Can Al Horford become the next great Celtic?
On July 2, part of the Celtics’ delegation that had just tried to woo Kevin Durant in the Hamptons boarded a private jet back to Boston, unsure how the coming days would shape the franchise.
Suddenly, coach Brad Stevens’s cellphone chirped. It was an Atlanta area code, and it had to be Al Horford. The Celtics had met with the star free agent just one day earlier, and even though his decision was expected quickly, this seemed almost too fast.
Stevens turned on his speakerphone and co-owner Wyc Grousbeck asked the pilot to stay off the runway. But the plane’s engines were humming, so it was difficult to hear Horford amid the din.
“Hey, I just want to thank you guys for coming down,” Horford said. “Unfortunately . . . ”
The phone was crackling a bit. Did he just say unfortunately? Why is this engine so loud? What is the Plan B if this doesn’t work?
Horford sensed the uneasy silence. He had wanted to lightheartedly slow-play his big news, but he also knew this team had offered him a four-year, $113 million contract, and that angst was everywhere.
“Guys,” Horford said strongly, “I’m going to be a Celtic.”
On the plane, there was jubilation. At Horford’s home in Atlanta, there was relief. He put down his phone and exhaled. The four-time All-Star forward chose Boston because he wants to help this franchise win its 18th world championship, if not now, then soon. And if he did not think that was possible, he would not be here.
The Bucks selected Tito Horford with the 39th pick of the 1988 draft before the 7-foot-1-inch center’s career took him from Wisconsin to Italy, Greece, Spain, and Brazil. When he and his wife, Arelis Reynoso, divorced in 1989, Reynoso and the couple’s 3-year-old son, Alfred, moved back to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
They lived in a modest apartment. Reynoso worked as a sports journalist and mostly raised Al alone, so she brought him to events she covered, from motocross races to volleyball matches. Al would carry her equipment and hold her microphone and even take some pictures. He told his mother he would become a television producer someday.
One February, Reynoso brought Al to spring training in Florida, where she had an interview with Dominican pitcher — and Red Sox star — Pedro Martinez. She had hoped for a lengthy meeting, but it was brief and rushed.
“So Al says, ‘Oh, no, Pedro. Don’t do that to my mom,’ ” Reynoso recalled. “He says, ‘My mom came from the Dominican Republic just to interview you. Please talk to her some more.’ ”
So Pedro talked to her some more. Horford’s mother was a fixture in the Dominican baseball community. She was friends with Martinez and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, among many others. When Ortiz was released by the Twins in 2002, Reynoso told him he would someday join the Yankees or Red Sox, and Ortiz called her when it turned out she was right.
Reynoso hoped Al would become a baseball player, too. He and his childhood friend Julio Borbon constantly played vitilla, a baseball-style game in which players hit bottle caps with sticks. One day they were playing against two older, bigger boys when one confronted Borbon.
“He wanted to fight me,” said Borbon, an outfielder who spent part of last season with the Orioles. “I remember Al standing up and protecting me. He said you are not going to bully us. He was the only one big enough to do that.”
Horford’s size was a benefit when he started playing basketball, but it made him uncomfortable when children made fun of his large hands and feet. Reynoso would tell him it was because they could not do the things that he could.
Horford became infatuated with the sport’s elegance after visiting his father in Brazil. He would watch Tito’s practices closely, even drawing up plays and showing them to his father afterward.
Reynoso promised to buy Horford a basketball, but only if he tried to become the best player there ever was. He went from shooting clothes through a wire hanger to playing at an academy in Santo Domingo three days a week. He would read basketball books and wear Grant Hill and Vince Carter jerseys and dribble around the neighborhood as the sun set.
“He’d come home and say to me, ‘Mom, I have to go back and practice, because this will be my career, and I have to respect my career,’ ” Reynoso said.
There were concerns that the competition level in Santo Domingo would limit Horford, so when he was 14 he moved to Lansing, Mich., where Tito lived with his second wife and Al’s four half-siblings.
Horford knew very little English, and his basketball skills remained crude.
He trained with Larry Turnbow, a no-nonsense shooting coach who had spent six years in the Marines. They would get up before 6 a.m. and shoot for an hour, sometimes even outside on chilly Michigan mornings.
