From Santo Domingo to the N.B.A. Finals, Al Horford Is at Home

BOSTON — When Al Horford was 14, he moved from the Dominican Republic, where he was raised by his mother in Santo Domingo, to Michigan, where his father and four of his half-siblings lived.

“It was just so amazing,” said Anna Horford, 29, Al’s half-sister. “He helped raise us.”

He babysat his siblings and they played baseball, volleyball, or basketball in the backyard. Anna recalled Al skipping high school parties to stay with them.

If they were old enough to go to parties themselves, he advised and urged them to play it safe and call him if they needed a ride.

“He’s always taken on more of a father’s role,” said Anna. “He’s about six years older than the second oldest Horford boy. He has always been older and has always pushed the path forward in some way. I think it’s the same with the Celtics.”

She added: “I joke that he’s like the Celtics’ team dad. Because he always sort of lines up the guys, or when he speaks, they really make a point of listening and paying attention and giving him that respect.”

Earlier this season, Al Horford, 36, was the only Celtics player in his 30s. Boston’s core group includes three 20-year-olds, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, who just started their NBA journey six years ago when Horford first turned Celtic.

He left Boston just before his return this season and has brought seasoned leadership and stability to an otherwise fledgling Celtics team. His presence and game helped Boston win the franchise’s 18th title.

“They’re different, they’ve grown, they’re way better,” Horford said of Tatum, Brown and Smart. “It’s like their team. It’s kind of her time, you know? And I’m just happy to be a part of it now.”

When Boston won the Eastern Conference Championship by beating the Miami Heat in Game 7, Horford became the first Dominican player to make it to the NBA Finals. During his tenures with Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia, he had played 141 playoff games without making the finals – more than any other player.

The emotion he showed as the Celtics celebrated their conference title showed how much it meant to him. But it also meant a lot to his teammates.

“Nobody deserves it more than that guy on my right right here, man,” Brown said that night. “His energy, his demeanor, stepping in every day, being a pro, taking care of his body, being a leader — I’m proud to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like to can Al Horford, man.”

The Celtics drafted Brown in 2016, just weeks before Horford signed a four-year deal with the team. The next summer, Boston selected Tatum No. 3 overall. Smart was drafted in sixth overall in 2014.

Horford spent three years with Boston — two with Brown, Tatum and Smart — and the Celtics reached the conference finals twice and lost once in the conference semifinals. He quit the final year of his contract in 2019 and joined the 76ers as a free agent.

In December 2020, the 76ers traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who barely used him. In June 2021, Boston traded the Thunder to get him back.

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Horford said. “This was a time for her to grow and for me to grow as well. I get a different perspective and appreciate what I have here even more now.”

When Brad Stevens, the Celtics’ basketball president and former head coach, called to tell Horford about the trade, Horford was in a car with his family. Everyone started screaming with excitement.

“I think it feels like home for him,” Anna Horford said of Boston. “This is the first place he played where his kids were old enough to know they were at games. Ean was just a baby in Atlanta. He goes to school here, finds friends here, as do his other children. This was the first place where a whole family really felt at home.”

Home is an especially meaningful concept for someone as ephemeral as Horford.

In Santo Domingo, his mother, Arelis Reynoso, was a sportswriter and would occasionally take him on assignments.

“I felt really independent there from a young age,” Horford said. “It was just something very special, this time with my mom.”

He moved to Michigan for high school and then attended college in Florida, where he won two national championships with two other players who had notable NBA careers: Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer.

The Hawks took him third overall in 2007, and he made his first four of his five All-Star teams while playing at Atlanta.

It was there that the seeds of his long career were sown.

“I saw his daily habits,” said Kenny Atkinson, who was an assistant coach with the Hawks while Horford was there. “Al will be like Nolan Ryan: he’ll play until he’s 45. He’s so impeccable.”

Atkinson helped Horford develop a 3-point shooting game that also helped prolong his career in a league that is phasing out big men who can’t shoot.

Atkinson is now an assistant for Golden State. He was speaking the day after Horford scored 26 points and had six 3-pointers in Boston’s Game 1 win over Golden State.

What does he think of how Horford’s career is progressing?

“I hate it,” Atkinson said flatly. “But I’m not surprised.”

Upon returning to Boston, Horford attempted to share the habits he’d developed over time with his younger teammates. They were more than happy to take the advice.

“When I see them talking to Al, it’s almost like a teacher and a student,” said Juwan Morgan, a third-year forward who signed with Boston just before the end of the regular season. “You can see the respect factor. When Al speaks, everyone stays silent and listens because they know it’s for the good of the team.”

Horford called it a mutual respect.

“I try to be a good example for them,” Horford said. “I try to guide them and just help them. You know what I’m all about – that I want to play right and do things right on the pitch. But you also do things right off the field.”

It’s the same language Horford uses when he talks about his younger siblings and the way he’s cared for them.

“It’s important to me to help them in some way so that they can be successful in their lives,” Horford said.

He seems to be passing this caretaker mentality on to his son.

Ean is a social 7 year old with a head full of curly black hair. He loves basketball and likes to be in the locker room with his father’s co-workers. After Games 1 and 3 of the NBA Finals, Al Horford held his hand and brought him to the podium for the postgame interview. Ean winked at the camera after Game 1.

“He’s a big influence on his sisters,” Al said. “My second, Alia, is also more interested in basketball now.”

Unlike her brother, Alia, 5, was not allowed to come to Game 3 because the start time, 9 p.m. EST, was too late. But she wanted to go so badly that she drew a picture of Al, his wife Amelia Vega and Ean at the game and left it on her father’s bed so he could see when he got home.

“This morning I felt bad. I was like, ‘You’re going to be in Game 4,'” Al said, laughing. “So that means my third, Ava, will also be at the game. There is no way she can stay behind.”

Horford sees a lot of himself in his son, especially his observational skills and competitive spirit.

In Ean he also sees a child who loves the responsibility of being a big brother, loves to protect and teach his younger siblings. He also shares that with his father.

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