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He’s Young, but Nets’ Van Horn Developing Aura of Greatness

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Diamond Bar to the University of Utah to greatness. . . .

It isn’t how everybody does it, which was one reason pale-skinned Keith Van Horn was such a dark horse, although that’s officially over. Six weeks into his NBA career--he started late because of an injury--they’re comparing him to all-time greats. This may be absurd but it’s progress too.

He leads all rookies in scoring, averaging 19.5 points. He may be shy but he’s not bashful, as he proved when his New Jersey Nets played Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and he squeezed off 30 shots, missing 23.

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Duncan had 24 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots, to Van Horn’s 21 points, 10 rebounds and one block. No, Van Horn may not be the top rookie and comparisons to--are you ready for this?--Larry Bird are . . . how to put it . . . a tad much. Nevertheless, a young man who could grow into a legitimate 25-point-a-game scorer should fit in somewhere.

His coach, John Calipari, verging on ecstasy, notes, “His maturity is incredible. He looks you in the eye and responds to what you’re saying. You show him something on film you want him to do and he does it the next game.”

After Van Horn outscored Washington’s Chris Webber, 32-22, in their first meeting, the Wizards’ Juwan Howard called him “a great player.”

Detroit’s Brian Williams called him “The Great White Hope,” although that was as much a complaint about the calls Williams claimed Van Horn was getting as it was a compliment.

To which Williams added:

“He’s got the weight of every guy who plays with four knee guards and glasses on him.”

Said Webber, “I don’t know about the Great White Hope. I do know that Brian Williams can’t check Van Horn, though.”

Whew, if the rest of Van Horn’s career is this much fun, what a busy young lightning rod he will be. He’s already happening in the media. ESPN came through recently, only to be told to take a number and come back next week; Van Horn was booked. He’s breaking out commercially, starting with his Nike hook-up. No. 44 Net jerseys are popping up in stores all over.

This career should be measured in tens of thousands of points and hundreds of millions of dollars--at least 10,000 more points and $100 million more than anyone would have predicted four years ago.

*

I teach ‘em basketball, but I can’t teach ‘em heart. He had heart.

--Coach Bill Murray of Diamond Bar High

We’ve been a specialty school. You know what I mean? We sort of get these guys who fall through the cracks because of where we’re at and who we are. . . .

There’s not a kid who puts his head on his pillow at night and says, ‘God, if only I could be a Running Ute.’ Most people can’t find the school and the California kids start twitching when it snows.

--Coach Rick Majerus of Utah

Before he was a Utah Ute, Van Horn was a Diamond Bar Brahma. Then he slipped through a crack and started on the roundabout route to stardom.

“I was, like, 6-8, probably 190,” Van Horn says. “I basically just thought of college basketball. I wanted to use basketball to get an education. I mean, I always wanted to play professional basketball but I knew the chances weren’t all that great.

“Every kid dreams of doing it, but not many actually do it. . . . I had realistic goals.”

He had a choice of colleges but none of the biggies like Duke or North Carolina, or the local biggies, like UCLA or Arizona, or even USC.

“[UCLA] wrote me a letter,” Van Horn says. “They said, ‘Well, we already have Charles O'Bannon coming in, we have Ed O'Bannon.’ They didn’t have any need for me. I never really considered them at all.”

USC assistants talked to Bill Murray, his high school coach, but didn’t seem excited. Arizona was a no-show.

“People really missed the boat,” Murray says. “Lot of people didn’t see in him what was there. They’d see this tall, skinny, white kid and they’d forget this kid could shoot from outside and run the floor. Kid could have been our point guard. And a super kid.”

It came down to Cal, Arizona State and Utah. Van Horn chose the Utes and Majerus, a big, round, teddy bear, at least with the press. With his players, the coach is no less communicative but tougher.

Van Horn got the full treatment. Once, Majerus says, he got on him so hard in a film session, the youngster broke down and cried. Van Horn says he never broke down but saw others who did.

The hard-driving coach and the player who lived to work got along fine. Majerus says Van Horn drove him crazy with his California act, walking around the snowy campus in sandals, but aside from that, he couldn’t have asked for more from a player who averaged 20.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in his college career.

“He was captain three years,” Majerus says. “Best captain I ever had. Nicest kid I ever coached.

“I always said this and I mean it, he’s a better person than he is a player. He was very sensitive to his teammates. Yet he knew he was the guy and the team knew he was the guy.”

By the end of Van Horn’s sophomore season in which he averaged 21.0 points and 8.5 rebounds, Majerus was telling people he’d be “a lotto"--NBA lottery pick.

By the end of Van Horn’s junior season in which he averaged 21.4 points and 8.8 rebounds, he was projected as a top-eight pick. He was married with a child, his father had recently died and his mother was anything but wealthy, but he walked away from a $5-million contract, after talking to Jazz General Manager Scott Layden, who suggested he return to school.

A year later, which Van Horn calls the best in his life after averaging 22.0 points and 9.5 rebounds, he came out as the No. 2 pick, after a string of sensational workouts.

“I thought he was the second-best player [available],” Calipari says. “We brought him in, not to draft him at No. 7 [the Nets’ pick] but to find out what we were willing to do to get him.

“I told Larry Brown [coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, who had the No. 2 pick], ‘If you’re not going to take him, trade him to me. I’ll give you starters, I’ll take some of your contracts, but you can’t let him go third because he’s the second-best player.’

