Jeff Hornacek

Written by Craig Morgan Category: Spotlight Issue: December 2014
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The plucky shooting guard helped lead Phoenix to four 50-win seasons and two Western Conference finals during his six seasons in the Valley (1986-1992), before decamping for Philadelphia in a blockbuster trade. Last year, “Horny” returned to Phoenix as the team’s head coach, coaxing a remarkable 48-34 record out of a team with no superstars and finishing second in NBA Coach of the Year voting. Next up: Ending the Suns’ streak of four straight non-playoff seasons. PHOENIX magazine caught up with Hornacek recently to get his thoughts on that pursuit, his coaching philosophy and bear hugs from Hall of Famer Karl Malone.

Is there a favorite memory from your time as a Suns player?
The one that always sticks out in my mind is our win over the Lakers in the [1990] playoffs. To me, it wasn’t the Suns against the Lakers, it was Phoenix against Los Angeles. It was glitz and glamour town against Western cowboy town. That was a big deal when we beat that Magic Johnson team in the playoffs in L.A. Coming back to the airport and having 10,000-12,000 people jammed into the small airport they had at that point, that was awesome. I thought that really got us going on that upward arc.

How have players changed since you played?
Back in the day, they were never catered to. Nowadays, you really have to figure out what makes guys tick, what you can do to help them with their career. Let’s face it, they’re all looking at their next contract and their livelihood, so you have to balance that and put them in good positions where they can succeed and still be part of team success. It’s a good thing my wife is pretty good at the psychology part. If I have a question, she helps me out.

What’s your demeanor on the sideline?
I’m pretty laid-back, and I was the same as a player. But one thing my teammates learned about me is, if something got me mad and I got a technical [foul], I was probably going to get a second technical pretty fast. [Former Utah Jazz teammate] Karl Malone would laugh at me. It took a lot to get me there, but once I got one technical, he would just come over and pick me up and carry me away. He knew once I got to that point, I wasn’t stopping.

What would it mean to restore faith in the Suns?
I was part of the first time we turned it around after the drug scandal in the ‘80s [when three players were indicted for drug trafficking]. I would have liked to have been here when they went to the Finals (1993), but when they traded me in the deal to get Charles Barkley (1992), I knew it was a good trade for the Suns. To come back and go through that same process where the team’s been struggling for a couple years – if we can turn it around and get it back to that level, it would mean a great deal. This time, I’d like to maybe stay a little longer and take that next step.

When the team changed ownership from Jerry Colangelo to Robert Sarver, fans became disillusioned with the team. Was restoring the franchise’s image discussed when you interviewed for this job?
We didn’t talk about it, but that was the perception around the league. I actually had people say, “Be careful with your first head coaching job. You don’t want to go to a place that’s having all kinds of issues because if it doesn’t work out, well then that could be your only job.” I knew Robert a little bit – not a great deal, but I knew what kind of person he was and I felt that if I came here, we could get it back. I knew this would be a place I could come back to and we could have some success.