Parquet Magazine: Horford Breaks the Mold
BOSTON – Al Horford entered the 2016 offseason facing an enormous decision – perhaps the biggest decision of his life.
The 30-year-old big man was entering free agency, and with four NBA All-Star appearances on his resume and a winning track record to back it up, he was sure to have a number of interested suitors.
As soon as his Atlanta Hawks were eliminated from the Playoffs in the second round by the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Horford began to weigh his options.
Should he return to the Hawks, the only NBA team he’s ever known?
Or should he turn over a new leaf and pursue a fresh start with a different organization?
During the early stages of his decision-making process, Horford was leaning heavily toward the former option. He had experienced nothing but success with the Hawks having guided them to nine straight postseason appearances. On top of that, he had built great chemistry with his teammates and coaches, and the city of Atlanta had become his home.
Soon, however, another team jumped into the equation. That team happened to be the one that Horford’s Hawks eliminated from the first round of the Playoffs a few months prior – the Boston Celtics.
“I was very impressed with how hard the guys played and with how good the team could be under coach (Brad) Stevens,” says Horford, as he looks back on the hard-fought, six-game postseason series. “Just what I saw from the group really intrigued me.”
As someone who understands and respects the history of the NBA, Horford was also intrigued by the possibility of playing for a franchise that is so rich in tradition and has a legendary track record of success.
“I’m not going to lie, the first time that I played at the Garden my rookie year I couldn’t stop looking at all the championship banners up top,” Horford recalls. “It’s something that’s powerful. It leaves an impression on you.”
Over the years, Horford had apparently left an impression on Boston’s front office as well; particularly on Celtics president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge. Ainge saw Horford as the type of player who, if he played in Boston, could potentially cement himself among the countless Celtics legends.
“The great thing about Al is that he plays the way that great Celtics of the past played,” says Ainge. “He plays with a passion that’s contagious to his teammates. He’s a player that can fit with all sorts of different types of players. He can play outside, he can play inside, on both ends of the court.
“He’s a player that, watching him play against us in the Playoffs [last] year flying around and contesting shots and bringing an energy and passion to the game. He’s a player that fans fall in love with.”
The two parties arranged to meet on July 1, 2016 in Atlanta. The C’s brought a full cast of ownership, coaches and players with the hope of luring Horford to Boston.
Coach Brad Stevens helped Horford visualize how he would fit seamlessly into his system and how his versatility would allow him to thrive with the Celtics.
Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk chimed in to speak of Boston’s culture and why they had fallen in love with the organization.
Ainge, along with managing partners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, educated Horford on the franchise’s rich tradition and the unparalleled pride that comes with putting on a green and white Celtics uniform.
“The pitch was very powerful,” Horford recalls.
And Boston needed a powerful pitch. To that point, the franchise had never signed a big-name free agent, so if it could somehow draw in Horford, it could potentially open the doors to attract other star free agents in the future.
However, Boston’s brass would not get an answer from Horford that day. He needed some time to think about the potentially career-altering decision. So the C’s left Atlanta anxiously awaiting his call, hoping he would be the one to break the mold and become the first top-flight free agent signing in Celtics history.
Taking After Tito
Horford is familiar with the concept of breaking the mold. His father, Alfredo “Tito” Horford, in 1988 became the first Dominican-born player to play in the NBA, which opened the gates to many others from the Dominican Republic. The 7-foot-1 center was a hero to many Dominican NBA-hopefuls, including his first-born son.
“It was very special because, at the time, basketball wasn’t that big in the Dominican. It’s a small country where baseball is king,” Al says. “I feel like he definitely got people believing down there that we could play basketball and that it’s possible to make it to the NBA.”
Al was raised by his mother, Arelis Reynoso, in Puerto Plata. His father, meanwhile, embarked on a lengthy professional career that took him all over the globe.
After finishing his college career at the University of Miami, Tito was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the 1988 Draft. He spent just two seasons with the Bucks and says that Al was too young to recall that stage of his career. But once Al was old enough to understand the game, he began to follow his father’s international career very closely. That’s when his basketball IQ began to form.
“When I got to go overseas and when I played for the Dominican Republic National Team, that’s when he began to show love for the game and began to follow me around,” says Tito. “He was always asking questions. He always wanted to get involved. He always wanted to play basketball.”
Al confirms his father’s memories, saying, “He’s the reason why I got interested in the game. And then my mom was the person that really pushed me to make me believe that I could be a good player and make it to the NBA.”
