Why Indiana Loves Kyle Hornsby..
Of course, his teammates love him.
And his coaches adore him.
And his parents couldn't be prouder.
But to get the full measure of Anacoco's Kyle Hornsby - Indiana University's smooth-shooting senior guard - move away from the inner circle.
Travel to the periphery, way out where the support staff and underlings and hired help reside. Talk to the minions any Hoosier hero could fail to acknowledge.
Speak to Barbara Slessinger, an usher at IU men's basketball games who's been perched in her corner behind the Hoosiers bench since 1979.
She's watched Isiah Thomas and Steve Alford and Bobby Knight, but she's seen very few Kyle Hornsbys.
Hornsby, Slessinger says, is as sweet as his jumper.
He never fails to greet her before a game, exchanging pleasantries, or an autograph, or, on one occasion, a hug, with an endless stream of yes and no mams.
Next, call Jim Butler, the video coordinator for the IU athletic department since 1989.
He first met Hornsby in 1998 when the heavily recruited 6-foot-5 freshman approached him in Assembly Hall and extended his hand, "He said, 'Hi, I'm Kyle Hornsby. I'm a freshman on the basketball team,'" Butler said. "And I'm thinking, 'Yeah, I know who you are, knucklehead.' But that is just very rare. I can count on one hand the number of times an Indiana basketball player has ever introduced themselves to anyone."
With such testimonials in mind, it's easier to believe the hosannas waved his way from IU's rah-rah alumni magazine, Hoosier Scene, which recently called him, "the nicest guy in Bloomington."
And the response from friend and teammate, IU guard A.J. Moye, sounds a little more credible, "The nicest guy in Bloomington? Kyle might be the nicest guy in the world. He doesn't have a mean bone in his body."
And as the recipient of The Town Talk's Sportsman of the Year award, an honor, incidentally, that he was thrilled to receive, Kyle Hornsby is also proof that nice guys don't finish last.
In fact, Hornsby and the Hoosiers - an unheralded bunch that entered the 2002 NCAA Tournament unranked - almost finished first before their storybook run to a championship ended with a 64-52 loss to Maryland in the national title game.
Hornsby ranked third in the Big Ten in the 3-point field goal percentage before enjoying an even more memorable March.
He averaged 9 points a game and drilled 13 of 27 treys in the Tournament, capping his effort with a team-high 14 points in the title game to earn a spot on the Final Four all-tournament team.
This season, he's started every game, has moved into sixth place in IU history in career 3-pointers and is averaging 7.4 points for 10th-ranked Indiana (8-1).
But Hornsby will be better remembered in Bloomington for his personality - not his point total - when his career concludes in the spring.
For his part, however, Hornsby is eager to downplay his too-good-to-be-true persona.
"I think if some people really, really got to know me," he protests, "they wouldn't think I'm that nice."
But the evidence is stacked against him.
In Anacoco (pop. 828), Hornsby is remembered best for his single-minded drive to succeed and his unselfishness, two qualities that are rarely married.
After road losses, Hornsby would exit the team bus and enter the Indians' gym to practice. As midnight approached, the coaches left him with the solitude and a reminder, "Turn the lights out, Kyle."
"After practice, I'd be too tired to even move and Kyle would still be out there, usually without a basketball," said Luke Brandon, a former teammate at Anacoco. "He would be out there practicing defense, working on his legs and doing all sorts of these weird jumping things. After seeing how hard he worked, I know that anything Kyle gets, he absolutely deserves."
And Hornsby, a point guard who cracked the varsity lineup as an eighth grader, got plenty during his prep career, collecting 3,211 points, three all-state honors and the Class B Player of the Year award.
He also made 70 percent of his shots, a jaw-dropping figure that many big-time recruiters thought was the product of creative scorekeeping.
Instead, it was the product of a unique high school star.
"What they didn't understand is that Kyle never took a bad shot," said Anacoco coach Michael Goins, an assistant during Hornsby's career. "Kyle wasn't like a lot of kids who shot if they think they might be open. Kyle was always more interested in getting his teammates into the game. He was sometimes too unselfish."
Said Brandon, "Kyle averaged 30 points a game when I was a senior. And he could have averaged 20 more."
And the golden boy even carried the Golden Rule off the court.
During road trips, Hornsby would take the last spot in line at fast food joints, taking pains not to convey a sense of entitlement to his teammates. During lunch, he often ate with the less popular students.
This year at IU, his three roommates aren't athletes. In fact, two are former managers on the basketball team. Humble? It's telling that in the question-and-answer section of his media guide bio, his longest answer is in response to "my most embarrassing moment on the basketball court."
When asked about his inability to seek a pedestal, Hornsby credits his parents.
His dad, Frank, a guidance counselor at Leesville High School, is a former player at East Texas Baptist University who coached for 16 years. His mother, Sherry, is a librarian at Anacoco.
"That's just the way I was brought up," said Hornsby. "I'm not better than anyone else. I might be able to play basketball better than other people, but that doesn't mean I get to eat first."
Soon after entering college, Hornsby's philosophy was tested.
The fans in Indiana, a hoops-crazed place which houses 15 of the largest 16 high school gymnasiums in America, give even the Hoosiers' 12th man his share of hero worship.
But Hornsby has remained grounded thanks, in part, to a faith that he discovered after his girlfriend died in a car accident during his senior year of high school.
Hornsby is active in IU's Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Campus Crusade for Christ. He speaks to churches and youth groups.
He is careful not to preach, but Whitney Butler, Hornsby's fiancee and girlfriend for over 2 1/2 years, believes his everyday example is an even more powerful testament to others.
"That's probably what I admire most about Kyle," said Butler, a former soccer player at IU. "What you see is what you get. Does he talk about his faith unless he's asked? No, he doesn't. But Kyle doesn't judge anyone and he doesn't act better than anyone else."
And people have noticed.
IU coach Mike Davis is a devout Christian who often discussed his faith during the Hoosiers' Tournament run.
But when asked about Hornsby's Christianity, Davis, 42, doesn't hesitate, "Oh Kyle, he's a better man than I am. At (23) years old, he's a better man than me. He never badmouths anyone. Even if Kyle's dealing with a bad guy, he'll only find the positive."
In the latter stages of his college career, Hornsby, a newly graduated exercise science major with a 3.4 GPA who has his eye on physical therapy or medical school, has assumed the role as IU's model student-athlete.
He has been invited to speak at the university's Hall of Fame induction. He has addressed groups of incoming freshmen and, this year, he was selected to give a speech to IU's senior athletes.
It seems logical that Hornsby's wild popularity could be traced to his performance in the Hoosiers' improbable Tournament run.
But for Butler, the video coordinator, Hornsby's finest moment last season came less than 24 hours after the national title game.
Back in Bloomington, as Hornsby prepared to leave Assembly Hall and enter the offseason, Butler stopped him to express his pride and admiration.
It was the type of compliment every Hoosier had heard repeatedly, if not since arriving on campus, certainly since IU slayed top-seeded Duke en route to the Final Four.
But as Butler was talking, he realized that the guy who stunned him with a surprise introduction four years earlier was shocking him again.
Hornsby was no longer a freshman, in fact, he was a day removed from a standout performance before 53,000 fans and 43.5 million television viewers on college basketball's grandest stage.
But at that moment Butler understood that success hadn't changed him a bit.
He knew because he looked in his eyes.
And Kyle Hornsby was crying.
Article by Eric Branch
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