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Tuesday, May 28, 2002
Updated: May 29, 3:48 PM ET
Wake-Up Call

By by Ric Bucher



The transfusion took place in a hotel room in LA about eight years ago. Robert Horry, all of 23, was the starting small forward for Houston, the team of his dreams, barreling toward his first championship ring. It was Easter weekend, the Rockets already had 50 wins and his first child, Ashlyn, had been born the day before.

Robert Horry
It was never in doubt.
A phone, not an IV, injected the ice into his veins. He'd never been emotional, but he didn't have the "f-- it all" attitude necessary to take and make the big shot. Then he picked up the receiver. His mother, who had been the one to tell him Ashlyn had been born, was on the line again. This time the message was different: His daughter was having problems.

What kind of problems, he asked, already feeling a chill creeping up his arms toward his chest.

He didn't get an answer because there wasn't one to give. Not yet. He'd find out over the next six months while making 40-mile drives to the hospital after practice, wondering if she'd make it, waiting to hear Ashlyn's first words. Words, eight years later, he's still waiting to hear.

His mother's vague, terrifying report defined something else for him, in clear and certain terms: This NBA thing ain't nothin' but a thing.

Says Horry, "From the moment my daughter almost didn't even make it, I realized you can't control what life hands you. I used to get nervous before that. Excited nervous, like gimmetheball-gimmetheball-gimmetheball. Hey, I love what I do, and it's important in a sense, but not compared to my family. It's just a game."

The lesson might have faded if Ashlyn merely had had a difficult birth instead of a missing chromosome that means she may never speak or walk unaided or discard her feeding tube. An absent chromosome that turns every simple cold into a life-threatening ordeal. It might be different if Horry didn't live and work most of the year 1,500 miles away, limiting him to no more than hearing Ashlyn's labored breath over a phone during the NBA season. Hearing his wife, Keva, describe the latest Horry trait displayed by his healthy 3-year-old boy, Camron, keeps life's fickleness front and center.

Take a shot to win or lose a game? Bury the game-winning three against the Kings with 0.2 seconds left? He knows that's just the right time, right place. After back-breakers against the Blazers and Spurs earlier this postseason, Horry was so grateful to have something within his control he said to Kobe afterward, "Thank you for trusting me."

He's said that to a teammate after every clutch playoff shot he's made. If anyone knows it's impossible to accomplish anything alone, it's Horry.

***

Horry is slouched in his locker room chair before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Kings, watching the TV "down-eyed," as his schoolteacher mom says, peering up from under his brow, chin nearly resting on his chest. Despite his 31 years, 238 pounds and 6'10" frame, he somehow exudes the air of a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons. Which, at the moment, makes him an island of calm on an otherwise jacked-to-the-max team. A hefty bag of trash-talk already has been strewn between the two teams and now it's put-up time. Nervous energy has driven every other Laker either onto the court or into the training room. Kobe, jaw set and eyes on hyperfocus, retrieves something from his bag and disappears again. Horry, surrounded by a dozen milling media members, watches NBA.com TV and stifles a yawn.

"I don't worry about being bothered by the media," he says. "Either I'm going to talk or not talk."

Usually he talks. Like when the Lakers were in San Antonio for Game 3 of their second-round playoff series. He watched Tim Duncan accept his MVP trophy and did a dead-on impression of Hakeem Olajuwon seeing David Robinson feted with the award before tattooing The Admiral in the '95 conference finals. Then he clarified the attire of Southern preachers vs. TV evangelists (black vs. powder-blue suits). TV drama spin-offs? He's got details. Handicap the Boston-Detroit series? He picks Boston. "Detroit is not a smart team," he says. Former teammate Kenny Smith appears on the TV screen. "He used to look like he was wearing his big brother's suits," Horry says.

He's just as opinionated in Lakers film sessions. He explained how the team should defend Duncan in the pinch post -- halfway up the lane -- before the coaching staff could. "He's the only guy I've seen in a one-on-one situation, other than Kevin Garnett sometimes, who can give Tim problems in the post," says former Spurs forward Sean Elliott. Horry does it with trickery, poking at the ball one possession, stoutly holding his ground the next, suddenly stepping away the time after that. One second he's giving his man the jumper, the next he's herding him toward the baseline.

"Smartest teammate I've ever had," Kobe says.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is impressed with Horry's offense even though he's never averaged more than 12 points during any of his 10 seasons. Worth noting: Only once in nine times has he failed to up his regular-season average in the playoffs. "Everybody is so hung up on numbers, but I'll bet if you did stats on what he does at the end of quarters or games, it would be unbelievable," says Popovich. "He's a winner. He wins the games you need."

If his four rings haven't earned him more recognition, blame a nonchalant 'tude and bad body language. His playoff appearances amount to almost two extra seasons' worth of games, more than any other Laker's, and at 31, are reason enough for that achy walk. But Horry would be the same if he had become a schoolteacher or joined the army, his first two career choices. His father, Staff Sergeant Robert Horry Sr., has the same gait, and so does Camron.

True, Robert believes in economy of motion. He sits on the front of the bus with team staff to avoid the walk to the back. Projected as Scottie Pippen's taller twin because of his versatility, he passed on becoming a ballhandler because dribbling "takes too much energy." He freely gives away playing time to Lakers forwards Mark Madsen and Slava Medvedenko, unless he genuinely feels needed.

