Keith Van Horn could not believe his bad luck. Here it was, the
fourth quarter of his first NBA playoff game--the biggest game
of his young life--and he's lying on a trainer's table in the
visitors' locker room at the United Center in Chicago, an IV
tube sticking out of his left arm and his stomach doing
cartwheels. "I was so nauseous, I could barely stand up," Van
Horn, the New Jersey Nets' rookie forward, said of the
combination of strep throat and gastroenteritis that forced him
out of Game 1 of the first-round series against the Chicago
Bulls. "I was just hoping it would pass so I could get back out
there and play."
Out in the noisy arena, the party was going on without him. The
Nets, down by 14 early in the fourth quarter, had come back and
were giving the Bulls all they could handle. Reserve
forward-center Chris Gatling, who picked up some of the slack
for Van Horn, was draining shots from all over the court. Center
Jayson Williams, a plastic cast on his broken right thumb, was
outhustling Dennis Rodman for every loose ball. Coach John
Calipari was abusing his Gucci shoes and making all the right
Suddenly, just as his team's fortunes began turning, Van Horn,
watching on TV, began to feel better. In a matter of minutes his
cheeks, which had been sunken and pale ("even more pale than
usual," Williams cracked later), began to gain a pinkish hue.
His stomach, previously churning like the waves on Lake
Michigan, turned relatively placid. By the time the Nets had
tied the game in regulation--they would go on to lose 96-93 in
overtime--Van Horn, who had accounted for 10 points and four
rebounds in 16 minutes before he had to leave the game, was
feeling almost well enough to pull up his socks and get back on
the court. "I don't know if it was the IV or what, but all of a
sudden I felt a lot better," he said.
For Van Horn, who had initially been reluctant to take the
intravenous saline solution because of a longstanding fear of
needles, the experience left him with two valuable lessons. One,
if you want to take the big shots, you might at times have to
take some little shots. And two, the postseason brought out a
feistiness in his teammates, who didn't flinch against Michael
Jordan and Co. despite having lost all four regular-season games
Like most of his teammates, Van Horn entered the postseason
lacking the experience needed to defeat a championship
contender. The Nets hadn't been to the playoffs since 1994, and
of their top eight players, only guard Sam Cassell had ever
advanced beyond the second round. After Sunday's narrow 96-91
Bulls victory, which gave Chicago a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five
series, New Jersey and Van Horn were still short on experience
but were at least encouraged that they had lost the two games by
a total of only eight points.
However, for the Nets to make more than a token appearance in
future playoffs, they need Van Horn to learn from and greatly
improve on his humbling postseason initiation. The precocious
rookie, mostly recovered from his brief illness, had only 10
points (on 4 of 12 shooting) and five rebounds in Game 2. His
playing time was limited to 28 minutes, this time because of
foul trouble. "Keith could have played better," Calipari said
afterward. "But he is a rookie."
Showing no sympathy, the Bulls treated Van Horn like the
neophyte he is, using Rodman or Toni Kukoc to frustrate him down
low and deny him position on almost every play. "They do a good
job staying off your body [so you can't feel where they are],
then going for the ball," Van Horn explained. "As a result, our
entry passes weren't working like they normally do."
On defense Van Horn often got lost trying to keep up with the
Bulls' vaunted triangle offense. Kukoc spun inside on him
several times en route to a 19-point performance, while Jordan
and Scottie Pippen took advantage of missed defensive rotations
to get numerous open shots. After one such miscue led to a
Pippen dunk, Van Horn turned and held out his palms to Calipari
in a rare show of frustration, as if to say, Where was I
supposed to be?
In fairness, Van Horn missed two of New Jersey's regular-season
games against Chicago because of injuries. But in the two games
he did play, he scored a total of 42 points on 45.7% shooting
and had 15 rebounds.
"We can learn from them in how they approach the game
defensively," Van Horn said after Game 2. "We have to
communicate and play hard for all 48 minutes to be successful.
That's what they do, and it shows."
Getting schooled by the Bulls is just part of Van Horn's
continuing NBA education. Though he missed 20 games with
injuries and shot only 42.6% from the floor, he kept his poise
throughout his rookie season while averaging 19.7 points and 6.6
rebounds a game. "It seems like nothing fazes him," says Nets
center Rony Seikaly. "If Keith gets knocked down, he gets right
back up and keeps going. I'll tell you what, he's not afraid to
take the big shots."
Although Van Horn admits he hit the wall after the All-Star
break, he regrouped in time to help the team make the playoffs.
During a pivotal five-game winning streak late in the season, he
scored at least 20 points in each game, including a career-high
33 in a 116-109 win over the Toronto Raptors, which gave the
Nets a four-game lead over the Washington Wizards for the last
playoff berth with only four games remaining.
"He's not the average rookie," Pippen said of Van Horn before
the series started. "He has great skills, and he knows how to
play the game. The thing you have to do is limit his touches."
Van Horn said he wasn't the least bit nervous about having to
face the defending champion Bulls in his first playoff
experience. "It's just like preparing for the NCAA tournament,"
he said. "You scout teams more, you understand them more, you
practice more, you watch more tape, you have more meetings.
That's the way I approach it." While some might have wondered
whether his sickness before Game 1 could have been stress
induced, Van Horn's teammates said they doubted it. "I don't
think Keith's the type to get nervous," Williams says. "He's got
too much confidence in his game. A lot of people don't know that
about Keith, but he's actually got a lot of cockiness. He knows
how good he is."
That's not to say that Van Horn didn't get an extra thrill out
of playing against Jordan. As a youngster growing up in Diamond
Bar, Calif., Van Horn had several Jordan posters on his walls.
"The first time I played against Michael was different, because
I had grown up watching him," he says. "But now it's really a
competitive thing. You're trying to beat the Bulls, regardless
of what players they have on the floor. After the first time you
play somebody like that, you lose that sense of awe."
But Van Horn knows he and his teammates will use this matchup
against the Bulls to prepare themselves for future postseasons.
Asked after Game 2 about the most important lesson he had
learned from Chicago, Van Horn said, "It's how they bring their
intensity to the game, especially defensively. It's a whole
different level. We need to bring ourselves up to that level,
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER SCHOOL'S IN SESSION Van Horn discovered the hard way that Pippen and the Bulls ratchet up their defense in the playoffs. [Keith Van Horn and Scottie Pippen in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER DRY DOCK As sickening as it was to watch his team lose in Game 1, Van Horn was laid even lower by a bug that left him dehydrated. [Keith Van Horn drinking from paper cup]
Showing no sympathy, the Bulls' Rodman and Kukoc treated Van
Horn like the neophyte he is.