When Dennis Horner showed up at preseason camp for the New Jersey Nets two weeks ago, a clubhouse attendant simply gave him a jersey that fit.
The number didn’t matter to the attendant, but Horner joked that if he made the NBA team he expected to wear No. 31, which he had in college.
On Friday, there were no more jokes, but plenty of smiles.
The Linwood resident was named to the Nets’ regular-season roster. General manager Billy King broke the news to Horner after practice.
The clubhouse attendant then found him No. 31.
“Ever since I was younger this has been my life-long dream,” Horner, 23, said by telephone on Friday. “To finally be here … it hasn't really sunk in.”
He actually asked King whether he was serious. Once King assured Horner he was definitely on the regular-season roster, Horner allowed himself some time to enjoy the moment.
The Nets open their season Monday at the Washington Wizards at 7 p.m. The home opener is Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks at 7:30 p.m. New Jersey plays its home games at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Horner, a 2006 Holy Spirit High School graduate and co-Press Basketball Player of the Year, sent a text to his mother before telling anyone else.
Soon the rest of the family and nearly all of Horner’s friends learned the exciting news.
For some, however, it didn’t really come as a surprise.
“I was expecting it,” said his father, Edgar. “I don’t know why. I thought he was going to do it. They sort of just talked about it, and we were crossing our fingers.”
But Horner didn’t want to jinx it before he knew it was definitely true. Even though he was given a number for a real estate agent, he never called. He was also given tax papers to fill out, but he refused to hand them in.
Now, he can start looking for a place to live and get out of the hotel he’s been staying in since training camp started Dec. 9.
Horner joins just a few locals who have played in the NBA, most notably Holy Spirit graduate Chris Ford, Atlantic City High School graduate Lou Roe and St. Augustine Prep graduate Pops Mensah-Bonsu. None of them is in the NBA anymore. Wildwood native Frank Vogel is the head coach of the Indiana Pacers.
Seeing someone from Atlantic County make the NBA sent a buzz through the community. Horner’s Facebook page exploded with congratulations once his friends heard the news.
Holy Spirit basketball coach Jamie Gillespie told his team, and the players’ faces lit up. Some of the current Spartans know Horner, who would come to open gym at Spirit during the summer.
“Some of the kids have followed him and are really excited for him,” Gillespie said. “Not to say they aren’t all going to make it to that level, but it opens your eyes to possibility. Here’s a kid that walked the same roads they did. It shows that it’s not impossible.”
Gillespie was the junior varsity coach and an assistant varsity coach when Horner was at Holy Spirit, but the two worked closely to help develop Horner’s skills. At that stage, he already had great height — he is 6-foot-9 now — and worked on the moves to get him noticed by elite basketball programs.
Horner wound up at North Carolina State, in the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the best college basketball conferences in the country. He played against teams such as the University of North Carolina and Duke University.
“He got to experience something a very small percentage of kids will ever experience,” Gillespie said. “Now he’s taking that to a whole different level.”
During the preseason with the Nets, Horner played against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, his first time competing in one of the most famous arenas in the world.
Four days earlier, the forward played well in his preseason debut against New York — scoring four points, grabbing four rebounds and recording three assists with only one turnover, while playing more than 18 minutes.
Every day he has been with New Jersey, he has dealt with situations that are new to him.
“I just have to stay humble,” Horner said. “I am not satisfied where I am yet. I am still going to work hard to stay here. I don’t want to go back.”
After graduating from N.C. State in 2010, Horner spent a season in Europe, playing in Belgium and Cyprus. He did not want to go back to Europe and worked out for a number of NBA teams this summer.
In November, Horner was drafted by the Springfield Armor, an NBA Development League team in Massachusetts affiliated with the Nets. He played three games with them, averaging 15 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, before New Jersey asked him to come to preseason training camp.
Horner knew that was his chance. He worked hard in practice, running the right plays and doing little things that mattered, but it was such an emotional time for him as New Jersey kept bringing in other players that played similar positions.
“It really was a roller coaster for me,” Horner said. “One day I would feel good playing, and the next day I am thinking maybe I wasn’t going to make it. A lot of the guys have been nice, and they gave me good advice to just stay positive. They told me you can’t control anything. Just go out on the court and show them you want to be here.”
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