Sunday, October 3, 2010

Jeff Hornacek, Almost Big Red

One of the best NBA players of the 1990s was supposed to play for Cornell beginning in the 1981-1982 season.

Jeff Hornacek had a 14-year NBA career spanning 1986 to 2000, which included an appearance in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. He also helped John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz reach the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls in both 1997 and 1998. Hornacek, a 1986 graduate of Iowa State University and an All-Conference selection in 1986 in the Big 8 (the predecessor to today's Big XII), originally planned on attending Cornell.

The following excerpt explains Hornacek's unusual path involving Cornell. The passage comes from the April 2000 issue of Hoop Magazine, the official magazine of the NBA:

A Curious Landing at Iowa State

Although a successful high school player, Hornacek was not a recruiting prize coming out of Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Ill. Several small colleges were interested in him, but Hornacek believed he could be a successful Division I player. At the last minute, he decided to go to Cornell University, but he notified the Ivy League school too late of his intentions and was shut out of enrollment for the fall semester.

“I decided to go there for the second semester, so I sat out the first semester and worked,” Hornacek said. “Then it got down to December and Cornell said I was ‘unofficially accepted’ for the spring semester. And I said, ‘what does unofficially accepted mean?’”

Unsure of his status with Cornell, Hornacek didn’t want to sit out another semester and lose a full academic year. That’s when luck, or perhaps fate, stepped in.

“My dad was a high school coach in the Chicago area and talked to a lot of other coaches,” Hornacek related. “He talked to a guy named Gary Cook, who was an assistant at Iowa State at that time and used to coach in the Chicago area. They were at a Christmas tournament that Gary was scouting, and he told my dad they were having some problems with their guards, and maybe he could see about getting me into Iowa State. Instead of waiting and maybe having Cornell say you are not accepted, I decided to go to Iowa State and give it a shot to get a basketball scholarship. I just got in the car and went. I knew nothing about the school. I went there blindly.”

Hornacek's story was also featured in the November 25, 1991 issue of Sports Illustrated:

In the summer of 1981, the man destined to become the patron saint of walk-ons, Jeff Hornacek, had just graduated from Lyons Township High in LaGrange, Ill. Hornacek, a 6'4" guard, wanted to attend Cornell, but he fouled up his chances by not applying for admission until July, too late to be considered for the fall semester. After working several months for a paper cup company, Hornacek was invited by Iowa State to give hoops another chance—provided, of course, that he pay his own tuition.

Hornacek enrolled at Iowa State for the spring semester of 1982 and worked out with the Cyclones at point guard. Coach Johnny Orr scared up a scholarship for Hornacek for the fall of '82 and played him sparingly in the early part of the '82-83 season. Then, to shake the Cyclones out of some mid-season doldrums, Orr started Hornacek in a TV game against Oklahoma State. Hornacek played 40 minutes and was named player of the game. "After that he never came out," says Iowa State assistant coach Ric Wesley. Hornacek was elected co-captain his junior and senior years and set Big Eight assists records of 108 for one season and 337 for a career. For the last four seasons he has been the Phoenix Suns' starting shooting guard.


Anonymous said...

Hornacek was one of my favorite NBA players to watch. Arrrggggghhhh we were so close!!! wtffff

Anonymous said...

crazy. never knew.

Anonymous said...

Never aware of this angle.

Cornell actually played Iowa State in the Far West Classic in 1983 or 1984. I think that we took Iowa to OT in the same tourney (Brad Lohaus, etc., coached by George Raveling)in the same tournament......

I think that there was also a high school connection with Hornacek and Bajusz - same conference or same summer team???

Anonymous said...

I'm the same age as Hornacek, and I remember discussing this issue back during my undergrad days. Adding him to that team with Bantum, Bajusz, Drew Martin and the rest would have taken the program to an amazing place; even without him we were just short of winning the Ivies.

Anonymous said...

This story, while very interesting, does not make either Hornacek or Cornell look very good.

For his part, who the heck waits until July to apply to college? What?! Either there is some other back story here or Hornacek is not too sharp.

For Cornell's part, it sounds as if the admissions department issued Hornacek a likely letter but then did a very poor job explaining to him that this is essentially a letter of admission without the formality of one.

I would assume that every Ivy today tells all of its "likely" applicants that "hey, wink, wink, you're in."

The Cornell Basketball Blog said...

It was 1981... communication in recruiting back then was not the best.