The Atlanta Hawks' Understated Superpower
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is a story about how both an athlete and a team made major comebacks.
By Kevin Fixler
For Al Horford, the moment could have played out so differently. During what would become a double-overtime victory for his NBA team, the Atlanta Hawks, Horford stretched out his right arm to block a pass — then grabbed near his shoulder in obvious pain. With his pectoral muscle completely torn, he missed the rest of that game, two-thirds of last season and his team’s run in the playoffs. Worse yet: That wasn’t the first time he ripped a pec. “It’s only happened in pro basketball three times,” Horford tells OZY, “and it’s happened to me twice.”
What a difference a season can make. After seven straight years of losing in the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs (on top of many more disappointing years of missed opportunities), the Hawks are this season’s most surprising story line and have seen their team captain bounce back with renewed vigor — guiding them to a franchise record 60 wins and the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Now, they’re up 3-2 in their opening-round series against the stubborn Brooklyn Nets — and Horford’s leading the Hawks’ flight in their first genuine title hopes in some 20 years. Horford, says longtime ESPN basketball analyst and NBA veteran Tim Legler, is the team’s “most indispensable player.”
But the center-forward isn’t one to command the spotlight. That hasn’t been true for his team, of course, after its owner, Bruce Levenson, acknowledged sending a racially “inappropriate and offensive” email in a brouhaha that could have distracted, if not derailed, its players. (Levenson has since said he’ll sell his controlling interest in the Hawks.) Horford, meanwhile, is the longest-tenured member of the franchise, and in his eighth year as a pro he says few words during practice drills and wears a focus much like that of a coach. “I have to be able to set the tone,” says the 28-year-old defensive stalwart, who’s overcome a finger injury in Game 1 to average 12 points and nearly 10 rebounds during the playoffs.
Indeed, second-year Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer says Horford is the team’s driving force, and that the whole operation starts with this “quiet” and “understated” man in the middle, especially when situations become difficult. “That’s when his poise and his calm probably are most beneficial,” says Budenholzer, who was recently named NBA Coach of the Year. Point guard Jeff Teague notes Horford “doesn’t take anything too serious — besides when he’s on the floor.”
Not bad for a kid who grew up on an island country — the Dominican Republic — known more for its obsession with baseball than basketball. Then again, the latter seems to be in his blood. Horford’s father, Tito, became the first Dominican to play in the NBA. The 7-foot-1-inch, 245-pound behemoth was tapped in the second round of the 1988 draft, coming out of the University of Miami. And Horford’s two younger brothers, it seems, could one day be prospects for a foreign team or the NBA Development League.
I’m playing good basketball right now, but I know there’s definitely more that I could do.
But, by a long shot, Horford has come the furthest in his family. Even though many still consider him to be undersized for his position — yes, in basketball 6 foot 10 inches qualifies as such — he was a relative shrimp when he arrived at Grand Ledge High School in Michigan around a 6-foot-1-inch freshman. The 15-year-old JV player, who made varsity as a sophomore, would practice with the team six days a week — then knock on his coach’s door on Sundays to get into the school gym. Why not take it easy? “I want to play in the NBA someday,” his high school coach Tony Sweet remembers Horford saying. “I don’t take days off.”
Like a scholar, Horford studied his dream trade. One time, Sweet recounts, Horford scrutinized five skills from behind the bench of a Michigan State game then constantly practiced back-to-the-basket, low-post moves. “That became part of his fabric,” says Sweet, adding, “I see some of those moves [today].” Horford trained harder, packed on weight and left high school a 6-foot-8-inch, 195-pound college prospect bound for the University of Florida. When he came home one summer, Sweet recalls, the young man stood 2 inches taller and weighed in at 230 pounds. “It was just like a Hulk transformation,” says Sweet. “It was incredible. And then his game just followed with that.”
Not being slowed down by a bigger, plodding body has also helped, by lending itself to a faster-paced, running brand of ball. It better spaces the court and has worked particularly well for Horford and the Hawks this season. It’s also a far cry from days gone by when bigger — enter giants like Kareem and Shaq — was typically seen as better. But talk to Horford and he’ll tell you, modestly, that he’s still got post-recovery room to improve. “I’m playing good basketball right now, but I know there’s definitely more that I could do.”
Today, however, it’s not all basketball all the time. He and his Dominican wife, Amelia Vega (aka Miss Universe 2003), have been busy parenting Ean, their newborn. That transition, combined with his passion for getting kids playing outdoors (for which he thanks his mom and dad), also has him working with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint effort between the American Heart Association and Clinton Foundation that targets childhood obesity and keeps Horford visiting Atlanta-area schools.
Future plans may include another try at pushing the Dominican’s basketball team into the Olympics at next year’s Games in Rio. But Horford’s keeping that decision closely guarded until the current NBA season ends — which he hopes will be with a championship in Atlanta.