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Forget Color, Nets' Van Horn Can Simply Play

Pro basketball: In a league roughly 80% black, rookie is much more than a "Great White Hope."

January 15, 1998|SHAUN POWELL | THE SPORTING NEWS

He has walked the earth for 22 years, played basketball for most of it, starred at basketball for some of it, but not until a few months ago was Keith Van Horn a white power forward.

That little oversight somehow escaped most of us.

Very few ever knew or noticed this about Van Horn, not when he was an emerging high school talent in Southern California, and not when he became an all-america at Utah.

This became official only when he made the NBA and especially after Detroit Piston center Brian Williams pointed it out.

Sure, there were rumors. But then, after he watched Van Horn soar for a basket in a recent Nets' game, teammate and budding comic Jayson Williams set the record straight.

"I told you he wasn't white," Williams said, with Van Horn laughing nearby. "He's light-skinned."

Brian Williams wasn't joking. Brian Williams was dead-serious when he dusted off an old stereotype and gave Van Horn the backhanded compliment of being the next "Great White Hope."

Williams reached his conclusion after accusing referees of favoring Van Horn and protecting the league's future "investment" during a Net-Piston game last month.

Judging by the early accounts, Van Horn does have a chance to be special. He makes you notice him for reasons other than the obvious. The Nets were so impressed after a predraft workout they traded four players to Philadelphia just to draft him. After missing over a month with a bum ankle, Van Horn quickly earned the respect of his teammates with talent and maturity that go well beyond his years. He leads the Nets in scoring, and the rookie of the year trophy that belonged to Tim Duncan before the season may be returned to the engravers if Van Horn keeps this up.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before someone spilled the secret.

Brian Williams looks at arenas that draw overwhelmingly white crowds and assumes the welcome mat is out for Van Horn. He says white fans have searched for somebody since "Larry Bird retired and Chris Mullin got old."

A White Hope.

"I think he is," Williams says. "I don't think the league needs it. I think the fans would like it because 90% of the fans are white. It's only natural. They see this kid who looks like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, going out and kicking butt."

Williams may be a lot more accurate with the makeup of the crowd than he is in assessing their affections.

The NBA has sold a league that's roughly 80% black, along with the culture, to an accepting and massive white audience. That was unthinkable 15, 20 years ago. But people no longer buy tickets to see Dave Cowens play, they buy to watch the players Dave Cowens coaches.

The NBA, in fact, enjoyed its highest popularity in the post-Bird, pre-Van Horn period, when white players were rare and white stars almost extinct. It was the audience's way of shrugging and not caring about the complexion, only the competition.

The gospel according to Brian Williams won't be put to a strict test until Michael Jordan retires and the league searches for someone with enough star power to complement Shaquille O'Neal. Attendance already is falling in several NBA cities, and soon the league will find itself without its biggest box office. Then let the theories fly.

That's not to say there's not an ounce of truth in what Williams suspects. No one should be that naive.

"Anytime someone comes in any sport and is a different color, there's going to be attention," Jayson Williams says. "Look at Tiger Woods. Venus Williams."

The bond between an audience of one color and players of another is somewhat amazing, especially when the tolerance level drops once the game is over and the real world beckons.

Whatever dynamic is at work here, Van Horn wants no part of it.

"People are going to say what they want to say, and I don't get concerned about it," says Van Horn, already tired of the subject of race. "I just play my game."

Anyway, the basketball gods didn't send Van Horn here to save a league. They gave him a greater mission.

He's here to save the Nets.

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