TORONTO -- "He's in a groove right now," Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew said. Talking about Al Horford, this is a rather restrained statement. There isn't a big man in the NBA playing better basketball.
Since Feb. 11, Horford's averaged 21 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. In that span he's shot 56.9 percent from the field, played 38 minutes per game and anchored Atlanta's defense while almost always avoiding foul trouble. Horford didn't make the All-Star team this year, starting slow by his standards, but right now he agrees with the assessment that he's at the top of his game.
"Yeah, that's fair to say," Horford said. "And I think it has to do with me in part being healthy and also the work that I've put in. I see it paying off on the court."
Before a 26-point, 12-rebound performance in Toronto -- including 10 points in a fourth quarter that saw the Hawks outscore the Raptors 32-13 to pull away and clinch a playoff spot for the sixth straight season, a streak that coincides with Horford's arrival -- the two-time All-Star and two-time NCAA National Champion spoke with SB Nation about March Madness, his family and growing up in the Dominican Republic:
On Friday, you play against your rivals in Boston. Also, your brother [Jon Horford] will be playing for Michigan against Kansas and your alma mater, Florida, is going to be playing Florida Gulf Coast. How crazy a day will that be for you?
It's exciting times. It's an exciting time I guess in my life but more importantly my brother's life. He's in the NCAA Tournament and seeing my former school, Florida, there's a possibility they can play each other in the Elite 8. It's pretty exciting. My dad [former NBA player Tito Horford] is already going to be there, a lot of my family are going down and they're hoping to see that match-up. But we'll see what happens.
How do you deal with it if they play against each other?
I'll definitely be watching it. It's gonna be very different for me. But you know, it's kind of one of those things -- ‘may the best team win' type of thing. I feel like my Gators have done great this year, I think they can still do more and my brother's team, Michigan, they've been playing great as well. So it's one of those things that it just kind of tears me apart. I hope my brother gets to play and plays a lot but I'm a Gator at heart so it's very hard for me to pull against them.
Will you be sending your brother a motivational text or phone call before his game?
No, we usually, every time we talk we kind of talk about family stuff. And not even family, just anything that doesn't have to deal with basketball. I mean, if anything I'll be like ‘hey, good luck tomorrow' or ‘take care' or ‘make sure that you crash the offensive glass' or, you know, just something simple like that. But we're not sitting there trying to prep him up, I think he's pretty motivated. He's excited to be in the NCAA Tournament. He actually watched me, he went to the Final Four in Indianapolis the first time we won, he was in Atlanta [the second time]. He kind of followed me around when he was just in high school, in eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th grade, so he kind of saw what it was like. So I'm sure that he's excited to be in that position himself now.
Is this the kind of situation where you'd be rooting for Florida Gulf Coast if they were playing against any other team?
Yeah, yeah. If they were playing against anybody else -- well, I was rooting for them after I saw they beat Georgetown so they could beat San Diego State. It happens to be my school obviously, so that's enough. Enough is enough. The Gators need to take care of that.
With how successful you were in college, do you get nostalgic this time of year?
Not really, I just get more appreciative if anything because I don't think we realized what we did as a team at the time that we did it. And I think that I'm very thankful and grateful that I was part of such a special time.
The story back then was you Florida guys were really tight, you lived together. Obviously it can't be the same years later as you've grown up, what's it like now?
A lot of things change, a lot of us are married now and stuff like that. It's not as tight as it was, obviously we're not together. But we still keep in touch with each other, we still talk. Last year Corey [Brewer] and Taurean [Green] came to Dominican for my birthday and we were at Taurean's wedding, all of us, and we always try to stay in each other's lives as much as we can. It's just hard to keep up on a daily or weekly basis with all this, but we still have a very strong bond.
What's it been like to see Joakim Noah take all the criticism he took and develop into an All-Star?
