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The next step was to convince Van Horn's skeptical new teammates of his value. "The first time I saw Keith walk on the court," Williams says, "I was like, Damn, what are we thinking now, giving up half our team for Huck Finn?" Moments later Williams watched in awe as Van Horn drained 18 of 19 three-pointers. When the 20th shot hung on the rim, the rookie dashed in and dunked it.
Williams has since nicknamed him Pale Rider, a reference to Van Horn's ghostly white pallor. The color of Van Horn's skin has drawn nearly as much attention this season as the quality of his play. After a Dec. 11 game against Detroit in which Van Horn shot 13 free throws, Pistons center Brian Williams suggested that Van Horn was getting special treatment from the officials because the league needed a white superstar. Williams called Van Horn "the great white hope" and went on to describe the rookie as "a kid who looks like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting...who carries the weight of every guy who plays with four knee guards and glasses on him."
Van Horn, New Jersey's only white player (unless you count Jack Haley), dismisses the racial stereotyping. "It's sad society has to think like that," Van Horn says. "I look forward to the day when everybody looks at me as just a player, not a white player."
Van Horn is a sage 22-year-old who's going on 40. His maturity comes from having spent four years in college at Utah and from already being married with two kids. (He and Amy have a daughter, Sabrina, 2.) His ability to maintain his equanimity is extraordinary. "Sometimes I'll say things just to try to rile him, but Keith never bites," Amy says. "Whenever we argue, I feel like screaming at him, 'Get upset!' "
When doctors informed Van Horn that a right ankle sprain he suffered in an Oct. 23 preseason game was more serious than was first believed, Calipari searched desperately for the right words to calm the rookie's fears. Van Horn turned to Calipari and said, "Don't worry, Coach. I'll get better from this. It will give me a chance to work on my upper-body strength."
Van Horn's college career served as a thorough NBA tutorial. Utah plays strictly man-to-man defense, and the Utes run offensive plays that coach Rick Majerus, a former NBA assistant, learned from pro coaches such as the Los Angeles Lakers' Del Harris and the Seattle SuperSonics' George Karl. Van Horn also benefits from playing what he calls a 3½, floating somewhere between the power and small forward positions (and occasionally even becoming a point forward, as he did briefly last Saturday in the Nets' 108-101 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves). His size and versatility pose matchup problems for a many opponents. "If they put a tall guy on me and I hit a few jumpers, I have the guy on a string like a puppet," Van Horn says. "If they put a smaller guy on me, I can post up and shoot over him." Opponents no longer allow Van Horn to roam free on the perimeter and in recent games have begun to shadow his every movement.
Van Horn has struggled mightily, however, against stronger players such as the Cleveland Cavaliers' Shawn Kemp and the New York Knicks' Larry Johnson, which partly explains his relatively low 41.3% shooting from the floor through Sunday. When his ankle is fully healed, he hopes to improve not only his inside shooting but also his rebounding (6.6 per game) and assists (1.0). It's scary to think that by Van Horn's own estimate, he has played at just 75% for most of the season. If he can regain his full mobility, he might even make a charge at the Rookie of the Year award, which had seemingly already been conceded to San Antonio Spurs center-forward Tim Duncan.
At halftime of the game against the Magic, the Nets hosted a ceremony honoring their 1976 ABA championship team. Van Horn, who was born at the beginning of the '75-76 season (Oct. 23), represents a human life span of the franchise's despair. New Jersey joined the NBA in 1976-77 and has averaged fewer than 33 victories per season and won but one playoff series.
Though the Continental Arena is only about six miles from New York City, on the NBA map it might as well be a million and six. For two decades—to borrow the words of Garden State legend Bruce Springsteen—the Nets have been nothing but "darkness on the edge of town." Perhaps it's fortunate that when the California-born Van Horn was drafted, he needed to consult a globe just to locate New Jersey and had no clue about the long-standing misery of the Nets franchise. "Javson told me some sad stories when I got here, and I got a little depressed for a few days," Van Horn admits. "But this is a new era, and we can erase the curse by winning."
At week's end New Jersey, 26-56 last season, seemed on its way to accomplishing that goal. The Nets had an encouraging 18-16 record (12-4 at home) and trailed their rivals from across the Hudson, the second-place Knicks, by just 1½ games in the Atlantic Division standings. With New York's AU-Star center, Patrick Ewing, almost certainly out for the season after wrist surgery, Van Horn could supplant Ewing as the city's most popular player. Jersey jerseys (especially those with Van Horn's number 44) are suddenly turning up in Times Square, and the eyes of Gotham have begun to peek westward toward the Meadow-lands. Says Gill, "We've put a lot of people on notice that we're not a joke anymore."