Horford wanted to turn the possibility into a reality, but his parents knew that in order to enhance his chance of making it to the NBA they would need to relocate him to a basketball hotspot – the United States.
In 2000, when Al was 14 years old, he moved to Michigan to live with his father in Grand Ledge, a small city about 13 miles west of Lansing. He became a dominant force at Grand Ledge High School, where his brothers, Jon and Josh, would later star as well.
Tito can pinpoint the first time that he realized his eldest son had the potential to follow in his footsteps, right into the NBA.
“It was when I took him to Nike Camp in Indianapolis,” says Tito, referencing the summer between Al’s sophomore and junior seasons of high school. “I saw him at that camp and he was just beating everybody. He was running the floor, blocking shots, rebounding – just being real aggressive. I said, ‘Wow, if you can play like this you’re going to be in the league someday.’”
Tito wasn’t the only one impressed by Al’s performance at the Nike Camp; his dominant play also created a buzz among some Division-I college coaches in attendance. Shortly after the camp, the Horford family began to receive phone calls and letters from some of the nation’s top collegiate programs such as Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue.
However, Horford ultimately decided to leave the Midwest and take his game down to the University of Florida to play under coach Billy Donovan. There, Horford would become a dominant force on one of the most dominant collegiate rosters of all time.
The young big man broke onto the scene during his sophomore season in 2005-06, when he, along with fellow future NBAers Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green guided the Gators to their first national championship in program history.
Most college players are tempted to leave school after winning a title, and Tito says Al could have easily entered the NBA draft and been selected in the first round at that point. But Tito himself had left school after his sophomore season at Miami, and it’s a regret that still haunts him to this day. He advised his son to remain a Gator for one more year in order to continue his growth and raise his value.
“I didn’t want him to experience the same thing that I experienced,” says Tito, who was drafted 39th overall by the Bucks. “When I was in college people like Dick Vitale, they said, ‘If you stay in school one or two more years, you’re gong to be a lottery pick.’ But I rushed my career because I thought I was ready to go to the NBA. But even though I had the size and the height and everything, I wasn’t ready.”
Al heeded to his father’s advice, and it proved to be a worthwhile decision. He suited up alongside Brewer, Noah and Green for one more season and helped guide Florida to its second consecutive national title.
Now, Horford’s door to the NBA was wide open, and it was time for him step through and carry on his family’s legacy.
Team Pride Over Ego
Horford’s greatest benefit while playing at the University of Florida was being surrounded by players and coaches who possessed a selfless, team-first mentality. Every Gator wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves, and that’s what drove the program’s success.
“That’s one of the things that I learned in college under coach Donovan,” Horford says. “When we were in college we were successful by doing it by committee, by group. In order to be successful you need to have a good team with a good core, so my whole thing is that I was always encouraging my teammates, and I try to lead them by example to play together, to play as a team.”
That’s exactly the type of player that the Atlanta Hawks felt they needed when they entered the 2007 NBA Draft.
The Hawks, at that point in time, were in the midst of their worst losing spell in franchise history, having missed the Playoffs for eight consecutive seasons. But everything changed for the organization once it selected Horford with the third overall pick.
The 21-year-old arrived and immediately won the Hawks’ starting center role. He went on to have an impressive rookie campaign, during which he averaged 10.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
Horford’s most influential offerings, however, did not show up on the stat sheet. His greatest contributions were his contagious, competitive nature, along with his team-first attitude and his emphasis on wanting others around him to succeed.
“Ever since Al was a little kid, he always wanted to compete,” says Tito. “He always wanted to do something to help his team win and he always wanted to make his teammates better.
“That’s why [at Florida] they named him ‘The Godfather.’ That’s why in Atlanta they named him ‘The Boss’ – because he takes the game so seriously and his focus is unbelievable.”
Through that focus, the young rookie helped guide Atlanta to the 2007-08 Playoffs – the organization’s first postseason berth since the 1999-2000 season. The eighth-seeded Hawks were eliminated during the first round by the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics, but Atlanta gave the top-seeded C’s a run for their money. It pushed Boston to a seven-game series, largely thanks to Horford’s contributions of 12.6 PPG and 10.4 RPG.
It was a sign of things to come for the Hawks.
“He was the one that kick-started their success,” says Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, a former Hawks assistant. “We really struggled there with a lot of young guys for my first three years there, but he was the beginning of our playoff run.”
The Hawks went on to make the postseason for nine consecutive seasons under the guidance of Horford, though they never made it past the Eastern Conference Finals. Horford always wanted to take it one step further, but he just couldn’t get over the hump.
