Over the course of the 2015-16 NBA season, Today’s Fastbreak’s Charley Rosen met with New York Knicks president Phil Jackson to discuss the state of the team. In the final part of “The Phil Jackson Chronicles” for the year, Phil talked the hiring of Jeff Hornacek.
In a move that surprised most NBA watchers, Phil Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek to coach the New York Knicks. Jackson had plenty to say about the whys and wherefores of this critical decision.
“Back when I was coaching in the CBA, I’d read the college and NBA box scores in the newspapers along with the brief game descriptions printed above them. I’d keep track of players who made big shots or any kind of game-changing plays. And Jeff’s name came up quite frequently. Like when he hit a game-tying shot and then the game-winner in overtime to give Iowa State a NCAA Tournament win in 1986. Then, two days later, he led the team to an upset win over Michigan.
“Despite having an outstanding college career, Jeff was not invited to the Chicago combine after his senior year. However, Bobby Knight had been impressed with Jeff when Iowa State played Indiana, so he called Jerry Colangelo and got Jeff an invite. Colangelo was the head man in Phoenix and he saw enough to draft Jeff in the second round.
“When I became an assistant coach with the Bulls, I was able to closely follow Jeff’s pro career. I liked his demeanor on the court. His scrappiness, his cool head, the way he always competed. And if a win-or-lose shot came to him, he wasn’t afraid to take it. If he wasn’t the quickest guy out there, Jeff played very good positional defense. It was interesting to watch his growth and, when I became the Bulls’ head coach, I was always trying to find a way to bring him to Chicago.
“After his rookie year in the NBA, Jeff was making about 82 percent of his free throws, but he knew there was some glitch in his shot that he had to correct. With his wife rebounding, Jeff kept working on his release until he realized that his left thumb was on the ball. His wife then suggested that he tape the thumb to his hand and it worked. His free throw shooting kept improving until he was 95 percent accurate from the stripe. That kind of diligence and motivation to constantly improve also impressed me.
“After Jeff retired, he was still living in Phoenix but accepted a job as Utah’s shooting coach. Whenever he could, Jeff would commute from Phoenix to Salt Lake City so he could spend as much time as possible with his family. So, his being such a devoted family man was another thing that impressed me.
“Later on, when he became the head coach at Phoenix, I liked the way his players had freedom within a structure, which is exactly how the triangle should function. Jeff was a good system coach, something that I felt was absolutely necessary for whomever I would think of hiring. Jeff also had a very positive impact on young players, helping them to believe in themselves.
“I watched the way Jeff talked to his players during timeouts. He was positive, helpful and not interested in publicly embarrassing them. I also liked the way he spoke to his bench players during free throws and dead-ball situations. He was always a teacher. Even though Jeff had been an All-Star and a 20-point-a-game scorer, he has no ego, but he still knows that he’s had a great deal of success. It’s an admirable balance.
“It was Kurt Rambis who first suggested Jeff. They had played together in Phoenix for several seasons so Kurt had a good read on Jeff. The Suns’ coach was Cotton Fitzsimmons who had been an assistant at Kansas State under Tex Winter. So Cotton knew the triangle, ran pieces of it and believed in system basketball. It was there that Jeff teamed up with Kevin Johnson in a two-guard offense, which is how the triangle is formatted.
“Jeff had great success in his rookie season on the bench in Phoenix, leading the Suns to 48 wins. But last year (2014-15), the Phoenix franchise experienced a great deal of turmoil that was beyond his control. The Suns’ front office decided to trade Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic. Then the main guy they traded for, Brandon Knight, got hurt. I saw it all happening from a distance and, through it all, Jeff did a good job. He was left with inferior talent, but his guys played hard and tried to play the right way.
“The first time we met was in Los Angeles and spoke for about six hours. We diagrammed plays and discussed various offenses and defenses. I liked the way he saw the whole game and how every part was interrelated. Jeff also said that he believes in visualization, that a shooter should visualize the ball going through the hoop every time he shoots.
“I could easily visualize him coaching the Knicks, and I was sold.
“The next day, Jeff flew back to New York with me to meet the staff. We had what we thought would be a private dinner with Steve Mills, the paparazzi found us and our pictures were all over newspapers and the internet. This was unfortunate because I hadn’t had a chance to inform the other guys I’d interviewed that they were no longer in the running.
“In sum, I like our relationship. As far as his own game plan, all I did was to give Jeff the basic format that I like and he was enthusiastic about using it. But I understand that he has to coach what he knows how to coach. His plans for fastbreaks, early offense, build-up drills and the like are up to him.
“I’m positive that Jeff has the expertise and the attitude that will play a crucial role in making the Knicks’ future a bright one.”