But interpret that as laziness at your own risk. He was the first player ever to achieve 100 steals, 100 blocked shots and 100 threes in a season. He had 20 rebounds against the Kings in Game 2 of the conference finals. When a reporter recently asked why he waited until the playoffs to give 100%, Horry left the locker room in a huff. Despite his small forward's build, he has been the Lakers' best answer to losing power forward Horace Grant to free agency. He had just kept Rasheed Wallace and Duncan in check enough for the Lakers nearly to sweep both series and had CWebb looming. All that, and some pencil guy suggests to his face -- foregone conclusion and all -- that he's a loafer?

Granted, people have mistaken Horry's cool for disinterest before. Olajuwon approached him in the middle of a game during his second season and asked, "Do you care if we win or lose?"

"I care more than you know," Horry said.

Keva, as boisterous as Robert is reserved, considered him an enigma at first, too. The Horrys started dating at Alabama, but the relationship appeared over until Keva's mom clandestinely asked Robert to come over and "lend her a hand." Pure ruse. Robert and Keva had a long talk and have been together ever since. "Before that, though, I was like, 'Do you care about anything?'" Keva says. "It's not that he doesn't care. He just doesn't let a lot bother him. He takes everything in stride."

That dispassionate gaze is not disinterest, it's the stillness of someone who has witnessed too many last breaths. He knew a kid whose heart exploded in Bible study, so imagine what ran through his head when he suffered from an irregular heartbeat three years ago. A military career left his dad with night sweats, a plate and screws in his neck, a wrecked knee and tales of deadly sea snakes on China Beach. Dad's doctors jokingly suggested bigger shoes for feet blistered by Agent Orange. And then there was his best friend, who fatally shot himself in the Andalusia (Ala.) High parking lot. It was ruled a suicide, but to this day Robert believes it was an accident.

All that is why Robert missed the Lakers' season opener two years ago to see Camron born, and last year's opener when his grandmother Zeola died. And why he seriously considered opting out of the final two years of his Lakers deal last summer to play closer to Houston, where Texas Children's Hospital offers Ashlyn unparalleled care and the Horrys have a new 14,000-square-foot home customized for her.

He decided to stay with the Lakers, so he spends most nights in his Marina del Rey condo, watching TV and mastering the three versions of the video game Siphon Filter. He calls Keva six times a day, hearing about how Camron has to put on his Lakers shirt and make a basket before he'll go to preschool, or that Ashlyn goes as crazy as Keva while watching Dad on TV.

He looks forward to the family joining him in LA once Ashlyn's school year ends. During the season, he doesn't hang with anybody in particular, being as likely to catch a movie with a Lakers assistant PR director as with Brian Shaw. He's so low-key that Kobe snorts when asked for an example of Horry emoting: "I don't have one," he says.

Horry, rummaging through a lifetime, has three.

Happiness: sweeping the Magic for the Rockets' second championship. "You're supposed to love your first the most, but I've never been happier than beating Orlando," Horry recalls. "We were the defending champions but were only on national TV like twice that year. Orlando was on almost every week." He need not remind Shaq or Brian Shaw -- Magic then, Lakers now -- that he averaged a double-double (17.3 points, 10 rebounds) in the sweep. Shaq, sitting across the LA locker room: "I tracked down his number that summer, called him to say, 'F-- you, Rob,' and hung up." Horry grins.

Anger: throwing a towel in the face of Suns coach Danny Ainge during his 32-game stint in Phoenix. The incident, which got Horry tossed into the coach-killer bin, was the result of a mountain of pent-up frustrations. He'd been discarded by his dream franchise. He had to leave Keva and a 24-hour nurse to care for Ashlyn. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was privately blaming Horry and then-Sun Sam Cassell for his decision to step down in the midst of a 0-13 start. Ainge, Cotton's replacement, barely played Horry in Robert's first game back in Houston, then reneged on a promise of more minutes after trading Michael Finley and A.C. Green to Dallas. When Ainge yanked him in the midst of a loss in Boston, Horry pelted him with the towel. Horry immediately apologized in the locker room after the game -- even now he credits Ainge for the arc that has made his corner three so deadly -- but four days later he was traded to the Lakers. "I don't hold anything against Robert," says Ainge, who had the towel framed. "He had a lot going on then."

Fear: the chance of losing Ashlyn.

***

Robert Horry Sr. is a proponent of the poker face. "Never let 'em know when you're angry," he says. "Show a smile and you throw 'em off." He divorced Robert's mother, Lelia, shortly after Robert was born, and eventually moved to South Carolina. But he still made sure his son had a father. When the 6'5" Horry Sr. was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., he traded in his Buick Century and crammed into a Toyota Corolla so he could afford the gas for the 320-mile round-trip weekend drives to see his only son. Lelia still lives in Andalusia while Robert Sr. lives in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., but both remain close to their son.

"I call him Heartstring," says Robert Sr., who can prompt his son to smile by simply raising three fingers from his baseline seat behind Dyan Cannon, letting Junior know he wants a clutch three.

Magic Johnson recently anointed Horry one of the top 15 clutch playoff performers of all time. Horry waves off the accolade, just as he did the comparison to Pippen years ago, but Magic is not alone. "There's only a handful of guys who really want to take that big shot," says the Spurs' Elliott. "He's one of them."

But to get all puffed up would give his accomplishments too much weight. He knows it's Keva who gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day to take care of the kids; Keva who helps Ashlyn attend a regular elementary school and tracks her three-hour daily therapy sessions; Keva who sometimes agonizes for days before figuring out she has a sore throat. "I know my daughter has a destiny," Keva says, "and it's my responsibility to help her find it."

That's being clutch. That's coming through under pressure. If anybody would understand the difference, it's Robert Horry.

This article appears in the June 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine.