It's the holiday season, and a lot of people have come home. In fact, a crowd is huddled outside a locked gymnasium in Williamsburg, Va., breath misting in the frigid air as the people stamp their feet in the snow and wait for the guy with the key to arrive. They have been doing this for almost 20 years now, former high school teammates who come back, find a gym and lace up the hightops the way they used to when they played for the varsity. The game is a holiday highlight, but this one promises to be special—it's the first time that all five starters from James Blair High's squad of '73 will be reunited on the court.
There's Derwin (Stump) Cox. And Chip Darracott. Alvin Cauthorn drove down from D.C., where he coaches football at Howard. Jordan Adair made the trip from Massachusetts, where he teaches English at a prep school. And there's Bruce Hornsby.
The night before, Hornsby was in a Los Angeles recording studio with his band, The Range, fine-tuning their third album, which is due out in June. Bruce Hornsby & The Range's first two albums turned Hornsby into Williamsburg's most famous son this side of Lawrence Taylor and former Dallas Cowboy fullback Ron Springs. But back when Hornsby was a skinny 6'3" center for Blair, Taylor was a little kid up in the bleachers and Springs was shooting jumpers with the jayvees. Hornsby was called Golden Boy then, the name a sportswriter gave him during his sophomore year, not so much for Hornsby's blond curls as for the fact that he was the only white player on the team.
The curls are thinning these days, but the nickname fits for another reason. After nearly a decade in the musical minor leagues—he once went on the road as Sheena Easton's keyboard player—Hornsby was finally signed by RCA in 1985. A year later his first album, The Way It Is, was issued. It went gold and eventually double platinum (more than two million copies were sold), and Hornsby won the 1987 Grammy Award as Best New Artist. The band's second album, Scenes from the Southside, released in '88, went platinum, and now everyone in the business, from Don Henley to Stevie Nicks to the Grateful Dead, is bringing Hornsby on stage and into the studio.
One of the cuts on Scenes from the Southside is The Old Playground, and according to Hornsby, if you understand that song, you've got a pretty good idea of how he made it through the hard times, how he can draw a direct line from mastering a hook shot to cutting a demo. The NBA uses The Old Playground for one of its television ads, but to Hornsby the song is about more than basketball. "It's about a social phenomenon," he says. "About how the game can become so important to people, how the esteem in which you're held is totally related to how you play." Or as the song says, "Everybody knows how you play is who you are."
Right now Hornsby is playing very well, and evidence of his success is scattered around the attic of his Williamsburg home: six gold records; eight platinum (for sales abroad as well as in the U.S.); two Grammys (the latest this year for Best Bluegrass Recording, with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band); a plaque for appearing on Saturday Night Live; and a framed letter from former Virginia governor Gerald Baliles congratulating Hornsby on his first Grammy.
But one letter up there means more to Hornsby than any other memento. It's a congratulatory note for winning that first Grammy, from U.S. Senator Bill Bradley—the same Bill Bradley whose poster hung over Hornsby's bed back when Bradley was playing for the New York Knicks and Hornsby hadn't yet become proficient at the piano. Sports were the driving force in Hornsby's life until his senior year in high school. Back then, A Sense of Where You Are, a biography of Princeton All-America and Rhodes Scholar Bradley written by John McPhee, was Hornsby's bible.
"Bradley's intensity and dedication came through in the book," says Hornsby. "The idea that if you're not out there doing it, working on it, someone else is, and he'll be the one who wins. That's a philosophy that has steered my life ever since."
Though a few schools recruited him—he got letters from Old Dominion and Dayton and an actual visit from a Randolph-Macon coach—Hornsby realized that his 11-point average and 175-pound body would not take him far in basketball. So he tacked up an Elton John poster next to Bradley's, turned to the keyboard and stuck to the work ethic he had picked up on the court and from McPhee's book in order to keep him going during the next decade. "Those were not fun years," he says. "I could've easily packed it in, but I stayed intense. I still am. It goes right back to what I learned on the court."
Because fame didn't find the 35-year-old Hornsby right away, it hasn't swept him off his feet. He picks up one of the Grammys, holds it up and says, "They send it to you in two parts, see? You've got to put it together. Big deal, huh?" He looks at the Clipper gym bag by the front door of his Williamsburg house, its logo reminding him of his other home in Los Angeles. "When you can watch a Clipper game at the Sports Arena, you don't have to put up with all that celebrity stuff," he says, referring to the star-studded crowds at The Forum for Laker games.
This is the sort of thing Hornsby likes to talk about with his pro athlete buddies, people like pitcher Mark Langston, whom he met after a concert in Seattle, where Langston was playing before being traded to Montreal. "We were doing the standard backstage thing, meeting and greeting people, what we call 'the skin and grin,' " says Hornsby. "Suddenly this guy walks up and wants me to sign a baseball."
Langston had heard Hornsby was a hoops junkie and, right there, challenged him to some half-court ball along with Mariner teammates Billy Swift and Scott Bradley. "I don't play much when I'm on the road," says Hornsby, glancing down at his hand. "One jammed finger, and 25 guys are out of work."
But like Michael Jordan, who has a clause in his Chicago Bulls contract guaranteeing him the right to play pickup ball, Hornsby sometimes can't resist a game of hoops. The foursome hit the court the next afternoon. Ever since, Hornsby and Langston have stayed in touch. This past November, the morning Langston, who was a free agent at the time, got word that the California Angels had agreed to make him the then richest man in baseball, with a five-year, $16 million contract, one of the first people he phoned was Hornsby.
"It's great to have Mark in L.A.," says Hornsby. "And it's great that he's an Angel. I'm not much of a Dodger fan."
Hornsby is, however, a fan of golfer Peter Jacobsen. They met a few years ago through singer and golf fanatic Huey Lewis, and Hornsby has played in a couple of Jacobsen's Portland, Ore., pro-ams.
One of the cassettes piled on Hornsby's stereo is by a group called Jake Trout and the Flounders. "That's Jacobsen, Payne Stewart and Mark Lye," says Hornsby. "They recorded it with some Memphis session players, and they sell it at PGA Tour events. Actually, Jacobsen's not a bad singer."
And, actually, Hornsby's not bad in the pivot. But this rock-jock bonding is something even Hornsby has a hard time explaining, although he gives it his best shot. "My athlete friends tend to be as fanatical about music as I am about sports," he says. "A lot of them tell me I'd like to be them and they'd like to be me. I guess everyone needs to have fantasies, even people whose dreams come true. Rick Carlisle loves to play the piano. He's pretty good. Bill Walton loves to hang with the Grateful Dead. Who knows what he's dreaming of? What Jacobsen has done with his record is just take the fantasy to the next step—actually doing it."
Hitting it big on the charts has allowed Hornsby to do it on the basketball court in ways he never imagined as a kid. In November, Virginia basketball coach Terry Holland invited him to coach against John Havlicek in the Cavaliers' season-opening intrasquad game (Havlicek's son Chris is a redshirt freshman at Virginia). At halftime Hornsby and Hondo went head-to-head in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Hornsby began by making a three-pointer, but he finally fell to Havlicek's bank shots.
The following week Hornsby and his band flew to New York to perform at a fund-raiser for Bradley's 1990 senatorial campaign. Hornsby credits Bradley with giving him the inspiration for one of the cuts on the band's upcoming album, a song called The Barren Ground. "We were talking over dinner about the environment and about being caretakers for our kids," says Hornsby. "And he said, 'Go out there again, Bruce. I know you did it with Look Out Any Window Ian antipollution song off the second album]. But you've got to get out there and do it again.' "
And again—whether it's on the court or in the studio. That's why Hornsby was up for three more Grammys this year. And that's why he caught a redeye flight from L.A. to Williamsburg—so he could do it one more time with the guys from Blair. Midway through the game, Les Hall, who's now a beefy realtor in Williamsburg, stuffed a weak hook shot back in Hornsby's face. Hornsby laughed and gave Hall a pat on the rump. The next time up the court Hornsby sank a 10-footer over Hall.
How you play is who you are.
Hornsby has won Grammys for his keyboard work, and high fives for his play in the key.
Mike D'Orso writes for "The Virginian-Pilot" and "The Ledger-Star" in Norfolk, Va.