Jeff Hornacek has always made time for his family, even in the middle of an NBA game when it wasn’t all that convenient.
Back when he played for the Utah Jazz, the new Knicks coach was known for being a deadly shooter with a strangely complicated free-throw routine. Before each foul shot, Hornacek would wipe his face three times as a secret signal to his three young kids, Ryan, Tyler and Abby, who were usually back home in their pajamas watching the game on television.
“They were always asking me to wave to them. I couldn’t really do that, so this is what I came up with,” said Hornacek, a career 87.7 percent free-throw shooter. “I started getting letters from all over the world and people started asking about it and suddenly our secret wave wasn’t so secret anymore.”
This story bears retelling now because it says volumes about what drives the man whom the Knicks have hired to coach their team. Hornacek has two passions: basketball and family. For the most part, he has managed to carve out an impressive career in one without shortchanging the other.
“I think he might have been the first athlete to bring children into the picture,” Stacy Hornacek, Jeff’s wife of 30 years, said last week in a phone interview.
Long-distance shooter, father
Today we are used to seeing cute NBA offspring, such as Stephen Curry’s daughter, Riley, steal the show at news conferences. But this was far from the norm when Hornacek was playing in the 1980s and ’90s. Long before the phrase work-life balance made its way out of mommy-and-me classes, Hornacek was thinking long and hard about how he could spend more time with his family. This is something that is not easy to do when your job requires you to work nights and weekends, fly all over the country and spend 100-plus nights a year in a hotel room.
In the course of his 14-year career, Hornacek would call home as many as a dozen times a day. He would read his children bedtime stories over the phone. Once, while on the road, he instructed them step-by-step through the preparation of French toast and sausage so they could serve Stacy breakfast in bed. The kids made him a special pillowcase with their pictures on it, and he took it on the road with him to every game.
“As the kids got older, I just felt I was missing out on so much,” Hornacek said.
Though he was interested in coaching and had a few offers after he retired in 2000 at age 37, Hornacek decided what he really wanted to do was be a full-time dad. And so that’s what he did. He coached youth teams. He drove carpools and helped with homework. He cooked a bit and helped out with the laundry.
“My first year out, I don’t think I watched a single game on television,” said Hornacek, whose children were 12, 10 and 6 when he quit playing.
Derek Fisher, the last head coach the Knicks hired, took 10 days off between his last day as an NBA player and first day as the Knicks’ coach. Hornacek? He basically took 10 years.
Though he agreed to work as a part-time shooting coach for Utah six years after retiring, it wasn’t until 2011, when his youngest child, Abby, was entering her junior year in high school, that he agreed to take a full-time assistant job in Salt Lake City.
“It’s an unusual journey, but it doesn’t surprise me that he took it,” said former Suns general manager Jerry Colangelo, who has remained close to Hornacek since drafting him out of Iowa State. “Most individuals in the NBA are lifers and there isn’t any respite involved. It’s nonstop until you run out of opportunities.
“Jeff had some opportunities coming out, but he never bit on any of those. Jeff comes from a great family and I think he had the confidence to do things his way. No one works harder than Jeff Hornacek, and I think he wanted to wait until his kids were a certain age before he jumped back in and did that kind of work.”
He’s got game — on, off court
Hornacek, who said he was not recruited out of high school and was a late second-round draft pick out of college, has had to work hard for everything he has ever gotten. That includes his first date with Stacy.
The two met when they were students at Iowa State. The first time he called to ask her out, Stacy said, she turned him down because she had plans. He tried to convince her to break them, but she refused. The next day, she returned from lunch to her dorm room to find him sitting patiently in the hall in front of her doorway. He talked her into going out with him that night.
“He’s very charming in a really dorky way, which I still love,” Stacy said.
Hornacek has made a career out of working hard to defy expectations. After graduating from Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, Illinois, he started the fall of what was supposed to be his freshman year working at a paper cup factory in Chicago. Eventually, his father got him a workout with Johnny Orr at Iowa State. Hornacek ended up graduating Iowa State with 665 assists, a record that still stands.
Hard work also is what turned him into one of the best pure shooters in the NBA. In a league that values play above the rim, Hornacek was an earthbound oddity. He didn’t dunk and over the years he often was ribbed by teammates for his lack of athleticism. Though Colangelo, who had played against his father in Chicago youth leagues, ended up drafting him late in the second round, Hornacek had an accounting job lined up in Des Moines in case it didn’t work out.
Even before he had kids, Hornacek was meshing basketball and family. Colangelo didn’t like the way Hornacek shot the ball when he got to Phoenix. Hornacek was flicking his thumb when he shot, which caused the ball to have a weird rotation. Colangelo told him to fix it. So after practice every day, Hornacek would drive home to pick up Stacy and they would drive to the gym at the nearby JCC.
“He taped his thumb to his hand and he would spend hours shooting,” Stacy said. “I would stand under the basket and rebound. He worked really hard on changing his shot. It was fun until I got pregnant with our oldest son and then I wasn’t as interested in standing there for four hours rebounding.”
The Hornacek kids are all grown now. Ryan, 27, is married and works for Google in Chicago. Tyler, 26, is an account executive for a division of FoxSports in Los Angeles. Abby, 22, is a television sports reporter who recently covered the World Arm Wrestling Championships for ESPN and just accepted a full-time job hosting a show for 120 Sports in Chicago.
Jeff and Stacy are empty- nesters looking at apartments on the upper west side of Manhattan. New York wasn’t initially a part of the plan. The family had made their home in Phoenix off and on for close to 30 years and was hoping to stay when Hornacek was hired as the Suns’ head coach in 2013-14. But then, after being a runner-up to Gregg Popovich for coach of the year his rookie season, Hornacek was fired when his team lost 19 of 21 games this past season.
But Phil Jackson called, the plans changed and Hornacek is taking on a team that some consider the ultimate challenge. One thing, however, had remained consistent.
“He’s always made us feel like we are the most important thing in his life,” Stacy said. “He’s always put us first.”
Even in the middle of an NBA game, while standing at the foul line.