When Kevin Johnson was traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Phoenix Suns in February 1988, he was not exactly quaking over the prospect of meeting the Suns' incumbent point guard.
"Tell you the truth," said Johnson, leaning back in his dining room chair last week and smiling, "I couldn't get a handle on who he was. I knew Phoenix had these two white guards, both about the same size. Hornacek and Gondrezick. But I didn't know one from the other."
Actually, Grant Gondrezick had been waived earlier that season. Jeff Hornacek was the man.
In the Valley of the Sun, meanwhile, Hornacek was not exactly rolling out the red carpet for the newcomer. Hornacek assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that a Johnson was coming in to take his job, and all he knew was that it wasn't Magic. " Kevin Johnson was just a name," said Hornacek last week while idly shooting baskets with his 21-month-old son, Ryan, into a mini-hoop in the living room of his suburban Phoenix home. "Just another rookie I didn't know anything about."
As the Suns began their Western Conference final series against the Portland Trail Blazers this week—Game 1 was played Monday night in Portland—the Phoenix guards were a little more familiar with each other. And the rest of the league was more familiar with them, too. KJ and Horny—"The nickname is based solely on my last name," says Hornacek—are suddenly the NBA's new dynamic duo, the backcourt combo that shot down the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Western Conference semifinal and put the rising Suns into the Western final for the second straight season. The difference is, this year the Suns have a chance to win; the Lakers swept them in '88-89.
KJ and Horny, however, are still the least known of the four remaining backcourts in the NBA's second season—Portland's Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, Detroit's Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, and Chicago's Michael Jordan and John Paxson are all more established. But then, most observers rated KJ and Horny below the Laker tandem of Magic and Byron Scott, too, and that turned out to be a miscalculation.
Though neither outplayed Magic individually in the Laker series—he averaged 30.2 points per game, after all—both were far more effective than Scott. KJ, who averaged 22 points and 11.2 assists, shredded Scott, against whom he was matched most of the time, with his quickness and versatility. "Once he gets a step on you, you might as well give it to him," said the Lakers' James Worthy after KJ scored 37 points in the Suns' series-clinching 106-103 win on May 15. "Either he'll get a layup or the free throws." There are few players in the NBA to whom the Lakers extend that kind of accolade.
Hornacek, meanwhile, negated Magic's help-oriented defense by making jump shots whenever Magic drifted away from him. "I could see it in their eyes early in the series," said KJ. "They were asking each other, 'You mean Hornacek's this good?' " By the end of the series, during which Hornacek dropped in 36 of 69 field goal attempts (52.2%) and averaged 20.8 points, a lot of fans who didn't know a Hornacek from a horned lizard a few weeks before were calling him underrated. Sacramento Kings guard Danny Ainge had beaten them to it. "Jeff is the single most underrated player in the league today," Ainge said earlier in the season. "He reminds me of myself." One must assume that is the highest praise in Ainge's book.
Let's be realistic here, though—it is Johnson who draws up the master plan for the Phoenix offense, and Hornacek who waits, analyzes and fills in the empty spaces. It was KJ, not Hornacek, who appeared on Arsenio Hall's show the night after the Suns' decisive win in L.A. And it was KJ, not Hornacek, who made the All-Star team this past season and will probably become a perennial. "Kevin carries me," Hornacek says with a laugh, and there's a degree of truth to that.
Johnson is one of those players who come along only a few times a decade, a wunderkind whose talents are uniquely tailored to the pro game. Besides Jordan, is there any other player who so quickly became that much better than anyone thought he would be? Utah's Karl Malone? Dumars, perhaps? At any rate, it's a short list. By the midway point of last season—only his second in the NBA—KJ had already elevated himself into that class of point guards just below Magic, where he is clustered with Detroit's Thomas, Utah's John Stockton, and Mark Price, the man for whom KJ was sacrificed by Cleveland.