That’s why this past summer’s free agency period was so critical for him. His decision could ultimately push him over that hump. He now had the opportunity to choose to play for a team that would best fit his needs as a player; a team that would give him a chance to raise a championship banner.
Choosing the Celtics
Roughly 24 hours after meeting with Horford, the Celtics received the answer they had been waiting for.
On the afternoon of July 2, 2016 Ainge, Stevens, Grousbeck and others had just finished meeting with free agent Kevin Durant in Long Island, New York. They were sitting on a plane that was just moments away from taking off for Boston when Stevens’ phone rang.
Recognizing the Atlanta area code, the coach anxiously gathered his colleagues, answered the call, and put Horford on speakerphone so that they could all hear his ultimate decision.
“I thought about it a lot and I appreciate everything with you guys coming down,” Horford began. He then paused for a moment, allowing the anticipation to build, before delivering seven franchise-altering words:
“I’m going to be a Boston Celtic.”
Boston’s brass exhaled and let out a cheer. While they ultimately would not end up securing a deal with Durant as well, as hoped, they still struck gold by landing a four-time All-Star big man.
Horford then hung up the phone, but had one more call to make; his father had also been anxiously waiting to hear what the decision would be.
“I had told him, ‘I’m going to support you no matter where you go, no matter what you do,’” Tito says. “And then when called me he said, ‘I’m going to be a Celtic. Celtic Pride, dad.’ And I said, ‘Yes! I like that!’ Because traditionally it’s a great organization, it’s a great GM, and great city to play basketball.”
Six days later, Horford, his wife, Amelia Vega, and their one-year-old son, Ean, traveled to their new home to start the next chapter in their lives. Dozens of media members showed up that afternoon to the Celtics’ training facility in Waltham where Horford opened up about his decision to choose the C’s.
“It was a very difficult decision for me,” admitted Horford, as he sat behind a microphone at a podium that also featured Stevens, Ainge and Grousbeck. “I had a great situation in Atlanta. I have a lot of respect for their organization, the fans there, but just looking here and what’s ahead; the vision that I see here … I feel comfortable, I feel confident in the potential of what can be, and I’m very encouraged by the group of players that are here.”
“I want us to grow as a team and be better,” added the big man, who averaged 14.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game during his nine seasons in Atlanta. “I took a chance on coming here because I believe in the type of guys that we have here in the organization and the potential that there is. So that’s why I’m here, and I have a lot of respect for a lot of these players.”
A Lauded Leader
As a team that entered this past summer loaded with youth and potential, the Boston Celtics were in need of a player who understood how to lead and how to win big games.
Stevens says Horford, with his track record and ability to pilot a team, perfectly fits such a mold.
“For us to have an opportunity here with a person who has achieved all that he’s achieved,” says Stevens,” who has not only the ability to help your team on the court with everything that he does well, but also in the ability to lead what is still a fairly young team in the way that [he] prepares, the way that [he] carries [himself] and everything else. I don’t think there is a better example out there for our players.”
Donovan, now the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, witnessed that leadership ability for three years at the University of Florida. If it weren’t for Horford’s commanding presence in Gainesville, the Gators may still be looking for their first NCAA title.
“He’s always been a great team guy,” says Donovan. “He understands the chemistry dynamics inside the team. He’s very bright and intelligent. He’s got a great feel for understanding the feel of the game and what his team needs.”
Many of Horford’s ex-teammates can attest to that, including Pacer guard Jeff Teague, who played alongside Horford for seven seasons in Atlanta. The All-Star point guard worked out with C’s veteran Avery Bradley this past summer, and hyped him up about Boston’s big-time acquisition.
“He just told me I’m really going to enjoy having him here on this team,” Bradley recalls from his conversation with Teague. “Al’s going to open the floor up for everybody. He’s a great player on the offensive end, defensive end; he knows how to play the game of basketball. To have him be a part of this team, I’m just happy about it and I feel like he’s going to help us out a lot.”
Horford began training camp with the Celtics in late September and it didn’t take him long at all to make his presence felt. Just a few days into practice, Horford was already beginning to grasp Boston’s system and was quickly rubbing shoulders with his new teammates.
“His game fits our system so well that it’s not that much of a task for us to get each other’s games down,” says Crowder. “It’s just about rhythm and shots and knowing where he likes his spots, and so for us it’s just playing through him. He doesn’t have to change too much – pretty much nothing. He’s picking, he’s popping, he’s passing. He can do it all.”
