The rising son (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday October 10, 2007 11:56AM; Updated: Wednesday October 10, 2007 11:56AM
Tito and Arelis divorced when Al was 3, and Al remained in Santo Domingo with his mother while his father began his peripatetic playing career. Still, father and son kept in regular contact and visited each other frequently. By age 7, Al had decided that he wanted to follow his father into professional basketball. Arelis, though initially crestfallen that her son would not grow up to be one of her homeland's next great baseball infielders, quickly became his biggest booster. She enrolled him in an elite basketball academy where he received hands-on coaching from Teresa Durán, a star player on the Dominican women's team and, like Tito, a national sports hero.
But as Al's game developed, it became clear he needed a more challenging basketball environment to continue improving. When he turned 14, his parents agreed to move him to the States to live with Tito -- who, upon retiring, had settled in Grand Ledge, Mich. -- so that the boy could receive better coaching, play in high school and possibly even land a college scholarship. Once Al was in Michigan, his game improved as quickly as his English -- the latter thanks to his six U.S.-born stepbrothers and sisters. Still, Tito Horford wasn't convinced his son was tall enough to play Division I college basketball.
"He didn't grow as fast as I thought he would," says the 41-year-old Tito, who parlayed his fluency in four languages into a career with a Lansing, Mich., Catholic charity as a translator and caseworker for immigrants. "He was only 6- 2, 6-3 when he first came here."
But Arelis -- who, after 10 months apart from her son, left a thriving career as a multimedia sports journalist in the Dominican Republic and took a less remunerative freelance job in Philadelphia to be closer to him -- didn't think a college career was out of Al's reach: "I said, 'Listen, he'll play -- and he'll be better than you!' "
Al's body eventually grew into his outsized game. In 2004, after a prolific career at Grand Ledge High School (he broke seven school records and is the school's all-time leading scorer), Al signed with Florida. He and Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Joakim Noah formed a much-heralded freshman foursome that would make up the nucleus of two championship teams in Gainesville. In 2006, after winning their first NCAA title together as sophomores, the quartet (or Oh-Fours, as they came to be known) opted to stay together instead of going pro. They won a second title in 2007, as Florida became the first Division I team in 15 years to win back-to-back championships.
Horford was the first of three Oh-Fours selected within the first nine picks of the 2007 draft. But the Hawks' rookie, nicknamed the Godfather in college for his strong but soft-spoken demeanor, is not treated with reverence by his former Gators teammates. Noah and Brewer, in particular, relished any opportunity to demystify their former capo during pre-draft workouts.
"They would be like, 'Oh, he tries to act like the quiet one, but he's not,' " Horford says. Despite the ribbing, he adds, "It was definitely good to have Corey and Jo go before me at the workouts, because they were able to tell me what to expect."
Still, the rebounding drill the Hawks put Horford through at his workout in June caught him off guard. First, assistant coach Bob Bender covered the hoop with a ridged lid that resembled the top of an old metal garbage can. Then Bender launched a series of shots from different spots on the floor. Starting from the three-point line, Horford had to race to collect each ball as it bounced unpredictably off the lid and then either fire an outlet pass downcourt or dribble the ball to the opposite baseline. Nevertheless, Horford quickly got the knack of the drill and showed Bender his sophisticated understanding of rebounding angles and his rare anticipatory acumen. The coach saw another skill as well.
"He can really put the ball on the floor," says Bender, who believes Horford's dribbling skills compare favorably with those of Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld. "He was laughing after the drill, saying, 'I was hoping I could show a little bit more of what I can do.' "
No doubt Horford will get an opportunity to do so this season with Atlanta, which, after a relatively hot start last season, won just 30 games on the way to its third division finish of second-to-last or worst in the past three years. While Horford's addition doesn't figure to make the lowly Hawks an immediate playoff contender, it at least ensures they won't be a league laughingstock for much longer.
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