A L HORFORD gets the job done.
It’s his tenacious yet heady defense, his impeccable playmaking from the five spot and poise in crunch time. That jab-step baseline jumper is money. He makes nearly 60 percent of his hook shots after bullying lighter bigs in the post and is a devastating pick-and-pop threat from behind the 3-point line. There are two reasons why Horford is one of the best of the world’s best: faith and work.
Growing up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Horford relied on faith to pursue his dreams. While it’s a relatively small island nation, Santo Domingo has a big city feel. As such, Horford was a sports-crazed, competition-fueled city kid, playing any sport he could, including the country’s most popular one – baseball. He also played volleyball, ran track and, like his father Tito Horford, played basketball.
Hoopers aren’t traditionally a Dominican export to the United States. In fact, Tito Horford was the first Dominican-born player to ever play in the NBA, playing 63 games for the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Bullets from 1988 to 1993 (he spent three of those years playing in France, Italy and Brazil).
Even with the familial pedigree, Al felt the chasm between himself and an NBA life, persevering in the Dominican Republic in at times challenging conditions that made an American dream feel unlikely. He had an unconditional supporter in his mother, Arelis Reynoso, whose vision for her son’s life overlooked the obstacles in front of him.
“From a very young age I always used to say that I wanted to play in the NBA. That was something that seemed very far away,” Horford said. “She was always believing in me.”
“My mom always taught me to not let those things get me down or affect me,” Horford continued. “Whether it was being back in the Dominican and not having electricity in our house – things like that at the time seemed like a really, really big deal, not having the essential things. Through all that, my mom always told me to not make excuses, to continue to work and continue to move forward and that those things would pass.”
While she had no way of knowing if the conditions for them in Santo Domingo would improve, Arelis’ prescription for dealing with them was spot on. It was an early lesson for Al to control himself first, putting his belief into doing the right things and being diligent as successful life strategies. Al put himself in position to become a college prospect through his work as a youngster, then made a massive life change by moving to Lansing, Mich., as a 14-year-old. That’s where Tito had settled down in the aftermath of his playing career.
Living with his father, Al thrived in high school, emerging as a top 50 recruit before he landed on a team of destiny in Gainesville, Fla. Joining future NBA players Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green, Horford helped lead the University of Florida to back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, with the Gators becoming the first school to accomplish that feat since the Duke Blue Devils in 1991 and 1992.
STRENGTH FROM WITHIN
DESPITE HUMBLE BEGINNINGS, Horford’s trajectory into the NBA, where he was the third overall selection in the 2007 Draft, had been smooth.
Horford started every game he played as a rookie for the Atlanta Hawks and continued surging by making the All-Star team in back-to-back seasons at just 23 and 24 years old. The next year, the 66-game 2011-12 season, halted Horford in his tracks. A torn pectoral muscle forced him to miss the final 55 games of the season. That’s when he leaned on the type of inner belief that his mother instilled not just in himself, but in God.
“My first major injury in the NBA, that was something that really made me question a lot of things,” he said. “In that point of my life, what had gotten me through that was my faith. That’s something that has been that tool for me to take to have me believing that I can come back, that I can be the same or even a better player.”
Horford responded from that adversity with the most productive overall season of his career statistically: 43 double-doubles, the sixth-most in the NBA, and averages of 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals, playing a career-high 37.2 minutes per game. His impact on winning beyond the box score was clear, too. His team has made the playoffs in every season of his career.
Horford has always seen the big picture in terms of submitting himself to what is best for his team. He can also shed previous versions of himself to adapt to the ever-changing nature of the NBA game.
Defensively, Horford can play up in a trap coverage in pick-and-roll defense. He can switch onto wing players like two-time reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who Horford had success against defensively in the two matchups against the Milwaukee Bucks this season. The defense a la mode for centers these days is sitting back in a drop coverage. Horford can execute that coverage to serve as a rim protector, too.
“His game is just so transferable,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “He's just so impactful on both ends. He's such a team guy. That's the number one thing that stands out to me.”
“He's a leader. He's a winner. He knows what it takes to win,” added Thunder forward Darius Bazley.
“I’m always thinking about the grind, getting in everyday, working, getting better, continuing to grow, continuing to learn.”
The starkest example of self-belief and adaptability is with the historic arc Horford’s 3-point shot. Through his first eight NBA seasons, he had taken just 65 total 3-pointers, 36 of which came in the third of his five All-Star seasons, the 2014-15 campaign. The next year, Horford septupled his 3-point attempts by taking 256 while playing all 82 games, shot 34.4 percent and was named an All-Star once again.
This season with the Thunder, he is taking the most 3s per game of his career (5.5) and making 35.6 percent of them, his third-best mark since adopting the 3-point shot consistently.
“I’m always thinking about the grind, getting in everyday, working, getting better, continuing to grow, continuing to learn,” said Horford.
PROVIDING HOPE BY EXAMPLE
HORFORD HASN’T MISSED a game due to injury this season, though he did sit out six contests after the birth of his daughter, Nova. Horford and his wife, Amelia Vega, have four children and, despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, moved their family to Oklahoma City at the beginning of the season.
Horford and Vega, also a native of Santo Domingo and the 2003 Miss Universe, were married in their shared hometown in 2011. The couple is extremely active in the Dominican Republic and visit grandparents, aunts and uncles as frequently as possible. From reconstructing basketball courts to hosting basketball camps, making donations or providing basketball equipment, Horford aims to provide the next generation of youth in his home country with more stability and connection to the world beyond Santo Domingo.
“We’re constantly going there in the offseason,” he said. “One of the things I like doing, is doing basketball camps and making sure that I’m helping that next generation and teaching values, spending time over there and teaching fundamentals of the game.”
Horford has also focused on education to invest in the people in the Dominican Republic, giving them more than just supplies for the day or a basketball dream, but a true hope for a brighter future.
“We have a very, very strong bond and I’m always thinking of ways to help down there,” said Horford. “It really warms my heart, just being able to make a difference. It just gives me perspective. I am very grateful. Every day that I wake up I’m very aware of where I’m at and of the things that I have.”
A multi-time winner of the NBA Cares Community Assists Award, Horford also donated $23,000 to Direct Relief International to support relief efforts in Japan and the Pacific after the tsunami there in 2011. Last April, Horford donated $500,000 in COVID-19 relief across six different locations, which included every stop on his life path to that point: the Dominican Republic, Michigan, Florida, Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia. Whether it’s on or off the floor, one thing is clear – through both his faith and his work, Al Horford elevates everyone around him.
“My whole purpose in life is to please God, to ensure I’m doing his will and that I’m living my life in that example,” he said. “Based on that, that’s how I go about my life and then the rest of everything will fall in place – whether it’s me being a basketball player, being the best father, the best husband and just trying to help anybody I can along the way.”