Last season as a freshman, Keith Hornsby shot 63.6 percent from the free-throw line for UNC Asheville. It wasnt terrible, but it really wasnt good enough for a player about to assume a much larger role for the Bulldogs.
So Hornsby got a tip from his dad. He changed the way he set up for free throws and began to swish everything. This season Hornsby ranks No. 2 in the nation in free-throw shooting for UNC Asheville at 93 percent.
The oddest part of this story?
Hornsbys father is Bruce Hornsby, the Grammy-winning musician most known for 1980s hits such as The Way It Is and Mandolin Rain.
Bruce Hornsby also is a fair basketball player and a nut for the sport. He has studied his sons game with the same intensity he has studied music.
Dad knows my game better than anyone else, said Keith Hornsby, a sophomore shooting guard who averages 16 points for a UNC Asheville team that will start the defense of its Big South tournament title Tuesday against Longwood. Nobody expects that because hes a musician. But hes taught me more about the game than anyone else. Its almost like he can read my mind at times. He plays the Dad role well his positivity is off the charts but hes also willing to tell me things I need to work on that other people probably wont.
The elder Hornsby calls himself a music grinder. He said he is trying to get better even now, at age 58, as he continues to tour both as a solo artist and with his band and also keeps busy scoring music for Spike Lee films from the familys home in Virginia.
I dont consider myself a basketball expert or anything, Bruce Hornsby said. I just try to impart a little common sense. And when Keith is getting mad or frustrated, its my self-appointed job to make him laugh.
And that 30 percentage-point improvement in free-throw shooting?
Keith Hornsby had always shot free throws with his right foot a bit in front of his left. He would align his right shoe just short of the nail that marks the center of the free-throw line and then let fly.
The problem: Sometimes that set-up meant Hornsby would let his body drift slightly, and he would end up shooting the free throw a tad off-balance. His dad suggested a simple fix both feet on the line, evenly spaced and squared up to the basket.
Thats what I do now, Keith Hornsby said. Two dribbles. A pause. A deep breath. Look at the basket. Elbow in. Shoot. Its not complicated.
Hornsby has shot exactly 100 free throws this season and made 93, which means he has missed fewer than two foul shots per month. Hes a big part of a 16-15 UNC Asheville team that will try to duplicate its postseason success of a year ago, when the Bulldogs won the Big South, advanced to the NCAA tournament as a No. 16 seed and narrowly missed upsetting No. 1 seed Syracuse. (The Bulldogs got ripped off by a terrible late call on an inbounds play when the ball was incorrectly awarded to Syracuse, but thats another story).
Keith Hornsby is a twin who showed basketball ability very early. At age 5, he once made 34 bank shots in a row on a 10-foot goal. He and his twin brother, Leon, were named for musicians their father admired (Keith Jarrett and Leon Russell).
Leon Hornsby also is an accomplished athlete. Hes a scholarship runner at track powerhouse Oregon, where he runs the 400 and 800 meters.
The family Bruce, his wife, Kathy, and the twins has long made its home in Williamsburg, Va., near lots of relatives who were willing babysitters. Bruce Hornsby doesnt come to many of his sons basketball games in person, but he watches most by computer on the Big South Network.
He did help dedicate UNC Ashevilles arena by performing the national anthem on piano before the 2011 game against North Carolina.
Bruce Hornsby also has gotten his agent to book him into nearby venues a day before or after some of Keiths college games, which is how the father watched the son play at Ohio State in December and performed a gig in Ohio on the same trip.
After Keith Hornsby lit his team up for 26 points in a 90-72 Ohio State win, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta cracked: Thats just the way it is a quote from the chorus of the elder Hornsbys 1986 hit.
Keith Hornsby has dabbled in guitar and piano. But the string music he prefers comes on the court. At 6-foot-4, he has a surprisingly quick first step and toughened himself last summer by playing in some New York City leagues.
That was some really rough basketball with some really talented players, he said, and it was a confidence booster.
Hornsby calls his father after every game. Dont let those musician roots fool you, Keith Hornsby said. Hes pretty tough. Hes kind of my personal coach, and weve definitely had some tension over the years. But he has really inspired me. Nothing was handed to him. Every time I see him in concert, its reassuring how talented he is and how hard he still works at it. I want to be like that.
Hes a great kid, Bruce Hornsby said of his son. Im so proud of him between the lines but more proud of what hes like outside of them.