BOSTON (CBS) — For nine seasons, Al Horford was the face of the Atlanta Hawks franchise. On Friday night, he’ll play his first game against his now former team as a member of the Boston Celtics.
Drafted third overall by the Hawks in 2007, following back-to-back NCAA Championships with the Florida Gators, Horford helped lift Atlanta from the NBA’s basement to one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. They made the playoffs in each of his nine seasons in a Hawks uniform, and it was just two years ago that Atlanta won 60 games in the regular season to earn the No. 1 seed in the East before getting swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Atlanta was the four-seed last season, beating the Celtics in six games in the first round before once again getting swept out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers.
While never a flashy superstar, Horford was a four-time All-Star for the Hawks. He was recognized as a great community leader for all his work around Atlanta throughout his career with the Hawks, which is why fans still hold the 30-year-old in such a high regard even after he left for a four-year, $113 million pact with the Celtics.
There will be a video tribute to Horford when he takes the floor on Friday night. The majority of the fans in attendance will greet him with cheers. Horford, in typical fashion for the big man, downplayed his return and seemed a bit uncomfortable when talking about it.
“It’s a little different,” he told reporters on Friday, noting all the changes the Hawks have gone through. “But I’m sure tonight, it will be more surreal for me.”
Horford has been as-advertised in Boston, averaging a workmanlike 15.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists for his new team. He’s had his share of highlights, from a 26-point, eight-rebound, six-block stat line in a 97-92 win over the Kings to hitting the game-winner against the Detroit Pistons (his first game back after missing time with a concussion) to a highlight reel block on LeBron James.
He’s also had some bumps along the way, missing nine games due to a concussion he suffered in practice. He missed another game after his wife gave birth to their second child, and that absence drew the (unneeded) ire of one local sports talker, and even caused some fans to lash out at Horford’s sister on social media.
But Horford left the Peach State for the Bay State because he felt the Celtics offered him the best chance at an NBA title. Through the good times and the bad, that feeling hasn’t changed over the last six months.
“I think that, for me individually, it was the right decision. It takes time to adjust to a new team, new city, and everything. But my teammates and coach have made my transition very easy,” said Horford. “It’s something that I’m still doing, and I feel more and more comfortable each game that I play.”
The C’s will need a comfortable Horford on Friday, as they try to cool off a Hawks team that has returned from the dead. It was just a few weeks ago they looked like a team ready to start a complete rebuild, putting former Horford running mate Paul Millsap on the trade block while dealing sharpshooter Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers. They’ve now won seven straight and are in first place in the Southeast Division, trailing the Celtics by a game-and-a-half in the Eastern Conference, and Millsap is off the block.
Horford says he’s happy to be back inside Philips Arena, and gearing up for such an important game. His Celtics teammates know how important it is for them, and even if he won’t say it, for Horford himself.
“He doesn’t act like this is a big game but we want to get this W for him,” said C’s guard Isaiah Thomas. “We know it means a lot for him.”
“I realize it is [a big deal]… my approach is the same,” said Horford. “I’m going to prepare the same. I’m going to do the things I’m going to do. It’s a new experience for me, but I have a job to do here with our team.”