“What happened was, we brought him here. We knew he could jump, we knew he could run, we knew he could shoot, we knew he was big.

“We measure him--he’s 6-10 1/2. In bare feet. How big? Let me see that again. He’s 6-10 1/2! He ain’t 6-9, he’s 6-10 1/2! I’ll be damned! What’s his reach like? Hey, it’s like a 7-foot reach!

“Then we get him out on the court. He starts jumping--he’s above the square [nine inches above the basket]! Do that again! C'mon man!’

“Shooting drills . . . I didn’t use the old [shorter three-point] line. He makes 32 out of 40! I’m looking at my guys on the sideline and I say, ‘We’ll do whatever we need to. Am I like stupid here? Does anybody else see what I’m seeing?’

“And then [General Manager] John Nash said, ‘Cal, get on the phone.’ ”

Jayson Williams, the fast-talking Net forward who had waged a battle of wills with Calipari and then savaged him in a diary published in GQ magazine, was there that day.

“I saw him shooting,” Williams says, “and I said, ‘I have to make up with Cal.’

“The boy made 18 of 23 three-pointers and dunked the last one while it was rattling around on the rim.”

*

I thought he was Amish. I thought he was going to ride up in a carriage.

--Jayson Williams

Unfortunately for the 76ers, they never saw the Keith Van Horn Show.

On the advice of Majerus, who shuddered at the thought of his protege alongside Derrick Coleman and Allen Iverson, Van Horn wouldn’t work out for the 76ers, a suggestion that he might leave when his three years were up and a good deal breaker these days.

Brown traded his pick for New Jersey’s, acquiring Jim Jackson and Eric Montross, dumping $30 million in the contracts of Don MacLean, Michael Cage and Lucious Harris on the Nets.

Calipari, who had intended to save salary cap room for star free agents, had gambled it, instead, on a kid from the Western Athletic Conference, from which so many NBA busts had sprung.

What, him worry?

In a word, yes. On draft day, Majerus, doing TV commentary, got a call from the Net coach.

“He said, ‘What do you think?’ ” Majerus says. “He had, like, buyer’s remorse. He had, like, jelly feet.

“I said, ‘I’m going to tell you something--there’s not a kid in this draft who’ll work harder. There’s not a kid in this draft more dedicated. There’s not a better person in this draft. I think he’ll be fine.’ ”

And he has been. Van Horn missed the first five weeks of the season, usually a disastrous way for a rookie to start, but hit the floor firing in early December. Forget rust. Forget the competition. He scored 74 points in his first four games and never looked back. By New Year’s, they were starting that Bird stuff.

“It’s because he’s white,” said the one and only Bird, laughing. “There’s not many of us left. It’s only human nature. . . .

“I scouted him for three years. He’s going to be a great player, no question about it. He handles himself like a professional.”

Says Majerus, “He’s not going to be Larry Bird. I get a call every day from an East Coast media guy about Keith, asking me to compare him to Larry Bird. I say, ‘If Keith were white or Bird were black, or if Keith were black and Bird were black, we wouldn’t even be having this talk.’ ”

Although bigger and more athletic, Van Horn isn’t a masterful playmaker, as Bird was, nor as good a rebounder or shooter. Bird made 41% of his three-point shots as a rookie; Van Horn has made 29.9%. However, there’s a lot of room underneath Bird that is still in the greatness category.

Doe-eyed in the spotlight, Van Horn remains pleasant and unassuming. He lets a lot of this stuff zoom over his head. He doesn’t understand where the Bird stuff comes from and says he hopes society will soon overcome its preoccupation with race. He attributes much of his fame to the Nets’ success. He doesn’t talk in terms of what he wants to accomplish for himself, but as a member of the team. As bewildering as it might be, he doesn’t seem bewildered.

But his sandals days are over.

“Yeah, it’s different,” he says. “But it’s not like I’m living in Europe or anything. People still speak the language. Things are a little different, a little faster paced, but I enjoy it.”

Buckle up. From now on, the pace only gets faster.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Van Horn’s Numbers

A look at how Keith Van Horn’s numbers in the NBA compare to his college career:

WITH NEW JERSEY

*--*

Min FG% FT% 3PT% Pts Reb. Ast 40.0 .402 .827 29.9 19.5 6.2 1.2

*--*

WITH UTAH (NCAA)

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Year Min FG% FT% 3PT% Pts Reb. Ast 93-94 29.6 .516 .775 .443 18.3 8.3 0.8 94-95 30.1 .545 .856 .386 21.0 8.5 1.4 95-96 30.9 .538 .851 .409 21.4 8.8 1.0 96-97 31.5 .492 .904 .387 22.0 9.5 1.4 Totals 30.6 .522 .851 .401 20.8 8.8 1.2

*--*

How Van Horn compares with other rookies this season:

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Player Min FG% FT% 3PT% Pts Reb. Ast Van Horn 40.0 .402 .827 29.9 19.5 6.2 1.2 Tim Duncan 37.8 .562 .563 .000 17.6 11.5 2.5 Brevin Knight 31.2 .438 .771 .000 8.6 3.0 8.2 Chauncey Billups 25.2 .390 .822 .353 11.3 2.2 4.0 Antonio Daniels 30.2 .409 .692 .194 8.9 2.2 5.6 Derek Anderson 30.6 .405 .884 .170 12.4 3.2 3.8

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