Al Horford: "Shaq elbowed me in the face in my first game as a rookie."
Al Horford is a mountain of a man. He's the 6'10" Centre/Power Forward for the current NBA Eastern Conference leaders the Boston Celtics. He's a trusted floor general who's not afraid to get into it deep in the paint when some strength and poise is needed. Having been in the league since 2007 he has a lot of experience and a lot of stories to tell.
In London for Boston's game at The O2 against the Philadelphia 76ers, the 4x NBA All-Star, who represents the Dominican Republic national team, is due to return to the starting lineup after suffering a knee injury in last week's game versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he's ready.
"I was here with the [Atlanta] Hawks a few years ago but I was injured. So now I’m here and there’s nothing stopping me. I need to play. I’m excited,” explains Horford, who is visibly ecstatic that he's in London to do what he loves to do, play basketball.
Sitting down with JOE at Tissot's official NBA launch party (Tissot is the official watch of NBA) at the Beat in Central London, Horford's in high spirits ahead of the big game against a young and ambitious Philly side, who are surprising everyone with their dominant play led by potential Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons.
The Celtics might have lost a handful of key players before this season started - Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder being two of them - and then they lost new addition Gordon Hayward to a freak accident in the first game of the season at Cleveland, but it didn't stop their ambitions to be a title contender. It helped of course that they acquired the supreme talents of Kyrie Irving, one the most prolific Point Guards in the league, but their rookie Jayson Tatum has been a big part in their 33-10 run.
"They’ve both made a huge difference," says Horford. "I think that they’re both great scorers. But one of the things that has been a great surprise to me is their effort on the defensive end. Kyrie has done great but Tatum has impressed me even more just because he’s a rookie, coming into the NBA, the hardest thing is to get acclimated to the defensive concepts and be able to do them well and have an impact, and Tatum’s been able to do that. That’s extremely difficult.
"And look at his body, he’s still only 19-years-old. He’s not fully developed yet. But he gets it, he knows how to use his body, he knows how to be in positions at the right time, and that’s why he’s been so successful. That’s why I feel like he really has no ceiling, he’s going to continue to get better.”
No longer a rookie himself, some may say that Al Horford is the wrong side of 30 (he's 31). Regardless of the naysayers he has no intention of stopping playing the game of basketball anytime soon.
"I’d like to play as long as I can," he explains. "I think the key is really taking care of your body."
Alluding to the fact that Vince Carter is still playing and he's 40, Al Horford thinks he needs some advice from the dunk master himself:
"I think I’m going to have to sit down with Vince Carter at some point just to talk to him and pick his brain. Him and Manu [Ginóbili], those are two guys I’d love to talk to because it’s impressive what they’ve been able to do and how long they’ve been able to stay relevant. I would like to play until I can’t do it anymore.”
Thinking back to his days as a rookie, Horford remembers the first time he went up against one of his basketball idols, Shaquille O'Neal. Detailing a pre-season game that started off with love and escalated pretty quickly to a rough welcome to the NBA, the former Atlanta Hawks big man takes a trip down memory lane.
"I liked Shaq growing up," he tells us, but he makes sure we know that it's Laker Shaq he's talking about. "My first pre-season game we were in Miami and I’m warming up in layup lines and Shaq comes over to me - I didn’t even know he knew who I was - and he gave me a hug and was like, ‘Hey, welcome to the NBA. I’m so happy that you made it, I’m a fan of yours.’ And I just stood static, I couldn’t believe it.
"So the game starts and the very first play of the game I’m guarding him in the post and he throws an elbow right at my face and just takes me out completely, offensive foul. So it was just like, ‘Boom! There you go rookie.’ I was out. To this day I don’t know if he did it on purpose. I'd like to hold judgement on that but he popped me pretty good and that was like a welcome to the NBA moment.”
Soon to be a father for the third time with his wife Amelia Vega, it can't be easy being a parent whilst out on the road all the time and at rigorous practice sessions day and night. "You know what? The hardest thing about that part is just the travel," Horford admits. "But when I’m home I make sure I take my son to school in the morning, pick him up, and spend as much time as I can with my family when I’m at home. Then when I’m on the road obviously it’s difficult.
"It’s hard on my kids, it’s hard on my wife. But you know, we’re really blessed to be in this position with me being able to play in the NBA in the top league. But definitely, I think the key for me is making the most out of my time at home. So if I wanna do certain things like go shopping, or go out for dinner I probably have to save that for the road because when I’m at home I’m with my kids and that’s kinda my focus.”
The Philadelphia 76ers host the Boston Celtics at The O2 in London tonight as part of NBA London Game 2018. The game is live on BT Sport, on BT Sport's Facebook page or via NBA LEAGUE PASS.