good a player someone is, but how good a person he is," says Crimson Club director Peter Hart. "He just hangs."
Indeed, the acclaim and honors that have been piled on Van Horn seem almost a source of embarrassment to the future NBA rookie. In UNLVís Thomas and Mack Center interview room following Van Hornís stellar three-night stint, including two buzzer-beating saves that secured the WAC tournament title for the Utes, a throng of sportswriters crowded around him just as they had all season. Only now they seemed almost rabid, fervently trying to capture the essence of this collegiate marvel. Van Horn, always the gentleman, politely answered questions late into the night. Smiling with modesty, he couldnít help but avert his eyes, ever so slightly, from these notebook wielding strangers who just want to know him.
To know him is not easy.
Any free time Van Horn has is spent taking care of the people in his life who are important to him. Taking care of his mother, following Keithís father Kenís unanticipated death from a heart attack in 1994. Taking care of his daughter, Sabrina, a toddler who can test the patience of a new dad trying his hardest to convince his child that "no" really does mean no. And taking care of his wife, Amy, who with Keith was expecting their second child in June.
"Since his freshman year, Keith was always committed to family one way or another," observes former assistant Ute coach Tommy Connor BSí90. "He really only had one year as a free-spirited 18-year-old, when he felt, ëlife is mine and Iím going to grasp it every chance I can.í "
Van Horn and his dad, the owner of a fire sprinkler business, together decided Utah was exactly the kind of place Keith ought to go to college. Utah assistant coach Donny Daniels didnít know that when he sat down in the old Valencia High gymnasium at seven-thirty on July 12, 1993, to get a look at the top single-season scorer in Diamond Bar High School history. But he knew that Pac 10 pacesetters Cal and Arizona State were also vying for the lanky Southern Californianís attention. "At nine-thirty, I was in heaven," swoons Daniels. "I went, ëOh my good-ness.í "
He had set out on the recruiting trip with the daunting mission of replacing Josh Grant BSí93. "There were 10 schools there watching him at the summer league and my whole focus became," Daniels says, " ëHow do we get him to come to Utah?í " Van Hornís readiness to escape California may have been the factor which swayed him in Utahís favor. As it turned out, the University of Utah was the only school Van Horn even bothered to visit.
"I got a good feeling about Utahóthe people, the environment. And I knew Coach Majerus really stressed education, and that I would get a good education here," says Van Horn. It didnít hurt that Utah was ranked eighth in the nation when it came time for his decision.
Once in Salt Lake, Van Horn immediately began setting goals: diversify offensively, concentrate on defense, and ultimately, become the best player in the conference. Oh yes, and there was also the matter of beefing up. He grew not only figuratively but literally: an inch between freshman orientation and his senior year. During his time at Utah, and mostly between his freshman and sophomore years, Van Horn added 40 pounds and some muscular definition to his thin frame by lifting weights and eating 4,000 calories a day.
As he grew and gained experience, Van Horn also became more confident about using his size to his advantage. The more rugged his play, the greater a threat he became as an inside shooter. Over his four years at Utah, it became clear that Van Horn isnít one to shy away from contact, and to the contrary seems to relish the idea of going to the post to score. Daniels says Van Horn is the most "coachable" player heís ever seen. "A lot of guys will give you that head shake, even if they donít understand. But Keith was a genuine pleasure," he adds. Van Horn is the kind of athlete who is driven to show up 45 minutes early for practice. Heís such a basketball junkie that if he isnít the first guy out on the floor for warm ups, somethingís wrong.
With his schoolboy hairstyle and hard-working demeanor, Van Horn easily won over both teammates and boosters. Utah basketball season ticket sales went up 17 percent over the course of the young manís college career. Fans watched intently, almost in a state of disbelief, as if to say, can these be our Utes? Their hopes rode high on the shoulders of a 6'9-going-on-10" senior, whom they honored by holding signs that read Van Horn for President and Honk Your Van Horn. It was an awesome, even unsettling spectacle for reverent fans who are more likely to show up in cashmere, V-neck sweaters or Gap ensembles, patting babies on their backs, than to paint their faces in school colors and bare their chests. In fact, there have been years between coaches Jack Gardner and Majerus when the only real life these stoic fans have shown was when the band forced them into the act. Band members interrrupted as the public address announcer droned, "In the event of an emergency..."
"RUN LIKE HELL!"
"I really do think the program has been elevated by this young man," observes DeLyle Condie BSí60, a white-haired season ticket holder who began his own Ute college basketball career the same year Coach Gardner started his. "You think of Josh Grant, and [Tom] Chambers, and [Danny] Vranes, and all the great players that Jerry Pimm had, even Billy McGill. I watched McGill play and scrimmaged against him. And I honestly have not seen, in all the years that I have watched, anybody with the combination of skills that Van Horn has." Condie ticks them off: jumping, hauling down rebounds, shooting from anyplace on the court. Scoring in close with either hand, right or left.
