Keith Van Horn. KVH. Big No. 44, a legend up on The Hill. He has his jersey hanging in the hallowed rafters of the building in which he used to play, the Jon M. Huntsman Center, and he's at the top of the Runnin' Utes record books as the school's all-time scoring leader and second leading rebounder.
The man is a living legend of Runnin' Utes basketball. He's a member of the exclusive and prestigious All Century Team, four-time All Western Athletic Conference, three-time WAC Player of the Year. When he stepped out onto the Huntsman Center basketball court, he was confident, brash, even flamboyant when he dunked. Some might think he was a typical, overprivileged, cocky college star, yet Keith Van Horn was and is anything but that.
Can anyone be too humble? That's the question I pondered after an interview with Van Horn. Even while he was a superstar at Utah, he doesn't seem to want to take credit himself. Even while he endured some downright disrespectful treatment during his time in the pros, he has no axes to grind, nothing bad to say about anyone. He wouldn't even tell me a good Majerus story (and there are plenty of them, I can assure you of that), preferring to "let what happens in the locker room stay in the locker room." But that's Keith Van Horn, soft-spoken and unassuming.
A highly recruited forward out of Diamond Bar High School in California, the 6-10, 240-pound Van Horn was recruited to be the replacement for departing star Josh Grant. While Van Horn speaks glowingly about the university itself, it was clear that there was one deciding factor to his commitment to the Utes.
"Academically, I had an interest in physical therapy," Van Horn said. "The University of Utah had a great physical therapy program, that and getting to play for coach Majerus, getting to play right away. I felt I would get the most out of myself as a player by playing for Coach Majerus."
In his freshman campaign at Utah, things didn't go well from a team perspective. The Utes finished with one of the worst records in the Majerus era, 14-14, but it was clear Utah had another star in the making. As a freshman, Van Horn averaged 18.3 points (the all-time freshman record, far surpassing Luther "Ticky" Burden's 13.8 points per game) on 51 percent shooting and 8.3 rebounds per game. He also shot the worst free throw percentage of his Utah career, a paltry 77.5 percent (yes, that was tongue in cheek).
"From a team perspective, it was difficult," Van Horn remembered. "We lost three prospective starters that year, including Phil Dixon to a knee injury. When you’re left with three to four freshman and a walk-on, it’s going to be difficult."
As good as Van Horn was, Majerus wouldn't allow him to be complacent or cocky. Publicly, Majerus was very critical of Van Horn, saying, for instance, that he should have gotten more rebounds on a night when he scored over 20 points and carried the team on his back. But the former star player says none of that ever entered the locker room.
"We’re in the locker room, not listening to the radio," Van Horn said. "In general, Coach Majerus was critical of his players. It was just his personality. He used it as a way to motivate his players. Now [that kind of thing is] all over the Internet and blogs, but it wasn’t that way when I was playing."
From his playing days at Utah, Van Horn can't pinpoint his favorite moment. Mostly, there were the relationships with the players and the coaching staff, especially Majerus.
"I have a lot of great memories," Van Horn said. "Some of the BYU games and those battles were a lot of fun, especially the fact we came out on top most of the time. Off the court, there were the relationships we built.
One group of memories was the 1997 WAC Tournament in which Van Horn had not one, but two last-second buzzer beaters to win games. Against SMU
"The first one against SMU was definitely designed," Van Horn said of the tip-in. "The second one, I got the rebound off a designed play and put it back in."
"I felt like we, at the very beginning of the year, could be a nationally competitive program for a number of years, with the talent we had," Van Horn recalls. "If Andre [Miller] doesn’t break his wrist, we probably beat Kentucky and maybe win the national title in my senior year. Great coaching from Coach Majerus, Tommy Connor, and Donny Daniels, really contributed to that program taking off again."
Certainly, Keith Van Horn has as great a legacy at the University of Utah as one can possibly have, but there's still one other accolade he earned from the big man himself. When asked who was the best shooter he ever coached, Majerus said, without hesitation, Van Horn. When offered Dixon and Nick Jacobson, Majerus remained steadfast that Van Horn was the best, purest shooter he ever coached.
"There were certainly some great shooters that I played with at the University of Utah," Van Horn said of the compliment, "Jimmy Carroll [45 percent three-point shooting as a freshman], who played with me my sophomore year, being one of them. I appreciate the comments by Coach Majerus, who, obviously, coached a lot of great players."
When he talks about his former school (or Tweets: @Coach_Keith44), he remains loyal and optimistic. He seems to like the direction of the program under head coach Larry Krystkowiak, and he has some experience with at least one member of the current staff.
"[Tommy Connor's] a great basketball coach," Van Horn said of his own former coach. "He has a great mind, really detail oriented. I was excited to see him come back. Coach K has a great staff and is doing all the right things."
On his own coaching:
The biggest thing is an overall philosophy of the game, just how the game was meant to be played.
We really focus on defense, rebounding, moving without the ball, anti-NBA iso. We just don’t do that a lot. I don’t think that kind of game is fun to watch or to play.
