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BECOMING A BIG SHOT

He's Young, but Nets' Van Horn Developing Aura of Greatness

January 28, 1998|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — From Diamond Bar to the University of Utah to greatness. . . .

It isn't how everybody does it, which was one reason pale-skinned Keith Van Horn was such a dark horse, although that's officially over. Six weeks into his NBA career--he started late because of an injury--they're comparing him to all-time greats. This may be absurd but it's progress too.

He leads all rookies in scoring, averaging 19.5 points. He may be shy but he's not bashful, as he proved when his New Jersey Nets played Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs and he squeezed off 30 shots, missing 23.

Duncan had 24 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots, to Van Horn's 21 points, 10 rebounds and one block. No, Van Horn may not be the top rookie and comparisons to--are you ready for this?--Larry Bird are . . . how to put it . . . a tad much. Nevertheless, a young man who could grow into a legitimate 25-point-a-game scorer should fit in somewhere.

His coach, John Calipari, verging on ecstasy, notes, "His maturity is incredible. He looks you in the eye and responds to what you're saying. You show him something on film you want him to do and he does it the next game."

After Van Horn outscored Washington's Chris Webber, 32-22, in their first meeting, the Wizards' Juwan Howard called him "a great player."

Detroit's Brian Williams called him "The Great White Hope," although that was as much a complaint about the calls Williams claimed Van Horn was getting as it was a compliment.

To which Williams added:

"He's got the weight of every guy who plays with four knee guards and glasses on him."

Said Webber, "I don't know about the Great White Hope. I do know that Brian Williams can't check Van Horn, though."

Whew, if the rest of Van Horn's career is this much fun, what a busy young lightning rod he will be. He's already happening in the media. ESPN came through recently, only to be told to take a number and come back next week; Van Horn was booked. He's breaking out commercially, starting with his Nike hook-up. No. 44 Net jerseys are popping up in stores all over.

This career should be measured in tens of thousands of points and hundreds of millions of dollars--at least 10,000 more points and $100 million more than anyone would have predicted four years ago.

*

I teach 'em basketball, but I can't teach 'em heart. He had heart.

--Coach Bill Murray of Diamond Bar High

We've been a specialty school. You know what I mean? We sort of get these guys who fall through the cracks because of where we're at and who we are. . . .

There's not a kid who puts his head on his pillow at night and says, 'God, if only I could be a Running Ute.' Most people can't find the school and the California kids start twitching when it snows.

--Coach Rick Majerus of Utah

Before he was a Utah Ute, Van Horn was a Diamond Bar Brahma. Then he slipped through a crack and started on the roundabout route to stardom.

"I was, like, 6-8, probably 190," Van Horn says. "I basically just thought of college basketball. I wanted to use basketball to get an education. I mean, I always wanted to play professional basketball but I knew the chances weren't all that great.

"Every kid dreams of doing it, but not many actually do it. . . . I had realistic goals."

He had a choice of colleges but none of the biggies like Duke or North Carolina, or the local biggies, like UCLA or Arizona, or even USC.

"[UCLA] wrote me a letter," Van Horn says. "They said, 'Well, we already have Charles O'Bannon coming in, we have Ed O'Bannon.' They didn't have any need for me. I never really considered them at all."

USC assistants talked to Bill Murray, his high school coach, but didn't seem excited. Arizona was a no-show.

"People really missed the boat," Murray says. "Lot of people didn't see in him what was there. They'd see this tall, skinny, white kid and they'd forget this kid could shoot from outside and run the floor. Kid could have been our point guard. And a super kid."

It came down to Cal, Arizona State and Utah. Van Horn chose the Utes and Majerus, a big, round, teddy bear, at least with the press. With his players, the coach is no less communicative but tougher.

Van Horn got the full treatment. Once, Majerus says, he got on him so hard in a film session, the youngster broke down and cried. Van Horn says he never broke down but saw others who did.

The hard-driving coach and the player who lived to work got along fine. Majerus says Van Horn drove him crazy with his California act, walking around the snowy campus in sandals, but aside from that, he couldn't have asked for more from a player who averaged 20.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in his college career.

"He was captain three years," Majerus says. "Best captain I ever had. Nicest kid I ever coached.

"I always said this and I mean it, he's a better person than he is a player. He was very sensitive to his teammates. Yet he knew he was the guy and the team knew he was the guy."

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