Teaching ability lands Jeff Hornacek back with Suns

PHOENIX — Lon Babby professed that the Suns would get back to honoring the team’s history, and he admitted when Phoenix let former general manager Lance Blanks go that the organization had gotten away from respecting the past.

So on one level, the Suns’ hiring of former 1986 draft pick Jeff Hornacek as their new head coach did everything to fill that void. But Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough promises it’s only a bonus.

“The reason Jeff’s here as our next head coach is the career path he just walked you through,” McDonough said, mentioning Hornacek’s promise to bring a blend of Suns Ring of Honor member Cotton Fitzsimmons and former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. “That’s the reason we hired him, and because of his basketball mind and his creativity, and his ability to lead and teach young players.

“The fact that he has great ties to the community and the organization; that’s all a bonus.”

Hornacek said the situation in Phoenix was a perfect fit. It reminded him of another Suns rebuild in 1988, when Kevin Johnson, Mark West and Tyrone Corbin joined the team following Hornacek’s first two seasons in Phoenix, neither of which were particularly impressive. In a way, the historical importance of Hornacek had more to do with his heart being with the franchise that drafted him.

“There’s been great success over the years,” Hornacek said. “The one thing I felt was missing was that championship. I thought maybe in 1990 was a year we had a chance if Kevin wouldn’t have pulled his hamstring (before) halftime. We felt like we could beat Detroit in the Finals. There’s that unfinished business of trying to get there.”

McDonough spearheaded the coaching search, Babby said. The new general manager’s research went back to 2004, when McDonough and the Boston Celtics gave Hornacek a call to gauge his interest in a head coaching opening.

The Celtics eventually hired Doc Rivers. But just as McDonough’s thoroughness has kept tabs on most every player he’s scouted — see Williams, Terrence — he never dismissed Hornacek.

Hornacek’s ability to communicate was on full display during his interview, and McDonough said that made him the favorite. His style will likely one of a balanced attack mixing Fitzsimmons’ up-tempo offense and Sloan’s execution, and the plan rang well with McDonough.

“We want our guys playing hard-nosed defense,” Hornacek said, “make sure we force tough shots, get turnovers. Then we can run.”

Getting anecdotal, Hornacek said one memory of the Suns past stuck with him — it’s one reason Phoenix will rely on his ability to connect with young players in helping them develop.

“The story goes, my dad was a coach,” he said. “Forever he would tell me get your elbow in (on your shot) and get the proper backspin. I was a skinny little kid and I was always shooting with two hands and using my left thumb so the ball kind of rolled sideways. But I was always shooting over 50 percent. So OK, dad, thanks. But I wouldn’t do it.”

When Hornacek joined the Suns for Summer League his rookie season, he was approached by Jerry Colangelo about changing his shot. Colangelo asked him to tape his thumb to his hand in order to help his elbow from sticking out.

“He’s paying me, so I better listen,” Hornacek said. “It took a long time.”

By his third season in the NBA, Hornacek was shooting 40 percent from three-point range. He never shot below 47 percent from the field for a season during the rest of his NBA seasons, and when his last go-round in 1999-2000 came, Hornacek shot a whopping 47.8 percent from three-point range.

“It’s a good lesson for me for (teaching) the young shooters right now,” he said. “The emphasis with the guys is they have to stay with it.”

For a rebuild that could be quite slow, Hornacek’s patience could pay off.

Hornacek retired after his playing career to watch his children grow. But the Jazz came calling by the request of forward Andrei Kirilenko, who asked if Hornacek could help him with his shot. The club brought Hornacek on as a shooting coach on a part-time basis, but his work grew for the team as other Utah players asked for his help. When Sloan decided to step down during the 2011 season in the midst of the icy Deron Williams situation that eventually saw the All-Star guard shipped to New Jersey, Utah asked Hornacek to join the team to fill out the coaching staff.

On the bench, Hornacek learned NBA players surprisingly didn’t know the tricks of the trade. He spoke often on Tuesday about the lack of fundamentals in the game — by way of the system more than the fault of the players. For someone who initially saw himself coaching at the college level more than in the pros, the revelation made it more appealing for Hornacek to coach in the NBA.

There are still the little things to teach.

“You can’t assume a lot of these guys know what maybe we did in college,” he said. “For me to be able to teach these guys those particular things, those little fundamentals, proper techniques … They really do want to learn. That’s what’s great about the young players I’ve come across these last several years.”

For the rebuilding Suns, who will need an injection of youth to change their fortunes, Hornacek hopes he can help. Historically it was a great fit. But at a fundamental level for a team with a new-look front office and another rebuilding season on its hands, the hire makes sense, too.

“Hopefully I can take Jerry’s toughness, Cotton’s enthusiasm and confidence-building and blend them all together and become a great coach,” Hornacek said.

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