The catalyst for the 2005/06 basketball team will again be senior point guard Daniel Horton. The former Cedar Hills (Texas) standout came to Ann Arbor as a scorer, and exploded onto the scene his freshman year. Since then, his role on the court has been steadily evolving to one of greater deference to his teammates.
"I think its key for Daniel to be a leader, a quarterback, a defender, before we think scorer," Michigan head coach Tommy Amaker said. "I've asked him to sacrifice more of himself and his game than anybody else on this team. I think it's important that he understands that, and he gets credit for that. I need him to be that player who's going to lead our team and be a vocal presence out there on the floor. Obviously, we're going to need his scoring ability, but those other things are paramount, and I think he recognizes that and he understands how much he's had to sacrifice for the betterment of this team and this program."
Horton realizes what's being asked of him, and though the process has been difficult, he sees how it has benefited his game in the past and how it will continue to do so in the future. "I've always felt there are a lot of things that I'm capable of doing, that this team doesn't necessarily need me to do," Horton said. "I've had my times struggling while trying to fit into the mold of the point guard that coach wants me to be, but for the most part, it's been a good learning experience and I've gotten better as a player because of it. I think I've always been the type of player that has tried to get guys to feed off of me. Not necessarily verbally by getting on guys and telling them what to do, but going out there, playing hard and letting them see how bad you really want to win. That's one thing I've always aspired to. When it came to a guy like Bernard Robinson, he never said much, but watching him and seeing how badly he really wanted to win made me want to step my game up."
Being a guy that can pick the team up is one of Horton's priorities this season…especially considering the fact that he feels like he let his teammates down while out on suspension. Though the time out was difficult, he decided to make the best of a bad situation. Observing his team from the sideline allowed him to gain a new perspective on the guys he had been playing with. "The time off really gave me a chance to sit back and look at the team," he said. "It gave me a chance to get to know my teammates better…not personally…but their games. By being able to sit back and watch these guys play without me, I think I learned a lot. I learned a lot about these guys individually as players, not necessarily their skill level, but how they think during a game."
Horton's outlook for this season is obviously very positive, but it wasn't always that way. The chance to make amends with the team was an obvious motivating factor for coming back, but it wasn't enough to ensure he'd be back in Ann Arbor playing basketball this year. That's because a personal tragedy brought everything he previously thought was important into question and caused him to take a long hard look at his priorities.
What many people didn't know last year was Daniel Horton was preparing to be a father. "I was very excited," Horton recalled. "I knew it was going to be tough trying to be a father, playing college basketball, and going to school. But I have always been the type of person to like challenges. I looked at it as another challenge."
In late February while the team was away at the Big Ten tournament, Horton's son Cameron was born. The joy experienced was short-lived, though, because it was soon discovered that there were complications.
Horton's tatoo in memory of his son
The feelings of helplessness and despair were overwhelming for the then 20-year old. He did all that he could to hold himself together for the sake of Cameron's mother, but the realization that he would lose his son was too much to take. "I just started crying," Horton said. "There was nothing else to do. [The doctors] didn’t really tell me, they told [Cameron's mother]. She just dropped the phone and started crying. I knew then what they said. At the time I was trying to do something for her, but losing a child is something that you don’t ever want to do. After they told us, they released her about 30 minutes later and we went over to U of M. I don’t remember what time it was. It was the middle of the day. We basically held him and talked to him until he died later that night."
Through it all, Horton's teammates and coaches were there for him. Some of his fellow Wolverines were at the funeral to show their support. Afterward, it was evident that there wasn't much anyone could say to ease the pain. "For a while it was hard," Horton recalled. "I didn’t say anything to anybody. I didn’t talk to anybody. It was just hard. I didn’t eat that much, I didn’t really do anything. I barely went to class…barely went to school. I didn’t do anything. It was pretty tough. The last thing on my mind was basketball. I even thought about leaving and not playing basketball anymore and just going back home."
After many heartfelt conversations with a number of influential people in his life, Horton decided to finish what he had started at Michigan. "With his circumstances the easiest thing to do would have been to turn and run…to hide, pack it in, quit…or just say I've been dealt an unfair hand. But you know what…he was going to grow from it. We talked about how he could make a name for himself and his son…and how he could possibly do that. The best way of doing that was to come back be stronger, be better, and make sure that the death of his son was not in vein."
The thought of playing for his son was one that resonated with Horton. That is clearly his primary source of motivation for the upcoming season. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think about Cameron. Just days after he passed away, Horton had a message tattooed on his arm in tribute. "It’s a poem that her mom (Cameron's grandmother) wrote," Horton said. "It basically just talks about the message and the things that we learned in the short time that my son was here."
The adversity that Horton has had to weather over the past has year has been extremely painful, but each experience has made him a better person. According to his coach, he will also be a better leader. "He is the leader of our team," Amaker said. "We have other guys that have been voted captains…but lets make no mistake about it, Daniel Horton is the leader of this team."
For much more on Daniel Horton, the tragedy of losing his son, and his outlook on the upcoming season...be sure to check out GoBlueWolverine's magazine feature in the 2005 Basketball Preview set to mail next month.