Ask Utah coach Rick Majerus about his senior forward Keith Van Horn, and his initial response has nothing to do with the All-American's extraordinary basketball skills.
"Keith is a beautiful person," said Majerus. "He's kind, sensitive, a renaissance man. He's almost too good to be true. And besides, he's a good friend to have."
Majerus, who sends his second-ranked Utes (26-3) against Navy (20-8) in the first round of the West Regional in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, has an unusual relationship with Van Horn. In a sense, he became his surrogate father after Van Horn's dad died at 57 of a heart attack during his first college season.
Majerus, who had lost his father five years earlier, had to break the news to the 18-year-old freshman. They would spend the night in a small diner in Salt Lake City reminiscing about the intimate times both had shared with their fathers.
It was at this same time that Van Horn vowed he would fulfill the wishes of his father, who urged him to graduate from college.
There was pressure for Van Horn to leave Utah after averaging 21.0 points and 8.5 rebounds his junior year. He was projected as a high NBA lottery pick who could demand a three-year contract worth $6 million.
Again, Van Horn sought the advice of Majerus, who had served as an NBA assistant coach.
Though Van Horn told the coach he would like to trade his Nissan pickup with 100,000 miles on the odometer for a Lexus, buy a big house with a pool and a fancy stroller for his baby daughter, Sabrina, Majerus said he knew Van Horn was unusually mature for his age and had his priorities in order.
He remembered how Van Horn, then a sophomore, wrote a 10-page term paper on "Personal Resilience" while waiting in the maternity ward. The paper and baby were both delivered on time, and Van Horn cut the umbilical cord.
"My family comes first, then school, then basketball," he said. "As long as you understand what's important, then you know what to expect of yourself. By staying in school, I was able to get my degree in sociology and probably improve my draft position."
As things developed, Van Horn's prognosis proved correct.
Adding weight to his angular 6-foot-10 frame for his senior year, he boosted his scoring average this season to 22.2 and his rebounding to 9.4 while being named the Western Athletic Conference outstanding player for the third straight year.
And he became a fixture on ESPN's highlights after scoring last-second baskets on consecutive nights to beat SMU and New Mexico in the WAC tournament. He is expected to be the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft behind Wake Forest center Tim Duncan.
"Keith is the Clark Kent of basketball," said Utah Jazz president Frank Layden. "I'm sure there is an 'S' somewhere under his jersey.
"He's a solid pro prospect. In all my years in the NBA, I've seen few big men who run as well as he does, and he can play inside or outside."
Van Horn first caught Majerus' eye while he was a junior in high school, playing summer-league ball near his home in Diamond Bar, Calif. He followed the youngster as he commuted between basketball camps in Santa Barbara and Pomona.
"That's a nerve-wracking, bumper-to-bumper, 150-mile drive," said Majerus. "Most kids would have been sitting by the pool, but he showed me how much he loved the game."
When Van Horn arrived at Salt Lake, he was hardly an imposing figure. "He showed up here at 190, thin as a thermometer," Majerus recalled. "In the beginning, guys moved by him like opening the floodgates at Boulder Dam.
"But he's a self-made player. He really worked in the weight room and bulked up to 230. He's like somebody out of the movie 'Hoosiers.' His coachability quotient is off the wall."
And the Lexus SC 400 and dream house with the swimming pool are within his grasp. It's hard for Van Horn to believe how far he has come in four short years.
"Heck, when I first came to Utah, I was just hoping to play a little basketball and get my degree. Now, I have a wife and a daughter and can look forward to playing in the NBA. How did I grow up so fast, and how can I possibly have any regrets?"
First-round NCAA tournament data for the three Maryland schools:
Opponent: College of Charleston
Site: Memphis, Tenn.
Time: Tomorrow, 7: 50 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Opponent: South Carolina
Time: Friday, 2: 45 p.m.*
TV: Ch. 13
Site: Tucson, Ariz.
) Time: Friday, 5: 12 p.m.*
TV: Ch. 13
Complete schedule: 4d
Pub Date: 3/12/97