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NBA SEASON PREVIEW / 2002-03 | J.A. Adande

Horry Turning Into Quite a Ring Master

October 29, 2002|J.A. Adande

Ever been to a concert where the backup singer gets a chance to solo and just takes over the stage?

That's Robert Horry. He's the greatest backup singer in NBA history. Try to name another non-superstar who has made more contributions to championship teams.

Horry is not The Man. With Kobe Bryant riding shotgun to Shaquille O'Neal on the Lakers, Horry isn't even the sidekick. In the credits his name would be in small type. But his name also belongs with some of the winningest players to come through the league.

That's why there's an interesting subplot to Phil Jackson's quest to top Red Auerbach with a potential 10th coaching championship. Horry has a chance to win his sixth championship ring, which would equal the championship riches of Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Only 12 players have six or more rings. The majority of them played for the Boston Celtics with the ring leader, Bill Russell, winning 11 championships. And most of them are in or on their way to the Hall of Fame.

Horry won't go to the Hall of Fame. Career averages of 8.1 points and 5.2 rebounds won't get you to Springfield.

But he already keeps company with the plaque-worthy.

Horry's five rings (three with the Lakers, two with the Houston Rockets) already are as many as Magic Johnson has and two more than Larry Bird.

"You come into this league, you want to accomplish certain things," Horry said. "You want to be the best you can be. You want to make an All-Star team. You want to win some championships. I've won five ... so that kind of makes up for not making an All-Star team."

He wasn't the driving force behind any of his championships, never won an NBA Finals most-valuable-player award. But it's hard to imagine any of them happening without him. He comes through with the support when it's needed most; like a FEMA check.

There were all those three-point baskets he made against the Orlando Magic when he helped the Rockets to their second consecutive championship in 1995. There were his timely plays in the pivotal Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals in Indiana, and his three-pointer in Game 3 of the 2001 Finals in Philadelphia that ended the drama in that series and made the rest a formality.

Then came the shot of a lifetime. Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings, Western Conference finals, Game 4. A loose ball found its way into his hands as the clock was running down, and a quick three-pointer ripped through the net to give the Lakers a 100-99 victory and saved them from heading to Sacramento with a 3-1 series deficit.

That's why Shaquille O'Neal, awarded his third NBA Finals MVP after the Lakers swept the New Jersey Nets, dubbed Horry "The real MVP" at the Lakers' victory parade.

Suddenly Horry had a new identity. He had come to be known as a guy who sleepwalked through the regular season, then showed up in the playoffs. Now he's The Guy Who Made The Shot.

Back in Houston, his off-season home, Horry was a marked man at the NBA-heavy pickup games. Whenever Horry's team reached game point, Maurice Taylor would say: "Make sure Rob doesn't get it. You know he's going to make it."

Every winning team needs someone like Horry. In the 1980s, Michael Cooper played that role for the Lakers.

Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the central players in the Chicago Bulls' six championships, but each three-peat had its own Horry. Jackson, the coach of those squads, mentioned John Paxson in the first go-round and Steve Kerr for the sequel.

But the player he expounded on was Bill Cartwright, the Bulls' center on those '91-'93 ring teams.

"He was a guy that was the glue that kind of held a lot of the pieces together," Jackson said.

Drawing the comparison to Cartwright, one of Jackson's favorite players, is high praise from the Zen Master, and it shows just how far Horry has come in Jackson's eyes since he began coaching the Lakers in 1999.

"In the process of getting this team together he was one of the very first guys I picked on," Jackson said.

He told Horry that he could do better than the five points and four rebounds a game he averaged the previous season. From afar Jackson had seen the same thing everyone else saw -- mediocre statistics despite special talent -- and assumed Horry just wasn't trying hard enough.

Now he simply says, "That's Robert," which sometimes is the only explanation that works.

"What he does measures yards ahead of the points and assists and rebound totals that he has, because he defers to other people," Jackson said. "He just knows more than most of the guys about what's going on and how to get it done on the floor -- especially defensively."

Horry has come so far that now he gets special privileges.

"I still think I've got to coach everybody," Jackson said. "But he's the one guy I tell the guys, 'If Robert's done something on the floor, then I know he's got a reason for doing it, because what he sees on the floor sometimes I don't see.' "

A fair benefit. Horry may not get superstar calls from officials, but he gets winner's perks from his coach.

Jackson knows he wouldn't have had a chance to pass Auerbach without Horry. Whenever anyone ascends to greatness, there's always a guy like Horry helping out behind the scenes, ready to step up and hit the right note.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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