PHOENIX - When Jeff Hornacek was selected by the Phoenix Suns in the 1986 NBA draft, he came into a franchise that was in disarray but was soon able to turn a corner thanks to a coaching change and a key trade. Similarly, in his first season as head coach of the team that drafted him, he's off to a stellar start in rebuilding a proud NBA franchise – and he's hoping Valley fans will reward him and his players for that.
"Obviously when I was here as a rookie, the team wasn't doing very well. It was probably kind of how it was last year," said Hornacek, a shooting guard who played for the Suns until 1992 before being sent to Philadelphia as part of the trade that brought Charles Barkley to Phoenix.
"And then, we brought a lot of new guys in, a new enthusiasm was starting to grow during that time, we started having success, and then the crowd filled in."
The parallels between Hornacek's early experiences as a player and a coach in Phoenix are uncanny. The Suns finished the 1987-88 season with a 28-54 record in the wake of a drug scandal involving star forward Walter Davis, leading to the hiring of a new head coach and a trade for point guard Kevin Johnson, who would become a three-time NBA All-Star but was often sidelined due to injury. The following year, the Suns went 55-27 and made a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
In 2012-13, the Suns went 25-57 following the departure of two-time league MVP Steve Nash. The front office responded by hiring Hornacek and making a trade for point guard Eric Bledsoe, who put up All Star-caliber numbers before succumbing to a knee injury that may sideline him for the rest of the season.
Despite Bledsoe's health, the Suns are off to an impressive an unexpected 23-17 start in 2013-14. But while the on-court success has been there, fan attendance has yet to follow suit.
An average of just 14,649 fans – about 3,500 short of capacity – has shown up to the team's first 20 home games of the season. In fact, attendance at U.S. Airways Center has dropped every season since 2008-09, when the Suns sold out their home games on a regular basis.
Hornacek said his players would love to play in front of a packed house each night, but he knows that's going to take some time – especially in a place like Phoenix.
"When you're in a major city with four major sports, and you've got ASU right there – there are a lot of options for them to spend their money, and it's an expensive ticket," he said. "You can't blame them. You wish you can say, ‘Hey, you guys are a big part of us winning, and the guys love it when the crowd is into the game and the place is full.' Every player wishes for that, so hopefully we can get there."
Hornacek said a strong home-court advantage has been crucial for each team he played on during his 14-year NBA career, including his seven seasons with the Utah Jazz.
"They had John Stockton and Karl Malone for years and years, and could never play .500 on the road," he said. "It's very difficult to win on the road. You've got to take care of your business at home, and if you want to have a 50-win season, you've got to probably not lose more than 9 or 10 games at home."
The Suns do boast a healthy 14-6 home record this season, and Hornacek hopes that, as long as the team continues to prove it can be competitive on a nightly basis, the fans will once again give it the noisy home-court edge it enjoyed during the Nash era when the Suns boasted four consecutive 50-win seasons – just like the four straight 50-win campaigns that Hornacek enjoyed in his final years in Phoenix.
"I think the Phoenix fans, they like guys that work hard, play hard, play together as a team, and those are the people they end up supporting," he said.
"Hopefully for the rest of this season, (the fan support) gets better and better, and we continue to get something going here over the next few years."