Van Horn not blinded by New York spotlight

Keith Van Horn can handle the New York spotlight. But can he lead the Knicks to the playoffs?

Updated: October 10, 2003, 6:16 PM ET
By Joe Lago | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the New York Knicks.

Keith Van Horn
Van Horn, who's played on three straight playoff teams, hopes to keep his streak intact.
GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- You either love New York City or you hate New York City. There is no middle ground, it seems. Keith Van Horn's opinion of the Big Apple falls with the former.

"I've always liked this area," said Van Horn, a tri-state resident in New Jersey for the first five years of his seven-year NBA career. "I like being in a big city (like New York). It's a nice town."

You either love Keith Van Horn or you hate Keith Van Horn. There is no middle ground, it seems, for fans of teams the 1997 No. 2 overall pick has served.

Where Keith Van Horn stands with Knicks fans remains to be seen. But his margin for error will be as miniscule as a Manhattan studio after being acquired in a four-team trade that sent Latrell Sprewell, the people's Knick, to Minnesota.

Essentially, Van Horn will be taking Sprewell's spot in the starting lineup, most likely at small forward since the Knicks, who were vertically-challenged last season, are hoarding power forwards these days. (Thursday's signing of center Dikembe Mutombo gives New York 10 players who are at least 6-foot-8.)

Being 6-10 and five inches taller than Sprewell, Van Horn should provide some much-needed low-post scoring and give a boost to the NBA's worst rebounding squad. In order to appease the tough-to-please public, Van Horn will have to at least meet his career averages of 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds a game.

Then again, helping lift the Knicks into the postseason for the first time in three years would get people off his back.

"I'm not really looking at it like I'm replacing Latrell," said Van Horn in the soft, laidback voice that befits his Southern California roots. "I can't focus on what he did or his situation here. The only thing I'm focusing on is what I can bring to the table, what I can do on the basketball court, and help this team get to the playoffs."

Since the trade, much has been made of Van Horn not having the temperament for New York, where his every move will be critiqued at Madison Square Garden. To go along with scathing comments from ex-Nets teammate Kenyon Martin, the tabloids wrote nasty things about Van Horn when he flopped in the NBA Finals two seasons ago, but he was playing for that other team across the Hudson River. In New York, if you make one dumb play to lose a game, it's talked about for hours on sports talk radio.

Van Horn's critics forget that he survived last season in Philadelphia, where fans once booed Santa Claus at an Eagles game.

I've played in big markets throughout my whole NBA career. I know I can handle the situation. I know what comes with it, the good and bad, so I feel really comfortable with the situation.
Keith Van Horn
"I've played in big markets throughout my whole NBA career. I know I can handle the situation," Van Horn said. "I know what comes with it, the good and bad, so I feel really comfortable with the situation."

"I don't think it'll be a problem for him. It hadn't affected him in the past," coach Don Chaney said. "You guys had written some bad things about him and I thought it didn't bother him. He still got to the Finals and to the playoffs.

"To me, it's all about performance, and he performs. That's all I ask. His teams always end up in the playoffs, (so) he must be doing something right."

Allan Houston can sympathize with Van Horn. He's soft-spoken as well. All that matters, says Houston, is whether Van Horn can play.

In Houston's estimation, Van Horn's got plenty of game.

"His skills -- they're underrated," Houston said. "He can shoot. He has good footwork. He can pass. He can put the ball on the floor. He can post up. He's a good athlete. He can do a lot of things. I think he's definitely a guy that can help any team."

If someone gave him a mic at the Garden, Van Horn would tell Knicks fans this: He'll try his hardest to end the team's playoff drought. He even empathizes with those who were frustrated over the overdue departure of Sprewell, saying "anytime a team hasn't been able to make the playoffs it looks to make changes."

But if they think Van Horn is an underachieving loser, he'll waste no time correcting them. And he'll do so politely.

"I'm a winner," he said.

Joe Lago is the NBA editor at ESPN.com.