Have you ever seen or heard a 7-foot-1, 270-pound man beg? Stand near Tito Horford the next time he picks up the telephone to call the Hawks’ front office.
“I’ve been begging [general manager] Rick Sund and the Hawks for the last three years – please get a center so my son can pay his normal position,” the elder Horford said Tuesday from his home in the Dominican Republic. “He can’t push guys out of the box like I could. If he moved to forward, he would have a longer career.”
We suspected Al Horford would be a great NBA player. We watched him play on two national championship teams at Florida. It follows that when the Hawks drafted him third overall in 2007, we were overcome with the rarest of Hawks draft-day sensations: comfort.
But what has been stunning is that Horford has turned into an impact player at the wrong position. He just made the NBA’s Eastern Conference All-Star team for the second straight season as a center.
Granted, this isn’t the 1970s or ’80s and the NBA isn’t well-populated with dominant centers. Horford, at 6-10, 245, hardly captains the Lollipop Guild. But he still is playing out of position and succeeding only because of his sheer will, determination and talent.
How good would he be as a power forward?
“He’d be a beast,” coach Larry Drew said.
Horford is a rarity, not just on the Hawks but among athletes on Atlanta sports teams: He is universally embraced. Nobody thinks he underachieves or is overpaid. He is a leader. He is honest. When others have made excuses for losses, Horford has stepped forward and suggested too many teammates were operating as individuals and not within the framework of a team.
He reiterated Tuesday: “The great teams separate themselves because it’s more about the team and winning than everybody getting theirs. It’s a lot better here now than it was before. I think guys are starting to get it, but I don’t know if we’re quite there yet.”
A coach’s dream. A fan’s dream.
It would be nice if the Hawks could keep this guy around for a while. And upright.
He is taking a beating, particularly at the defensive end. Drew is trying to minimize the issue by going with a “big” lineup about 40 percent of the time: Horford moves to power forward, Josh Smith to small forward, Jason Collins steps in at center and Marvin Williams goes to the bench.
Drew admitted, “I’ve even thought of making the change permanent.”
Horford has stepped up his offensive game, averaging 16.2 points (his first three seasons: 10.1, 11.5, 14.2). We learned again Tuesday night how important he is to this team. With Horford a surprise late scratch for the second straight game with a sore back, the Hawks were drilled by Philadelphia 117-83 at Philips Arena. The team was missing Horford’s pulse (as well as seemingly several organs).
Horford was injured Friday in Los Angeles when he was knocked to the ground by Blake Griffin. Drew said, “I didn’t even think he would be able to get up to shoot the free throws.” He did.
How long can he hold up like this? Horford said, “I don’t see myself playing center the rest of my career.”
His father, Tito, was a center (in college at LSU and Miami and later for three years in the NBA). He’s familiar with the banging that goes on in the lane. Horford has learned it the hard way.
“My dad was built for this,” he said. “It takes a toll on your body when you’re going against guys that outweigh you by 50, 60 pounds every night and have three, four inches on you.
“I feel pretty good now. But I wonder how I’ll feel a couple of years from now.”
Then came this novel idea: “I like playing against guys my own size.”
Imagine how good he would be then.
By Jeff Schultz