As far as Majerus is concerned, Van Horn is simply a natural. Yes, he is determined. Yes, he works hard to maximize his ability. Heís focused almost to a fault. But he is not unlike center Michael Doleac or point guard Andre Miller in those regards.
Itís the extra assets God gave him that turn this Clark Kent into Superman. "If dedication got it done, Sluga would have been an All-American," Majerus deadpans, referring to Brandon Sluga, a local walk-on who warms the bench for the Utes.
For Majerus to coach a player of Van Hornís talent was not only a blessing, but a burden. When, at the end of his junior year, Van Horn weighed heavily the decision whether to enter the NBA draft, Majerusí role took on a new dimension. While Van Horn worried, "should I stay or should I go?", Majerus took it upon himself to show his star player some of the attributes of a $3.2 million after-tax lifestyle. Van Horn lives in a modest apartment in Midvale. So Majerus took him to see what $500,000 houses look like, observing: "Iím not saying money is everything, but those who say itís not donít have a lot." As devilís advocate, the coach pointed out to Keith that he could always come back and finish his education. And all the while Majerus worried that should he return his senior year and suffer an injury or merely fail to live up to his well-publicized potential, Van Horn and his growing family would be giving up a sizable chunk of change.
"Basketball is just a small part of life, and itís really just a game," shrugs Van Horn. He took it all into consideration. Then he called a press conference to announce his intention to return for his senior year.
As team captain, level-headed Van Horn was nearly always where he needed to be. Under the basket. Somehow inside, occasionally displaying a new shuck and jive move that made him look already a part of the NBA. He swished in three-point shots from the perimeter and racked up a whopping 90 percent free throw average. That puts him in the top three percent of free-throw shooters in the world, points out one pro scout with wizened eyes. Van Horn just seemed to know what he had to get done. And when it was crunch time, he did it. In doing so he earned the distinction of becoming the leading scorer in Utah and WAC history (besting Danny Aingeís 16-year-old record). His masterstrokes were the zero-second tip-in and jump shot on successive nights that clinched his conference MVP status.
"VAN HORN NOT HUMAN!" proclaimed a banner headline in the Daily Utah Chronicle. But to the contrary, Van Hornís size 15 feet are planted firmly on the ground.
Still three classes shy of graduating, Van Horn vows to complete his degree by correspondence before the U converts to semesters in the fall of í98. Itís what his dad wanted. His wife, Amy SidaVan Horn, says that Keith felt so certain about finishing school, he wouldnít discuss other options with her. "Itís important to him to be able to do something other than basketball. Everyone knows, and he knows, what a great ball player he is. But to get a degree says heís more than thatóand he is," she says.
A sociology major, Van Horn says what he appreciates most from his education is what he can apply every day. "I really donít like dealing with classes that Iím not ever going to use in my life," he states. One cannot help but wonder what work related skills, outside of financial management, the NBAís expected No. 3 draft pick is going to need.
Education, memories, and records are the things Number 44 will take away from Utah. His contributions to a winning legacy are only part of what heíll leave. "Not only for what heís done on the basketball court, but because of the type of person he is, Keith Van Horn will always be a real ambassador for the University of Utah," says unabashed Van Horn fan Scott Layden, the Utah Jazzís vice president for basketball operations. "Every time he goes on television, every time he presents himself to the outside world, that reflects on the University."
To hear Layden tell it, the University, Majerus, and Van Horn were the perfect union. "Iíve watched the U program transform into a national power, in both football and basketball, and [Athletic Director] Chris Hill, [football coach] Ron McBride, and Majerus have all had a hand in it," he philosophizes. In fact, Layden maintains all three ought to be enshrined somehow, perhaps (and this is tongue in cheek) silhouetted in lights on the foothills beside the flashing "U." "People look at the map and say the University of Utah is a great school, academically and otherwise. I donít know how you can measure the public relations value of a player like Van Horn," he adds.
Argues Majerus: "We were very good before Keith came." He lists all of the honors the Utes have won in the í90s, including five Western Athletic Conference championships, two WAC tournament titles, and five invitations to the NCAA tournament.
Connor wouldnít disagree. But he goes one step further.
"Weíre all better coaches because of Keith. His teammates were better players because of Keith. And the game, for the past four years in the Huntsman Center, was more fun to watch because of Keith."
If he continues to flourish the way he has in college, can it be long before Keith Van Horn leaps tall buildings in a single bound?
Anne Palmer Donohoe is editor of Continuum.