We always knew of his capabilities and what he could do in the NBA. It was just a matter of time, of him figuring it out. And I think that's what happened to him in college. His freshman year, he didn't really get to play. His sophomore year, once he figured it out he became a better player. And that was just the same transition here in the NBA, it just took him a little longer. But I'm glad to see that he kind of found his niche.
I want to ask about the Dominican Republic -- what was it like being a basketball kid in a baseball country?
It was different. I think that the roads always led back to baseball and when I was telling people that I wanted to be a basketball player, there wasn't a lot of support behind it, I guess I should say. So it's one of those things that it's different but I was lucky enough that I was able to get an opportunity to come to the United States and further my career.
You told your mom when you were six years old that you wanted to play basketball instead of baseball -- what was it that made you fall in love with basketball back then?
Growing up watching my dad play and being around the sport just did something to me. I remember, I'll never forget being in a baseball field one day and over there in the Dominican you start from way young, like playing with the real balls and everything and I'm out there, shortstop, catching grounders, throwing them to first and things like that. Doing those type of drills. And I remember just kind of being like it's not me. I was taller, I was playing with kids that were like nine and 10, so it's a big difference when you talk about age in baseball. So I think that at that point I kind of realized. I was like, ‘You know what, I'm not passionate about this. I want to play basketball.' And my mom, her dream was for me to always play baseball, so when she found out I wanted to play basketball, she was like, ‘Well, you better be one of the best at it because there's no way you're going to not play baseball.' So I kind of that had pressure, but it was good pressure. She always supported me, so that's how I turned onto basketball.
At what point was she like, "Okay, you're good enough at this, this might turn into something?"
She was always very positive with me and giving me a lot of confidence, always celebrating every little accomplishment during basketball. And I think for a kid mentally that helps a lot and I think she -- honestly, you can ask her -- I honestly believe that she always thought that I was going to be where I'm at today and more. She's probably the only person that I can say that about. ‘Cause it's hard to see a person -- like, you know, you can have a 7-year-old kid, skinny, talking about all these things and it's a difference envisioning that. Especially, like you said, in a country that's all baseball players.
What was it like moving from a place like that to Michigan [when you were 14]? Obviously the weather could have been a bit of a shock.
The transition, it wasn't so bad. My parents are divorced, my dad remarried and I lived in Michigan with his new family, so lucky for me I got to go from Dominican to live with him and his family. But it was a smooth transition I thought for me. The winter, I actually liked the snow, believe it or not. I didn't like it when I had to start shovelling the driveway but before then I loved it. And I think that once I got to the point when I was starting to think about where I was going to go to college, that's when I was like, ‘You know what, I don't think I can go to class in this, walking in campus, cold weather, class to class. I have to go somewhere warmer.' And that's when Florida kind of came up. Once I got to the campus in January and it was 75 outside, I was like, ‘This is my place. This is where I'm going and no turning back. I love Michigan but I need to be back in the warmth.'
I think you're the only person on the planet to have played for both Billy Donovan and John Calipari [as a coach of the Dominican national team]. What was it like playing for those legendary coaches?
I'll tell you a similarity: they're both very passionate about the game. They're both believers in really hard work and pushing their players to the limit. It's a lot to be said about them. And Coach Donovan, he's great, he was much more than a coach to me and our class. He was a father figure and somebody that always, still to this day I can call and talk to directly and get great advice and talk about different things, so I was very lucky to have a coach like Coach Donovan.
I know you didn't have the result you wanted last summer [the team failed to qualify for the Olympics] but have you seen Cal's involvement helping basketball back home?
I think he definitely brought a lot of attention to Dominican basketball and the development of it and more importantly one of our players that plays for the national team is actually going to play with Cal in Kentucky in a few years. Karl Towns, he's 6'11, just a great kid. Born in the States but from a Dominican parent. And that's how his influence is and I feel like he's probably going to have some more kids in the future of Dominican origin that will probably want to play for him because of what he did for our country.
Who's been the biggest influence on your career?
My mom. Hands down, my mom. Her support and, like I said, her belief in me from a young age has always been the difference and by far I think she's been the biggest influence.