NEWARK — Linwood native Dennis Horner has played basketball in big arenas and in front of large, loud crowds.
But Jay-Z sitting three seats away?
Reality TV star Kris Humphries as a teammate?
As a rookie reserve on the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, Horner got to experience more hype and fanfare Tuesday than he did in four years of college basketball at North Carolina State.
All with his family watching.
“I’ve never seen that before. It’s pretty crazy,” Horner said of team owner and rapper Jay-Z’s presence during the game. Horner said he didn’t even notice him until the second half.
“It just feels great that (my parents) got to be here to see me live my dream, and it was only a ride up the street for them.”
Horner, a 2006 Holy Spirit High School graduate, didn’t see action until the fourth quarter of the Nets’ 106-70 loss and finished the game with four points and two rebounds in his professional debut.
Because he is a New Jersey native on the home state team, a camera followed Horner around the Prudential Center before the game. While he stretched in the small locker room, the cameraman got every angle possible: an overhead shot, a low-angle and closeups of Horner’s face.
The only time Horner got away from the camera was when he hit the court for a pre-game warmup. There, his aunts and cousin were waiting — running after him and screaming his name as he came off the court.
“I got a kiss on the cheek from him and some sweat,” one of his aunts yelled to his mother Louanne Horner, who was standing nearby but not close enough to say hi when he walked off the court.
“I got a picture,” Horner’s cousin Jill Hankins said as she checked the photos on her phone.
Their excitement was immeasurable as the three sisters — Horner’s two aunts and his mother — talked over each other.
“This has just been unreal,” Louanne said. “I just can’t believe we are all actually here. This is the NBA. … We’re here.”
“This is just too much,” Anne Marie Fussner said. “We’ve got a picture of him dribbling a basketball when he was just 2 years old.”
Following Friday’s announcement that Horner, 23, made the team, the family ordered champagne and roses.
After Tuesday’s game, his phone was filled with text messages.
“Look at all these,” Dennis said. “I don’t even know who this is. It’s just so surreal right now.”
The drive to Newark took about two hours up the Garden State Parkway through a driving rain. The Horner family didn’t care about the weather, though. The group of 10 would have driven through a blizzard to watch Horner suit up in a Nets uniform — even if they were nervous all weekend.
He entered his first NBA game with 7 minutes, 51 seconds left in the fourth quarter. While the moment he was called off the bench was thrilling, Horner said once he ran up and down the court twice, only basketball was on his mind.
His family is still unbelievably excited, and their cheers were heard over the crowd when Horner came in the game.
“This whole week the three of us have been walking around in circles,” said his aunt Susan Gillingham, Louanne’s sister.
The Nets fell behind to the Atlanta Hawks early, but Horner cheered for his teammates the entire time.
When his locker mate Shelden Williams came out of the game, Horner was the only teammate that stood and waited to give him a high-five.
Horner has demonstrated that he can be patient when he needs to be, waiting his turn.
When he was 5, he wanted to play basketball in the backyard with his older cousins. They tried to keep him away — until his mother would yell at them from the dining-room window to let him play.
They eventually did. And Horner usually played pretty well against them, even if he was smaller.
Horner promised his mother if he ever made it big in the NBA, he would buy her a house on a beach block with a huge walk-in closet.
But Louanne, who works at a doctor’s office in Somers Point, doesn’t plan to leave her Linwood home anytime soon. There are too many memories in that house, especially by the basketball hoop.
“There was a lot of heavy action back there (by the hoop),” said Horner’s father, Edgar.
The house has added value now, anyway. A professional basketball player grew up there.
Y’know — the guy sitting three seats away from Jay-Z.
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