Horford improved his shot by quickening his release and shifting his guide hand, which had been awkwardly placed completely behind the ball. Turnbow said that when one Atlantic 10 Conference coach recruited Horford and said he would teach him how to shoot, Horford was offended by the offer because he had already learned how to shoot. He lowered that team on his list.
Although Horford became a promising basketball recruit, he was not elite. He wore a knee brace and had a tentative gait. Florida coach Billy Donovan was unsure if he was worth pursuing.
During the summer before Horford’s senior year, Donovan watched him in a Las Vegas tournament. Horford’s team lost, and Donovan later saw him alone in the bleachers, crying.
“I knew then,” Donovan said, “that winning was really important to him.”
And that rang true regardless of the stakes. Horford was a steely competitor at Florida, even in seemingly humdrum exercises. If the Gators were doing a drill that did not involve keeping score, he’d ask to move on to the next one.
He was nicknamed the diplomat, the chief, and the godfather, because the rare times he spoke out had clear gravitas.
“When he’s talking in the locker room,” former Gators center Joakim Noah said, “you know.”
During one pickup game against his older teammates, the seniors kept calling questionable fouls on Horford’s team of freshmen.
“Al’s a quiet guy, but eventually he got mad,” Taurean Green recalled. “He was like, ‘Come on, stop cheating us.’ He would speak up when it was time.”
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I usually don't do #TBT but I had to post this one. End of freshmen year at Florida. Only missing @_tgreen_ because he went back to Boca that weekend...We had three of our starters leaving for the NBA. But on that day, riding on Lee Humphrey's truck we realize we were gonna be pretty good as a team the following year. I think we were picked to finish last in our conference... #Gatorboys #littledidtheyknow
Horford’s bond with fellow freshmen Green, Noah, and Corey Brewer was instant. The four became so close that when Noah exploded onto the national scene with his dominant play and outsize personality, he turned down some interview requests because he did not want his teammates to be left out of the narrative.
In 2005, the remnants of a hurricane were sweeping through North Florida, and the four roommates were out of food. Green and Brewer took cover, but Noah convinced Horford to put on several layers of clothing and trek to the only open on-campus eatery, Gator Dining. Noah had a boom box on his shoulder blasting reggae music, and the two stuffed their faces and brought food back for Green and Brewer.
In March of their sophomore season, Noah and Horford were in their Minneapolis hotel as the third-seeded Gators were preparing to play an Elite Eight game against Villanova. Noah was the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft; Horford was a probable top-10 selection.
“I could see something was up,” Horford said. “And Joakim just turns to me and says, ‘Hey, Al, are you gonna come back to school next year?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, man, I’m having fun.’ ”
Noah nodded but said nothing. The Gators beat Villanova, and as Horford, Noah, and Donovan rode in a golf cart to the news conference afterward, Horford said, Donovan told them they could win back-to-back national championships. They had not even won their first yet.
Florida went on to win that title, and then the four sophomores stunned the college basketball world by coming back to try it again. They won another championship, their legacy was cemented, and they could move on.
Making the move
When Kevin Durant was selected by the SuperSonics with the second overall pick of the 2007 draft, Reynoso leaned toward Horford as they sat in the green room at Madison Square Garden.
“OK, Al, now it is your turn,” she said.
“Mom, please,” Horford responded.
He had come to enjoy Atlanta after playing in the Southeastern Conference tournament and Final Four there. There was a bustling Hispanic population and it was a manageable flight to the Dominican Republic. But he did not want to get his hopes up.
Sure enough, the Hawks chose him, and he led the team to the playoffs in each of his nine seasons and was a four-time All-Star.
Horford’s work ethic never wavered, even after he became a star. He would take early time slots for individual workouts — a rarity for veterans — to set an example for younger players. Often, he would arrive a half-hour early.
“It was a great lesson for me as a coach just to watch him,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, a former Hawks assistant. “Why is he so good? Why is he so solid? It’s all the prep. There are few guys like him.”
In recent years on Christmas, Horford would text Atkinson to see if he would still work with him that day. They would both bring their families to the Hawks’ practice gym and turn it into a different kind of Christmas party. When Atkinson joined the Nets and Horford signed with the Celtics, Atkinson’s children asked their father what they would do on Christmas this year.
“Al is just a great friend, a great person,” Atkinson said. “If I talk anymore, I’m going to start getting emotional.”
Former Hawks coach Larry Drew, now an assistant with the Cavaliers, still has footage of Horford on his computer, and he has shown clips to Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue in hopes they might help Cavs forward Kevin Love.
