Latrell Sprewell wore a scowl and cornrows. Keith Van Horn favors white socks just below the knees, short hair above the ears. "Keith has the worst haircut in the game," says Rick Majerus, Van Horn's former college coach at Utah and a longtime friend. "He is a vanilla player."

Indeed, Sprewell and Van Horn are about as different on the court as they are in looks and personality, which is part of the reason the Knicks made the controversial trade in the first place. Even James Dolan, the Garden chairman, admitted last week that Knicks fans will see the true character of the team this season now that Sprewell is gone and Van Horn has arrived.

Tonight, the Knicks open the 2003-04 season at Madison Square Garden against the Orlando Magic with renewed optimism and a new small forward. However, Don Chaney's team has gone two seasons without reaching the playoffs and appears to be headed to the NBA draft lottery for a third straight year.

Unless, of course, Antonio McDyess returns and is productive for 60-plus games. And if Allan Houston's surgically repaired right knee holds up and Dikembe Mutombo can rebound and block shots for up to 30 minutes a night.

The other variable is Van Horn, a skilled offensive player who was run out of New Jersey and Philadelphia within 13 months. The transition to a third team has been rough.

During the preseason, Van Horn has been booed at the Garden by the fans still captivated by Sprewell's all-out, in-your-face style. For Van Horn, the only time he seems to win a popularity contest is when his teammates are searching for a scapegoat.

"I've seen that occur," Van Horn says. "It's happened."

Van Horn may seem like the anti-Sprewell, sharing little in common except for their part in an NBA transaction last August. But just when Dolan and Knicks president Scott Layden felt they had finally distanced themselves from Sprewell, Van Horn opened his mouth and began sounding an awful lot like you-know-who.

It happened two weeks ago following a game in Boise, Idaho, that dropped the Knicks preseason record to 0-5. A frustrated Van Horn accused his teammates of practicing at "three-quarters speed," which is something that often tested Sprewell's patience.

"We need to get more precise when we practice - with cutting, passing," Van Horn said at the time. "We're not running through our offense at the speed we should be."

It was a Sprewellian moment to say the least. The player so often called soft was now taking the hard approach with his new teammates. Sprewell would have been proud.

The Knicks? Whatever was said behind closed doors between management and Van Horn, the end result is that Van Horn apologized to the team the following day and claimed that his comments were taken out of context.

Still, despite the spin doctoring, Van Horn's criticism of his teammates practice habits was the most encouraging development in an otherwise disastrous preseason.

One Eastern Conference GM applauded Van Horn's candor, believing that the only agenda was motivating his teammates.

"Here you have a guy showing passion, which is what the fans want. He is showing leadership, which is what the team needs. And then everyone makes him feel bad about it," the GM said. "He's probably used to getting after it in practice and didn't like what he was seeing. It was probably an objective analysis. He shouldn't have to backtrack. He shouldn't have his country club privileges revoked."

Majerus, who has become a father figure to Van Horn, admired Van Horn's statement so much that he tacked it to a wall in the Utah locker room.

"Look at the way (John) Stockton practices or (Michael) Jordan, they both work very hard and take their jobs seriously," Majerus said. "Keith is the same way. Maybe people are frustrated that he's not as good as Larry Bird or Chris Mullin. But he was a player who was the leading scorer on a team that reached the Finals. He knows what it takes."

Van Horn has appeared in 35 playoff games over the past three seasons. The Knicks have appeared in five over that span.

"I wanted to be honest with the team," Van Horn said. "If that area needs to be addressed then you need to let them know. If you want to win that's the only way you can do it."

Van Horn arrives in New York with his career at a crossroads, not unlike Sprewell who was the NBA's most notorious villain before finding redemption with the Knicks.

As a former No. 2 overall pick, Van Horn has failed to live up to the billing as "the next Larry Bird." He has averaged 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds over seven NBA seasons but has also frustrated coaches and teammates with inconsistent play.

"Keith is talented, he can shoot the ball, he is 6-10, can jump out of the gym," said Kenyon Martin, the Nets forward who ripped Van Horn after the team was swept by the Lakers in the 2002 Finals. "He just doesn't use his ability that he has been given. That frustrates me more than anything."

Majerus blames some of it on Van Horn being a plain, soft-spoken player. Vanilla. Because Van Horn doesn't thump his chest, scream or provide outrageous quotes, he is unfairly labeled as passive.

When asked if he has been a convenient target, Van Horn said: "I've seen that occur. If you look at my game and look at my career I've been very solid. I let my career and the winning teams I've played on speak for themselves.

"Everybody's different. Tim Duncan doesn't yell and scream when he dunks. Yet he plays hard and loves to play the game. I think I'm similar to him. I'm not a screamer or a big talker. But I love playing the game."

The 28-year-old Van Horn gives the Knicks size and rebounding at small forward. Sprewell, however, is a better passer and defender.

One NBA scout says that in order for Van Horn, a natural power forward, to be successful as a small forward, he must be surrounded by good shooters, particularly at power forward in a lineup that includes Mutombo at center. Van Horn will draw double teams the way Sprewell did. But passing and creating are not Van Horn's strengths.

"The Knicks probably have the worst passing starting unit in NBA history," the scout said. Sprewell's scouting report wasn't all that encouraging either when he arrived before the 1998-99 season. He was said to be selfish, uncoachable and content to put up big numbers on a losing team. But Sprewell changed those perceptions by doing what Van Horn now has the chance to do: win.

"The fans know we're different players who have both been successful on different teams," Van Horn said. "Ultimately, they just want to see this team win and if I can help this team win, they'll appreciate that. I'd like to make this my home. I love the area, love the organization. I don't like to move. I want to make it work with this team."

Spoken just like Sprewell.
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