If you were at the Jazz game on Friday night in time for team introductions you would have noticed a rarity in sports: An extended ovation for a visiting head coach. Jeff Hornacek, returned to Salt Lake as an opponent to the Jazz for the first time in about two decades. The fans loved him and so did the cameraman, I don’t think a visiting coach has ever had so much facetime on the new jumbotron at ESA.
Hornacek had a stellar playing career in Utah, during which time he was lights out from beyond the arc including a streak for the Jazz when he made 11 straight threes. “Horny” then took some time off to be with his family. He later returned as a fulltime member of the coaching staff when Tyrone Corbin took over the reigns from Jerry Sloan. Just a couple years later he earned a spot at the head of the Phoenix Suns bench. With so much history in Utah, what was he thinking upon his return?
“We gotta try to get a win,” Hornacek said. “Whenever you’re a player or a coach and you go back to an old arena of a team that you played for or coached at, ya know it’s a special feeling but you get out there and as soon as the ball goes up in the air and the tipoff starts you kind of focus between those lines.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any Jazz fans that at the forefront of Hornacek’s mind was beating his old pals at EnergySolutions Arena. The shooting guard was a key contributor to back-to-back trips to the finals. He was the perfect third piece to a puzzle including John Stockton and Karl Malone that led to a decade of contending for titles. Looking back on his time here, it’s still those games against Chicago that he remembers the most.
“It’s probably just our times of going to the finals,” he said. “Two years in a row we end up playing the Bulls and couldn’t come away with the win but ya know just the way these fans react here, good times and bad times they’re a great crowd. And that’s always a thrill for players.”
Beyond the Jazz opening the game with a 9-0 run, Hornacek’s Suns never really gave the home team fans much of a chance to feel the thrill of a pending victory. Utah ended up trailing 18-17 later in the first and the Suns never really looked back. After a dominating performance Hornacek was quick to recognize the challenges the Jazz are facing.
“I know it’s been tough on (coach Corbin) here. I think he’s doing a great job with these guys,” Hornacek said. “They’re young guys that have been thrown together. None of these guys have had the responsibilities that they’re now being put into and to have to deal with that is pretty tough.”
While the Jazz struggle through growing pains, Hornacek is 2-0 against his former team. Although it seems like he’s taken to coaching about as well as he shot free throws, Hornacek said it’s quite a bit different than he expected, mostly due to the regularity in which he’s called upon to draw up plays for his team.
As to enjoying the return to Utah and taking a second to look around his old home and reminisce, Hornacek is a little too competive to let nostalgia distract him.
“It was kind of like when I was playing, all I saw was the things that was happening between the sidelines,” he said. “It was fun to go out there and have our team get a win. Reminiscing? Probably not so much”
Before leaving the arena for a flight back to Phoenix and another bout against the Jazz, Horny did find time to catch up with Sloan who he simply calls coach. He also spoke with Matt Harpring and Corbin, so even though he accomplished his goal of a win, it sounds like there was some time for nostalgia.