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"That isn't Keith Van Horn, is it?"
So said one NBA security man to another upon finding a young man sleeping in the hallway of a hotel in Charlotte, wearing only blue plaid boxer shorts. Naturally, there's a very good explanation for this. Really.
About seven hours earlier at the NBA draft, Van Horn had been chosen second overall by the Philadelphia 76ers; the next day he would discover that he had been traded to the New Jersey Nets. To celebrate his first night in the NBA, Van Horn, still dressed in his fancy blue suit and wearing his 76ers baseball cap, joined his wife, Amy, and a small group of family and friends at a local bistro. The merry revelers closed the place, singing karaoke to Marvin Gaye's Our Precious Love, eating Buffalo wings, drinking too much chardonnay and smoking way too many cigars. They left the restaurant and returned to their hotel bar for more wine and stogies. When Keith finally returned to his room at 5 a.m., he was seized by a persistent and noisy case of hiccups that threatened to wake up his four-week-old son, Nicholas. Amy, who had never seen her normally teetotaling husband so much as tipsy in the four years that she'd known him, banished Keith to the hallway with a pillow. An hour or so later the security men arrived.
Thus began a series of memorable NBA exploits featuring Van Horn, many of which have ended with similar exclamations of wonder. For instance, on Jan. 2 the 6'10" New Jersey rookie forward scored 16 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter of a benchmark 103-98 victory over the New York Knicks, highlighted by a dazzling move with the game tied at 79 and 7:45 remaining. Playing in just his 13th pro game, Van Horn held the ball at the top of the key facing New York's intimidating 13-year veteran power forward Charles Oakley. He teased Oakley with a series of head fakes, used a deft crossover dribble to penetrate the lane and then scored on a sweet finger roll that brought the sellout crowd at Continental Airlines Arena to its feet and gave the Nets the lead for good. Later in the quarter Van Horn sank two three-pointers, then clinched the win by making a pair of free throws with 6.8 seconds left. During a late timeout, New Jersey center Jayson Williams walked back to the Nets' bench, where he was met by reserve forward David Benoit. Said Benoit, "Damn, that Van Horn boy can play."
Williams looked askance at Benoit and replied, "Where've you been? He's been busting your booty in practice every day."
Truly, if anybody should have sensed Van Horn's explosive potential, it's Benoit, a seven-year veteran who guarded the rookie in one-on-one drills for six weeks during New Jersey's summer camp. "Keith tore me apart until I finally figured out that the only way to stop him is to foul him," Benoit says. "Still, I had no idea he'd abuse the rest of the league the way he abused me."
By week's end Van Horn was, if not abusing the league, certainly making it take notice. After sitting out the Nets' first 17 games with a partially torn tendon in his right ankle, he had come on strong enough to lead NBA rookies in scoring and playing time, with 20.5 points and 40.4 minutes per game. In his first five games he scored 11,16,23,24 and 30 points, and he had finished in double figures in all of his games. Most important, he had become the man the Nets looked to at crunch time, as they did against the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 17, when his clutch three-point play broke open a tie game with just over a minute remaining and gave the Nets their first win against the Pistons in their last 12 tries. Van Horn's teammates have marveled at his fearlessness. "His confidence is far greater than that of any rookie I've ever seen," says Nets forward Kendall Gill. "Most rookies start off timid, but right away he's willing to take big shots."
"Van Horn's so polished and he's got so many weapons that it's hard to believe he's a rookie," says Orlando Magic coach Chuck Daly, who saw him drop in 19 points in New Jersey's 89-87 home win over the Magic last Thursday. "He'll be an All-Star in this league, and sooner rather than later."
Van Horn is excelling partly because, despite his lofty draft position, he is continually underestimated. "He doesn't look like an athlete," Detroit forward Grant Hill says, taking note of Van Horn's stringy, 230-pound body, "but he's more athletic than I thought he'd be." Even some of the Nets' brass admit they underrated Van Horn until they scouted him at a workout two weeks before last June's draft. "Keith shows up with his funny-looking body and his socks pulled up high like a dork and that choirboy face," New Jersey coach and vice president John Calipari says. "Then I watched the guy hit 32 of 40 from the three-point line and knock down 50 straight free throws and jump to the top of the square on the backboard and run faster than our guards, and I was just blown away. I said to myself, Holy cow, am I really seeing this?"
Calipari telephoned his close friend Larry Brown, the Philadelphia coach, under whom Calipari worked as an assistant at Kansas in the early '80s. Calipari asked about Brown's intentions with the second pick in the draft and then candidly said, "If you're not taking Van Horn, I'll do whatever I have to do to get him." At 3 p.m. on draft day, after approximately 30 calls between the two coaches, the Nets traded two starters, guard Jim Jackson and center Eric Montross, and two '97 first-round picks (the higher of which, No. 7, became forward Tim Thomas) for the rights to Van Horn and three players—forward-center Michael Cage, guard Lucious Harris and forward Don MacLean-whom Philadelphia was looking to dump for salary-cap reasons. It was a monumental gamble for New Jersey. "I'm a horseplayer, and I've seen a lot of 2-year-olds who were very impressive in the morning but lost their luster at post time," Nets general manager John Nash says. "But you get very few opportunities in this business to get this kind of thoroughbred."