Community activist, two-time All-Star and now the last man standing from the Atlanta Hawks version of the “Big Three,” Al Horford is entering the most important season of his six-year career. The Hawks will be a vastly different team in terms of personnel than they have been in recent years. A massive roster shakeup has left Horford to lead the fragmented remnants of the perennial playoff teams Atlanta produced in recent history.
Over the last two summers, Horford watched his primary running mates leave the organization. Joe Johnson was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2012 and Josh Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons as a free agent this year. Now only the 6-10 Horford remains as the centerpiece of the franchise, both literally and figuratively, and he thinks it’s his time to be the leader of the organization.
“I’m embracing the challenge,” Horford says. “Obviously I enjoyed the time that I got to play with Joe Johnson and with Josh Smith. We had such good chemistry, especially with Josh and I. Now with things changing here I know that there is new role for me and it’s something that I welcome.”
When pressed on what exactly he thought his role would encompass, he let it be known that he is willing to do whatever is necessary to help Atlanta be successful.
“I’m going to have to be one of the leaders of the team and really lead by example with my work. Verbally if I need to say anything I will. On the court as well, being able to do whatever it takes for us to win. Some nights will require me to score the ball more and some nights to rebound. Whatever it is, whatever it may be I’m ready for that.”
Even with the maturity and strength that can be found in those comments, he still possesses the humility to know it will take everyone on the team to keep Atlanta competitive. He is looking at Jeff Teague, one of Atlanta’s few returning players, to help him lead the Hawks next season.
“I think that he is probably the most important part to our team’s success,” Horford says. “Jeff has proven that he can be really good with his game and I’m expecting a lot of big things out of him this season.”
Teague isn’t the only player that he is excited to have alongside him in Atlanta. Horford works out regularly with Lou Williams, who is trying to come back from an ACL injury suffered in January. He said Williams has been working hard to get back and hopes that he will be able to return to his scoring form sooner than later.
Newly acquired veteran-forwards Paul Millsap and Elton Brand have also added to Horford’s enthusiasm. With Millsap, the Hawks should receive much of the production lost with the departure of Smith but in a more efficient way. Ironically, Millsap’s arrival forces Horford to continue to play out of position at center, which is something he hoped would end with Smith’s exodus.
“Yeah, you know I was kind of dealing with that all summer because I was under the impression that I was going to play power forward and that is my natural position,” Horford says. “But once I saw all the moves that the team made and I talked to coach, they kind of made me understand how their system works and how they feel I can be successful at center. It’s up to me. I am embracing that and I’m going to make the most out of playing center and be the best I can be.”
Horford says all of the right things but remains honest, which is refreshing. Many times athletes live a life full of clichÃ©s and spouting off things they think others want to hear. Horford believes in the things he speaks of. Instead of being petulant when the situation isn’t exactly to his liking, he remains confident in his ability so that optimism can be legitimately exuded.
When asked if he wanted to retire as an Atlanta Hawk, he was again honest, making it clear that winning was of the utmost importance in his future decision.
“Well, I’m not sure,” he says. “I think it’s always good to keep your options open. I think I have time to determine how our team is doing and the steps that we are taking to be great…So if we’re competitive here and we feel good about what we have then yes. If not then I might have to reconsider.”
The man who says he loves playing on the road in Chicago, New York and Golden State has three years left on his contract, so Atlanta does have time to put winning pieces around him. But his thoughts on the Hawks’ prospectus this upcoming season leads one to believe that they have plenty of work to do.
“It’s a fairly new team so right now, looking at us on paper, I can’t tell you that we’ll be top five or a playoff team,” Horford says. “I don’t know. It’s more about us just getting together and figuring some things out.”
When he isn’t worrying about the Hawks’ hopes, Horford stays involved in the community focusing on the areas of basketball development and education for youth. His foundation does work in Michigan, Atlanta and his home country of the Dominican Republic. A multiple recipient of the NBA’s Community Assist Award and participant in the league’s Basketball Without Borders program, Horford is one of the league’s leading philanthropists. He traces his interest in such acts back to when he was a kid who yearned for contact with professional athletes. Now that he is in a position to give back, he feels an obligation to do so and to leave his mark helping the community.
Horford semi-jokingly admits to only having a few friends around the league. Outside of his fellow Florida Gator alums, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, his circle of friends is very small. Former teammate Zaza Pachulia and fellow countrymen Charlie Villanueva and Francisco Garcia also make the seemingly exclusive list.
So if he isn’t hanging with friends, how does he spend his time away from the game?
According to Horford, beaches, biking, outdoor activities and family cookouts are his most common ways to find reprieve. He says he can’t do anything in the kitchen or on the grill when it comes to cookouts but takes many long bike rides on Georgia’s Silver Comet Trail to relax his mind. When outside of Atlanta, Horford looks for a beach to just hang out with his wife.
Unfortunately, Horford won’t have much time for rest this season with an expanded role. After a season where he averaged career-highs in points (17.4) and rebounds (10.2), he considers himself one of the league’s best. When asked who would be on his All-NBA team, he named Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. After some clarification if he could include himself, Horford quickly replaced Gasol.
“Oh, I put myself at power forward,” he said. “Man, no question about it that’s definitely how I feel.”
Nevertheless, winning a championship is all that Horford wants to be remembered for on the court. When asked if there was anything else he wanted to accomplish, Horford was almost speechless: “Wow. Other than winning a NBA title? Man, all I think about is winning and being able to compete and being in a position to do something special. I am really just all about the team and winning. That’s probably the one thing I want to be remembered for.”
It may sound clichÃ© but a player that wants to win is never that. Being a champion is something people can never take away from you and Horford is trying to have his on-the-court success match the success he has off of it. There is nothing clichÃ© about that.
Will Horford be an All-Star this year?
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