Van Horn spending season playing a whole new game

Keith Van Horn could have made $5M this season, but he might be richer for turning down the money, writes Gene Wojciechowski.

Updated: November 2, 2006, 12:00 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

On Halloween night -- the same evening the NBA season began -- Keith Van Horn wore a costume that still causes some team executives and fellow players to do double takes.

Keith Van Horn
Barry Gossage/Getty ImagesKeith Van Horn averaged 8.9 points in 20 minutes a game last season for Dallas.
Van Horn went dressed as a husband and father.

At the very least, the outfit will end up costing Van Horn about $5 million, which is about how much he would have received as a midlevel salary exception on somebody's roster this year. Then there's his Nike endorsement deal. Right now, you can find Van Horn's action photo on the company's Web site, complete with his preference of kicks (that's shoes, for the hoops impaired). Next week, who knows whether he and his Air Uptempo Pros will still be featured.

That's because Van Horn, the No. 2 selection in the 1997 NBA draft, isn't playing this season -- not because he's injured or because, like numb-above-the-neck Latrell Sprewell, he can't support a household on a multimillion-dollar salary. Nope. Van Horn is sitting out the year because he wants to spend time with his family.

Of course, good luck trying to get him to talk about it. Van Horn is laying lower than the bent grass greens at Augusta National. So is his agent, David Falk.

Meanwhile, the rest of the league doesn't know whether to applaud or request that Van Horn undergo a CAT scan.

"I think there's probably a little bit of both," Denver Nuggets coach George Karl said. "I'm sure there's some players saying, 'Wow, why would he want to turn down that money?' "

Ah, money. You know how pro athletes always say it isn't about the money ... but it always is? In Van Horn's case, it really isn't about the cash. If it were, he'd probably be in a Nuggets uniform when Karl's team opens its season at the Staples Center on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Clippers. And home games wouldn't have been a problem; Van Horn lives in a pricey foothills neighborhood just west of the Denver skyline.

The Boston Celtics also were interested, so he could have made his season debut Wednesday at the TD Banknorth Garden. Had he signed a free-agent deal with the Celtics, Van Horn would have become the team's resident historian of the Atlantic Division. The guy has spent more time on the Eastern seaboard than Tony Soprano.

Philly drafted him in '97 but traded his rights to the New Jersey Nets. The Nets later traded him back to the Sixers, who later traded him to the New York Knicks.

In all, Van Horn has played nine seasons, and for five teams in the past four years. Twice he was traded during the season, from the Knicks to the Milwaukee Bucks and from the Bucks to the Dallas Mavericks. He found out about the Knicks-Bucks trade as he was taking one of his daughters to Walt Disney World for a birthday party with Cinderella.

Zippity-Doo-Da-that

As always, the money was mind-boggling (his $15.7 million salary made him the highest-paid Maverick last season), but so was the realization that he and his family would have to start all over again this fall.

So, Van Horn said enough was enough. He was tired of moving his wife and four children. He was tired of seeing his life played out in the Transactions section of the sports agate pages.

Break the news to his wife, Amy. Sell the old house. Rent a new house. Find new baby sitters. Find new schools. Try to explain one more time why Daddy is making you leave your friends. Leave them at their most vulnerable moment so you can catch up with the team in Sacramento.

"I don't think there's any question we cheat our family and our kids," said Karl, who will miss son Kobe's senior night at Boise State this season because of a Nuggets scheduling conflict. "There's no way you can give quantity to your kids."

"I don't think there's any question we cheat our family and our kids. There's no way you can give quantity to your kids."
-- George Karl
Karl knows Van Horn fairly well. I know Van Horn a little bit, which is to say I interviewed him when he played at the University of Utah, when he was with the Nets and when he agreed to write the foreword to Rick Majerus' autobiography (Majerus was Van Horn's college coach; I was the book's ghostwriter). The Van Horn I know is unfailingly polite, modest and, for years, was apparently unable to find a good hairstylist.

He married young. Had the first of his four kids young. But I'm not sure he has ever lived young.

His father died of a heart attack when Van Horn was a freshman at Utah. He had his first child, daughter Sabrina, when he was sophomore. In fact, during Amy's nine hours of labor, Van Horn sat in the delivery room and completed a take-home final exam in health education. Keith and Amy were married before his senior season.

He could have declared early for the draft, but didn't. Van Horn used to drive a pickup truck with 101,000 miles on it, and his family lived in a plain apartment. He once told Majerus that he wanted enough money to put Amy through nursing school and to buy a Lexus, a house with a pool and a stroller Sabrina couldn't squirm from.

Instead, he earned enough money to buy the company that makes the strollers. His last contract was worth $73 million, so we're not talking about a guy who eats Beefaroni for dinner. He's set for life. So are his children. And his children's children.

Van Horn is just barely 31 (his birthday was Oct. 23). He's a 6-10 forward who can shoot, run and pass. He can start or come off the bench and give you 20-30 minutes. He can help you win games.

Yet he walked away from the game he loves -- and the millions it could have added to his bank account -- for the family he loves even more.

"I think it's great ... admirable," Karl said.

"I applaud the decision," Majerus said.

"Keith Van Horn is far more than a basketball player," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said.

This is true. Cuban watched Van Horn, who is working on his MBA, study industrial engineering on the team bus. He saw a guy arm wrestling injuries, a series of tough trades and the trickle-down effect they had on his wife and kids. His decision to sit out, Cuban said, "shows someone who is in control of his future."

Van Horn will be back next season. At least, that's the plan. But so much can happen between now and then.

Who knows -- maybe he'll get used to the husband/dad costume.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter