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It's the holiday season, and a lot of people have come home. In fact, a crowd is huddled outside a locked gymnasium in Williamsburg, Va., breath misting in the frigid air as the people stamp their feet in the snow and wait for the guy with the key to arrive. They have been doing this for almost 20 years now, former high school teammates who come back, find a gym and lace up the hightops the way they used to when they played for the varsity. The game is a holiday highlight, but this one promises to be special—it's the first time that all five starters from James Blair High's squad of '73 will be reunited on the court.
There's Derwin (Stump) Cox. And Chip Darracott. Alvin Cauthorn drove down from D.C., where he coaches football at Howard. Jordan Adair made the trip from Massachusetts, where he teaches English at a prep school. And there's Bruce Hornsby.
The night before, Hornsby was in a Los Angeles recording studio with his band, The Range, fine-tuning their third album, which is due out in June. Bruce Hornsby & The Range's first two albums turned Hornsby into Williamsburg's most famous son this side of Lawrence Taylor and former Dallas Cowboy fullback Ron Springs. But back when Hornsby was a skinny 6'3" center for Blair, Taylor was a little kid up in the bleachers and Springs was shooting jumpers with the jayvees. Hornsby was called Golden Boy then, the name a sportswriter gave him during his sophomore year, not so much for Hornsby's blond curls as for the fact that he was the only white player on the team.
The curls are thinning these days, but the nickname fits for another reason. After nearly a decade in the musical minor leagues—he once went on the road as Sheena Easton's keyboard player—Hornsby was finally signed by RCA in 1985. A year later his first album, The Way It Is, was issued. It went gold and eventually double platinum (more than two million copies were sold), and Hornsby won the 1987 Grammy Award as Best New Artist. The band's second album, Scenes from the Southside, released in '88, went platinum, and now everyone in the business, from Don Henley to Stevie Nicks to the Grateful Dead, is bringing Hornsby on stage and into the studio.
One of the cuts on Scenes from the Southside is The Old Playground, and according to Hornsby, if you understand that song, you've got a pretty good idea of how he made it through the hard times, how he can draw a direct line from mastering a hook shot to cutting a demo. The NBA uses The Old Playground for one of its television ads, but to Hornsby the song is about more than basketball. "It's about a social phenomenon," he says. "About how the game can become so important to people, how the esteem in which you're held is totally related to how you play." Or as the song says, "Everybody knows how you play is who you are."
Right now Hornsby is playing very well, and evidence of his success is scattered around the attic of his Williamsburg home: six gold records; eight platinum (for sales abroad as well as in the U.S.); two Grammys (the latest this year for Best Bluegrass Recording, with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band); a plaque for appearing on Saturday Night Live; and a framed letter from former Virginia governor Gerald Baliles congratulating Hornsby on his first Grammy.
But one letter up there means more to Hornsby than any other memento. It's a congratulatory note for winning that first Grammy, from U.S. Senator Bill Bradley—the same Bill Bradley whose poster hung over Hornsby's bed back when Bradley was playing for the New York Knicks and Hornsby hadn't yet become proficient at the piano. Sports were the driving force in Hornsby's life until his senior year in high school. Back then, A Sense of Where You Are, a biography of Princeton All-America and Rhodes Scholar Bradley written by John McPhee, was Hornsby's bible.
" Bradley's intensity and dedication came through in the book," says Hornsby. "The idea that if you're not out there doing it, working on it, someone else is, and he'll be the one who wins. That's a philosophy that has steered my life ever since."
Though a few schools recruited him—he got letters from Old Dominion and Dayton and an actual visit from a Randolph-Macon coach—Hornsby realized that his 11-point average and 175-pound body would not take him far in basketball. So he tacked up an Elton John poster next to Bradley's, turned to the keyboard and stuck to the work ethic he had picked up on the court and from McPhee's book in order to keep him going during the next decade. "Those were not fun years," he says. "I could've easily packed it in, but I stayed intense. I still am. It goes right back to what I learned on the court."
Because fame didn't find the 35-year-old Hornsby right away, it hasn't swept him off his feet. He picks up one of the Grammys, holds it up and says, "They send it to you in two parts, see? You've got to put it together. Big deal, huh?" He looks at the Clipper gym bag by the front door of his Williamsburg house, its logo reminding him of his other home in Los Angeles. "When you can watch a Clipper game at the Sports Arena, you don't have to put up with all that celebrity stuff," he says, referring to the star-studded crowds at The Forum for Laker games.