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The rising son

Horford set to leave imprint after Dad paved the way

Posted: Wednesday October 10, 2007 11:56AM; Updated: Wednesday October 10, 2007 11:56AM
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Thanks to what the Hawks call his
Thanks to what the Hawks call his "unique combination" of skills, Al Horford (15) might crack the starting lineup as a rookie.
• McCALLUM: Hawks are on the rise

(Editor's note: This story appears in the October issue of SI Latino. To subscribe to SI Latino, click here.)

On the eve of the NBA draft in June, Atlanta Hawks general manager Billy Knight was asked to single out the attribute he most sought in the team's first pick. Knight, an exceedingly dour man who could never be confused for a rump-loving rapper, insisted that he was more interested in the prospect's backside than his upside. The Hawks' roster, he lamented, boasted only two players "who aren't what we call narrow butts." Would he try to squeeze in a third? "Depends on the butt," he said.

Knight's unwitting impersonation of infamous hip-hop artist Sir-Mix-A-Lot ("I like big butts and I cannot lie," he pronounced in his 1992 smash hit Baby Got Back) made him the, er, butt of a national joke that enthralled bloggers and talk-radio listeners for weeks -- but had escaped Al Horford's attention until recently.

"If he was looking for a guy with a big butt, that's not me," the Hawks' top pick says with a chuckle. "But he got a guy who's a winner, I'll tell you that."

Certainly Horford's body of work is no joke, starting with the two national championships he helped Florida win in 2006 and '07. A hulking inside presence, the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Horford -- who averaged 13.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in his valedictory season with the Gators -- declared for the draft as a junior and was selected third. He brings a winning attitude and much-needed leadership skills to a flagging franchise that hasn't reached the playoffs in almost a decade.

Horford is already being touted as a Rookie of the Year favorite after averaging 9.3 points and 9.0 rebounds at the NBA's summer league in July while playing on a tender left ankle. Today, Knight is effusive (for him at least) in his praise of Horford, saying his ability to pass, shoot, defend and play several positions is "a unique combination." In fact, don't be surprised if Horford, now tentatively listed at forward, is Atlanta's starting center come opening night against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 2.

It wasn't that long ago that such an accomplishment was unfathomable to many in Horford's native country. Born in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, the 21-year-old Horford is one of a handful of Dominicans to recently break into the league. Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva, born to Dominican parents in Queens, N.Y., was the seventh pick in the 2005 draft. Combo guard Francisco García, a native of Santo Domingo who was selected 23rd in '05, is in his third season with the Sacramento Kings. Sammy Mejía, born in the Bronx, N.Y., was drafted 57th this year and hopes to catch on with the Detroit Pistons.

All four players have Horford's father, Tito, to thank for paving the way. More than two decades ago, the 7-1, 245-pound native of La Romana was a national curiosity in the Dominican Republic and a coveted (if controversial) college prospect in the United States. He initially signed with Houston but was declared ineligible to play for the school after the Cougars (under NCAA pressure) sanctioned themselves for violations during his recruitment. LSU quickly snatched him up, but a few months later he decided to transfer to Miami. As a freshman, Tito averaged 13.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks as the Hurricanes won 17 games. In his sophomore year, he decided to forfeit his remaining three years of eligibility and turn pro in order to take care of his young bride, Arelis Reynoso, and son -- as well as provide for his recently widowed mother and five younger siblings.

A second-round pick in the '88 draft, Tito played 63 games over three seasons with Milwaukee and the Washington Bullets before embarking on a passport career that included stops in Europe, South America and back in the Dominican, where he retired in 2004. Along the way, Tito became a national idol who helped promote basketball from the capital to the countryside.

"When I left the Dominican Republic, everybody told me, 'You will never play in the NBA,' " says Tito, a youth baseball pitcher of high repute who, after emigrating to the United States in 1982, led his Houston high school basketball team to three straight Texas state championships. "Even my baseball coach said, 'Don't waste your time, because no Dominican has ever played in the NBA.' But I was very confident that I was going to be the first one to sign an NBA contract, and I'm pretty glad that I did."

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