PHOENIX — One of the most popular Phoenix Suns players from the franchise’s past will guide the team to an uncertain future.
At the news conference on Tuesday announcing his hiring as Suns coach, Jeff Hornacek spoke at length about his readiness for the job and the influences that will guide him.
“I’ve always felt that I’ve been a coach,” he said. “My dad was a coach, so I’ve been around basketball since I was 5 years old.”
Hornacek played the first six of his 14 NBA seasons with the Suns. He was traded to Philadelphia in the Charles Barkley deal, then went to Utah, where he found great success as the backcourt teammate of John Stockton. Hornacek retired from playing to spend more time with his family, then eased into coaching, first as a shooting instructor in Utah, then since 2011 as a full-time assistant with the Jazz.
His coaching style, he said, would be heavily influenced by his days playing for Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix and Jerry Sloan in Utah.
“Hopefully, I can take Jerry’s toughness, Cotton’s enthusiasm and confidence-building and blend them together,” Hornacek said, “and become a great coach like some of the great coaches that have been here in the past.”
He went through a “who’s who” list of the best Suns players in the past, from Gar Heard to Walter Davis, Alvin Adams, Kevin Johnson, Barkley and Steve Nash.
“There’s been great success here over the years,” Hornacek said.
But the Suns never have won an NBA title, and things have gone from mediocre to far worse the last couple of seasons. Hornacek inherits a team that went 25-57 last season, the worst record in the Western Conference and second-worst in Suns history. Only the team’s inaugural season of 1968-69 was worse.
Owner Robert Sarver said that these days the Suns “are selling hope.” Hornacek will embody that belief as new general manager Ryan McDonough works to improve the team’s unimpressive roster. Phoenix has the fifth and 30th picks in next month’s draft.
Hornacek’s philosophy will be to build teamwork with a consistent improvement on the court. He especially looks forward to working with young players, although he knows that fortunes aren’t transformed overnight.
“Sometimes it’s a tough deal as a coach, as players,” Hornacek said. “You’re going to have some struggles and that’s when you have to stay positive through that, knowing that you’re ultimately striving to get better and you have a higher goal.”
He said that he will enter the season with no preconceived notions on players and looks forward to the teaching aspect of his job. He said that today’s players often haven’t received much quality coaching before they get to the NBA, often after just a year in college.
His experience the last few years with Utah, Hornacek said, showed him that the demeanor of young players is not indicative of their willingness to be taught.
“They may look at you and you might think they’re not paying attention,” he said, “but they really do want to learn.”
McDonough’s first task when he replaced the fired Lance Blanks was to find a coach. He had heard all the great things about Hornacek but said the hiring seemed “almost too obvious.”
After McDonough met with Hornacek last week, he understood what all of those who had promoted him for the job were talking about. The team then moved quickly over the weekend to finalize the deal.
Hornacek brings an amiable personality to a challenging job. He thinks that’s an asset, because when he does come down hard on players, it will be a rare occurrence that gets their attention.
“You have to find that fine balance between being able to get on guys and not harping on them all the time,” he said, “because if you do that they’re going to tune you out.”
Hornacek has a home in Phoenix but McDonough said the new coach’s abilities, and not the fact that he had such strong ties to the Suns, were the reason he was hired.
“That was a bonus,” McDonough said.
Hornacek replaces Lindsey Hunter, who became interim coach after Alvin Gentry and the team parted ways in mid-January.
Hornacek was drafted in the second round by Phoenix in 1986, the 46th selection overall. He eventually became part of a high-scoring backcourt with point guard Kevin Johnson, but he was sent to Philadelphia in the Barkley trade.
Hornacek spent less than two years with the 76ers before being traded to Utah, where he played alongside Stockton for six-plus seasons, helping the team twice reach the NBA Finals.
He averaged 14.5 points, topped by a career-best 20.1 points in 1992, his final season with Phoenix. He retired in 2000, and after working with the Jazz in various roles, he became a full-time assistant coach in 2011.