What he learned from Coach Majerus:
I learned how to eat good food, that’s for sure. He was always eating at the best restaurants and finding the best food. He could be brash to reporters, but he really cared about people and tried to help people. That’s the best thing you could learn from him, just to care about people and do everything you can to help someone who’s down.
On his NBA career in New Jersey:
It was a lot of fun, going to a New Jersey team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in a long time, and come in and have an impact. To see the city revitalized was fun to be a part of.
On making the NBA Finals:
Going into the season, we were not projected to be in the NBA finals. We just had a team that meshed on the court really well. We had a team that won the Eastern Conference really handily.
After the New Jersey Nets were swept in four games by the Los Angeles Lakers, Nets forward Kenyon Martin threw Van Horn under the bus. Martin had just come off a 35-point career high in the loss, while Van Horn scored just seven points; however, during the regular season, Van Horn and Martin scored 14.8 and 14.9 points per game respectively. According to the Associated Press, Martin was quoted as saying, "I can deal with losing. But guys who don't bring it every day, that's something I can't deal with."
Nets President Rod Thorn called Martin's remarks "way out of line." Head coach Byron Scott said he thought the team could win the NBA title with the roster in tact, but in the off-season, Van Horn felt the business end of the pro game and was traded to Philadelphia.
"When you’re in the NBA, not everything that is said is going to be flattering, especially when you’re playing on the East Coast," Van Horn said. "If you look back and say you gave everything you had and played as hard as you can, you couldn’t have done anything else than you did."
"It is difficult to take, but you certainly have to take it context. You do all that you can and can’t look back with regret. If you prepared the best you could and worked as hard as you could, that’s all you can ask of yourself."
"I really felt like we were going to win that series. I feel like there was some phantom calls that didn’t go our way that really hurt us. I feel like we could have won that series, but the momentum really shifted after the come from behind win."
The New Jersey Nets, behind 18.9 points per game from Martin, again made the NBA Finals. Once again, they lost 2-4 to the San Antonio Spurs. This time, there was no Keith Van Horn to blame. Byron Scott was fired early in the 2003-2004 season, and Kenyon Martin was traded to Denver after that season.
"Basketball is a business," Van Horn opined, "and I think New Jersey felt that the reason they didn’t get over the hump is they didn’t have anyone to guard Shaquille O'Neal. But, at the time, there wasn’t anyone who could guard O’Neal. It didn’t get them over the hump."
Van Horn would go on to play for New York, Milwaukee, and Dallas, making the 2006 NBA finals with the Mavericks. But Van Horn decided he'd had enough, even though he admitted he could have played a few more years.
"I had older kids, and I had missed a lot of their younger life due to travel, just the NBA and moving," Van Horn said. "It just wasn’t in the best interest of my kids to continue uprooting my kids, and I just don’t think it’s a secure environment for kids. I think they need to be grounded in a community if at all possible. Could I have played another five years? Yeah, but I saved my money and didn’t have to. I made that decision, and I’ve been doing a lot of youth coaching and several real estate partnerships. I enjoy coaching, passing along everything I learned in my years of basketball."
Now that he is retired and settled into the Denver, Colo. area, Van Horn has created his own organization, the Colorado Premier Basketball Club, a non-profit designed to provide leagues, coaching, camps and tournaments for youth basketball players. The difference with the Colorado Premier is that Van Horn wants to teach players and coaches how to play/coach basketball the right way.
"I’ve been doing camps and clinics, just free stuff, in our community when I stopped playing and kind of grew a following," Van Horn said. "We based the club on the values I believe. The way we do it in a respectful, positive manner, teaching the kids to just honor the game. We combine the off-the-court stuff with fundamental basketball, and it’s grown into the largest basketball club in the state of Colorado."
"I would like to see a little more accountability in youth basketball. I hope our club sets the example for what youth basketball can be, and, hopefully, that catches on. It's not that negative experience where coaches are too focused on winning, or kids are pushed too hard. I really want to have an organization that sets a good example for youth basketball across the U.S."
As a player, Van Horn learned from two of the very best in the history of the game, Majerus and NBA wizard Don Nelson. He incorporates bits and pieces of what he learned from each into his own coaching, passing along with wisdom and lessons to a new generation.
"Coach Majerus, in terms of Xs and Os and his understanding of the game, was one of the best coaches I ever played for," Van Horn said. "Don Nelson was creative, whereas Majerus was more of a purist. Nelson was slightly more of an innovator, in terms of adjustments, personnel, offensively, the way he tried to get players the ball, angles he would have players take on screens were really unique. Nelson kind of promoted a lot of the stuff you see today.
With his playing days are long since in his rear-view, Van Horn is giving back to his community and the children of that community. Denver area basketball youth are getting coached by a man who knows the game, a man who learned from some of the best coaches in the entire world, as well as a man who believes in teaching the game the right way. With all he's accomplished, Keith Van Horn could sit on his butt, crow like a rooster, and talk all about the glory days, but that's not who he is. Van Horn has moved on. Now he's passing on what he knows to the next generation of superstar, who, hopefully, learn from their mentor to play the way he did, the right way.