“Watching the videos just reminds me of who Al was for those Atlanta teams,” Drew said.
Horford was happy in Atlanta, but he was eager to explore free agency. After the Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the conference semifinals, Horford and his agent, Jason Glushon, identified the teams capable of signing him. They winnowed the list to five: the Hawks, Wizards, Rockets, Pistons, and Celtics.
“The primary factors were not the team’s marketing potential or the cities they played in,” Glushon said. “Al just wants to win championships, just like he did twice at Florida.”
On July 1, the first day of free agency, Horford met with four teams in a conference room at Atlanta’s Four Seasons hotel. The Rockets were first, followed by the Wizards and Pistons. The Celtics came last, an enviable position for a final impression.
Boston arrived with a small army: team owners Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, Stevens, and players Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Kelly Olynyk.
Horford was impressed by the delegation, particularly the presence of ownership. He did not know that Pagliuca had cut short a family vacation to Nantucket to be there, or that Grousbeck had canceled a meeting in London.
The Celtics’ owners talked about their thirst for another championship, Stevens detailed how Boston would utilize Horford, and the players talked about their bond, their competitiveness, and what it is like to be a Celtic. Thomas said the players were leery of sounding fake, and they hoped Horford would see their authenticity.
The Boston players were unaware that their tenacious, relentless style of play already had given them an edge. Horford said little during the meeting but nodded often.
He called his mother the next morning. Reynoso heard his excitement as he discussed the Celtics. She had resisted sharing her opinion, but now it felt comfortable.
“I said, ‘Listen, Boston is one of the legendary franchises in the NBA — Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Bill Russell,’ ” she said. “I talked about those players and the privilege to play for an organization like that. I said, ‘They are looking to have another championship, and I believe they need you to do it.’ ”
Horford had promised his suitors that his decision would come quickly. He spent most of July 2 at home in Atlanta with his wife Amelia, and Glushon. Around dinnertime, he made his decision. He called the Celtics, called his parents, and texted shamrock emojis to his brothers and sisters.
“Good choice,” Tito Horford said. “Go get them.”
Feeling at home
It’s a balmy early-autumn day, and Al Horford is facing one of his first challenges in Boston. He must navigate from the team’s Waltham practice facility to Roxbury amid the afternoon rush.
Several cameramen await Horford at Merengue, a Dominican restaurant in the heart of this neighborhood. The 20-mile trip takes nearly an hour and a half. But when Horford finally parks his white Porsche in a tiny private space out back, he is not aggravated, just hungry.
Before long his table is covered with food. Red snapper in creole sauce, red beans and rice, fried plantains. He waves a plantain at one of the cameras when he is instructed to by a producer from the television show “NBA Inside Stuff.”
Customers seem to recognize Horford, but they might also just be curious about the fuss being made and assume he is someone important. Then one man enters the restaurant and does a double-take.
“Welcome to Boston, Al,” the man says. “We needed you.”
And maybe Horford needed Boston, too. He and Amelia — or, Miss Universe 2003 — met at the Latin Pride Awards here in 2007. The couple now has a 1½-year-old son, Ean, and a second child is on the way.
“Ean is already dunking on little hoops,” said Horford’s sister, Anna. “He’s like a giant for his age.”
The Horfords are living in Weston, close to Al’s friend David Ortiz, and they are working to make this feel like home as quickly as possible.
Last month Horford sent Grousbeck a text message on a quiet weekday night and asked him to meet for dinner. So the two went to a steakhouse in the Back Bay and talked about family and the city, about the team and winning.
“I could easily imagine that if Al stays here and things go well,” Grousbeck said, “he could become one of the best Celtics ever.”
The Celtics gush about the ways Horford already has made them better. He is a talented passer, a good 3-pointer shooter, and a strong rim protector, and the cohesion is visible. Horford has missed the last two games because of a concussion, but prior to that the Celtics were outscoring teams by an average of 12.3 points per 100 possessions while he was on the floor, the best mark on the team.
Green, Horford’s former college teammate, chuckles when he hears how quickly Horford is fitting in. He is not surprised.
“Give it about seven months, and just imagine how good it’ll be then,” Green said. “By him going to Boston, the thing everybody needs to understand is that it means he believes in them. He believes in what they’re doing, and he believes they can win.”