Horford is able to build chemistry so quickly with his teammates because of his ability to adapt and play off of others’ strengths. It’s one of the many lessons that Donovan taught him during his time at Florida.
“Coach Donovan always harped on making sure that we’re on the same page, that we’re feeding off each other, and that’s one of the things that I feel like I add value to,” says Horford. “I try to be a team guy and I try to help the team in whatever way that I can. Here in Boston, they already had really good chemistry. So it’s up to me to come in here and try to mesh with everybody and make everything work.”
Building Something Bigger
Everything worked out according to plan for Horford through training camp, but he hit a minor roadblock soon after the regular season began. The big man suffered a concussion during a practice between Games 3 and 4, and would wind up missing Boston’s next nine contests as a result.
As a newcomer, it was a critical time for Horford to miss because he was still being integrated into the team. That being said, he did not skip a beat when he returned to the lineup the night of Nov. 19 in Detroit. That night, Horford tallied 18 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocks for the Celtics. He also delivered the game-winning layup, followed by a game-sealing blocked shot at the buzzer that allowed Boston to walk away with a 94-92 win over the Pistons.
Horford missed one more contest on Nov. 28 so that he could witness the birth of his second child, daughter Alia. But from that point forward, he has been glued to the parquet floor, and the Celtics have reaped the benefits of his presence.
Through Jan. 9, the Celtics had played 27 games with Horford on the court. The team was 18-9 during those contests, compared to a 5-5 mark without him.
Horford has made his presence felt in virtually every aspect of the game. Through Christmas, he was the only player in the league that was averaging at least 15 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks per game. He has also been one of Boston’s highest-volume 3-point shooters, one of its top defenders, and one of the most critical vocal presences on and off the court.
“He just makes the game so easy,” says All-Star teammate Isaiah Thomas. “He’s been in the league long enough to where our plays are quite simple [to him]. So he’s a guy that once he gets it, he’s going to score or make the right play, and that makes it easier for everybody.”
Horford’s father says that’s exactly why Horford will blend in so well in Boston.
“I think he’s going to be a great fit for the Celtics because of the way he conducts himself on and off the court and the way he gets his teammates involved,” says Tito. “He’s a great teammate, he’s not selfish and he always wants to do something to help his teammates and to help the coach win.
“And off the court, he’s a family guy. He’s not going to give you trouble running around. He’s good for the city of Boston and the fans are going to enjoy him because he plays hard and everything about him is winning. Everywhere he’s been he’s been a winner.”
Boston has needed a player with that type of winning track record ever since the Big 3 era came to a close a handful of seasons ago. The team has not gotten past the first round of the playoffs since the 2010-11 campaign, but Ainge hopes that Horford’s addition will help the team break that streak this season.
“Right now it definitely makes us better than we were last year,” says Ainge, whose Celtics tied for the East’s third-best record and earned the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs last season.
“We felt like we were rightfully the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and the addition of Al makes us a better team for sure, with his versatility, experience and leadership.
“But we’re not done,” adds Ainge. “We still have work to do.”
Of course, the Celtics always have their eyes set on the big prize. It’s hard not to have that mentality considering the team has a record 17 NBA Championship banners hanging from its rafters at TD Garden.
The addition of Horford alone likely won’t be enough to bring Banner 18 to Boston, but his decision to break the mold and become the first big-name free agent signee in franchise history may create a snowball effect that could draw future star free agents to the team.
And that’s all part of Horford’s big-picture plan.
“It’s a great organization, there’s a lot of history here, and I feel like everyone around the league respects it and we acknowledge it,” says Horford. “That’s a big part of the reason why I chose to come here, and I feel like in years to come this will open up the doors for many other big free agents.
“You have to consider this is a special place, and I think that if people are open to it, they’ll see how special this place is.”
It was a gutsy decision for Horford to leave a steady, winning environment in Atlanta this past summer to join a young, up-and-coming Celtics team, but he believes it will be worth it in the end.
“I took a chance on coming here because I believe in the type of guys that we have here in the organization,” says Horford. “I believe in the potential that there is.”
So far, his leadership and versatility has brought nothing but success to Boston during the first half of the 2016-17 season. If that success carries through to the Playoffs, then it will surely open the eyes of other star players who are about to enter free agency.
If that’s the case, Horford’s choice to come to Boston may turn out to not just be a life-changing decision for himself; it may also prove to be a franchise-altering move that could ultimately lead the Celtics to Banner 18 and beyond.