BOSTON — The game has been over for more than half an hour, and some of his Celtics teammates already have one foot out the door on a Friday night. Al Horford emerges from the weight room with son, Ean.
Al lifted, Ean did cardio. The father, 37, was continuing a routine he has done for some years; the son was biding time and burning off a bit of energy that is still in abundance as he dribbles around his dad’s locker and offers occasional commentary on the World Series game lighting the room’s big screens. Al has a brief chat in Spanish with Kristaps Porzingis, who spent some teen years playing in Spain.
A Celtic victory, sharing time with one of his children, being part of a team — this team. These are a few of Al Horford’s favorite things.
And in case you were wondering, the fact he’s coming off the bench for virtually the first time in his now 17 seasons hasn’t dimmed any of his happiness. NBA situations are always subject to change (and coach Joe Mazzulla has said they likely will), but if this is to be Horford’s role, he just wants to get better at it. More consistent.
“I respect the decisions that Joe is making, the way that he wants to go right now, and ultimately I want to win,” Horford tells Heavy Sports. “I’m always ready. I’m always prepared. This is something different for me. You know, I haven’t been in this position before. But right now I’m just going to continue to stay ready and do what I have to do.”
Two games is a criminally small sample, but in the season opener he came off the pine in New York and provided punch and buckets. Friday against Miami, he seemed to have trouble getting into an offensive rhythm (0-for-6) but did pull down an impressive 10 rebounds in less than 25 minutes.
He acknowledges the difference in the two outings and says he will be examining the video for clues.
“My goal is that when I step in, I have to be able to lift the team,” he says. “That’s my mindset.”
Al Horford on Celtics Role: ‘I Love the Game’
Within the forest, there is always another step to be made, goals along the path. The regular season games, the seedings for homecourt advantage, the playoffs, the championship. For Horford, the 30,000-foot view (OK, 6-foot-9-foot view) is more basic. He has to put himself through quite a bit to perform as needed, the post-game lifting just one example, but he pays the prices willingly.
“I love to play. I love the game,” he tells Heavy “I love the process. I just enjoy being part of a team and playing for something. I enjoy everything about it — the traveling, being with the guys — everything.”
Including in “everything” is the intensity of the playoffs, the opportunity for a championship.
“Obviously that’s something that I want of course,” Horford says. “You play for that. But this is my profession, and I’m in a position now where I feel like I can have an impact and I can still play at a very high level. That’s my biggest thing. Obviously, yeah, I would like to win a championship, but I’m not going to keep playing just for something like that.”
In other words, he won’t be a guy at the end of a bench who never takes off his warm-up clothing and gets a ring tossed to him. As much as he loves the game, his standards require him to be a contributing member of the operation, else he’ll not take up the space.
And with some $275 million in career earnings, well, he ain’t doing it for the dough.
“Even when I got my first extension, I remember thinking, like, I’d play basketball for free,” says Horford, breaking into a smile. “It’s unbelievable. Obviously I’ve made a lot of money through my career, so that comes with it, that’s great.
“But I’m literally happy being part of a good team and having a chance to compete, but also being around good guys. Because you can be playing and you can be on a team that there’s just nothing there, and that can be… not fun, you know? So it brings me joy being here with the guys every day. Every day we come into work, there’s joy.”
Even if, for Horford, more work is demanded.
“I think it’s a lifestyle,” he says. “I think it’s the way that you live. It’s something that I’ve established, following a series of things preparing for a practice or a game, whether it’s lifting weights or treatment — things that kind of become part of who you are almost. Those are the things that I’m doing continuously, and that’s what puts me in the best position to compete. If I don’t do those things, I can’t go out there and play at a certain level.”
‘I’m Trying to Preserve Myself’
And, yes, the routine is different and more involved in what qualify as NBA golden years.
“Some of the things I’m doing now would have actually helped me a lot when I was younger,” Horford says. “I wish I’d picked up on them sooner. The way that I see it is some of the stuff in the weight room and lifting more consistently and things like that. I’ve found real benefit to that, so when I was younger I wish I would have done that.
“But beside that, I’ve always been very routine driven and really just taken care of my body off the court. Like, I’m not out late nights, I’m not doing stuff like that. I’m trying to preserve myself, sleeping well, eating well — all the boring stuff. But that’s the reality, and that’s why I feel the way that I feel. I feel good.”
He listens with interest as he’s told of Robert Parish’s lengthy pre-game stretching process and how Reggie Lewis was one of the only Celtics to do the math (Chief was in the league for 21 years) and adopt the program.
“I mean, what Robert did, obviously playing for that long, it’s pretty unbelievable, especially then,” Horford says. “They didn’t have the resources that we have now, so for a guy like him to play that long and play that well, it’s unbelievable, it really is.”
At this point, Horford is still not pondering how long he’ll ultimately play. He has one year left on his Celtic-friendly contract after this, but by no means sees that as his career coda.
“No. I’ve been fortunate where at this point every offseason it’s like, man, grinding mentality, let’s work,” he says. “I do believe though, to your question earlier, what HAS changed since earlier in my career is my offseasons are more demanding now. I put in a lot more work now than I did before.
“When I was younger, I maybe wasn’t quite as settled. I was traveling a lot more in the summers, things like that. Now I’m pretty steady, and my offseasons are very, very intense labor-wise, lifting, cardio, basketball — all those things. That’s the biggest difference, my offseasons.
“But as far as looking ahead in the offseason, I just keep thinking about the next one, keep thinking about the next one.”
Retirement ‘Not Necessarily’ on Al Horford’s Mind
As far any consideration for what comes after the last one, he says, “Over the years I’ve thought about it. I was, ‘Oh, maybe I want to be a coach, or maybe I want to do this or maybe I want to do that.’ Right now, there’s really nothing that catches my eye that I want to do.”
It’s not that he’s chasing thoughts away, covering his ears to avoid hearing the wolf at the door.
“No, no, not necessarily,” Horford says. “I am curious to see what’s going to be the next transition for me, as far as what would I like to do. I explore certain things. I studied communications at (the University of) Florida, so I was like, maybe I could do some production stuff behind the scenes. Then I was like, maybe I’ll do on-air stuff, but then, no, I’m not doing any of that. Then coaching, but, nah… maybe coach him (nods toward Ean) if he wants to initially.”
The discussion then turns to where he might want to be based post-playing.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “I mean, we like it here.”
He wouldn’t be the first former Atlanta Hawk star from a warmer climate to gain affection for the Boston area. Dominique Wilkins lived a while in the Boston area after his one season with the Celtics and has talked about how he misses that home. Horford heard all about it from Nique and was more than happy to be traded back to the Celtics two summers ago.
“Let’s see what happens,” Horford says. “My kids, they love it here.”
Not surprisingly, he turns it back to basketball.
“The biggest thing is I’m just trying to live in the moment,” Horford says. “Last year I made the most of it; this year I’m trying to make the most of this. I’m not trying to think too far ahead, because I feel like early in my career, I was thinking ahead too much and you can forget about enjoying the day to day. I’ve been much better my second time around here in Boston with that.”
It’s part of the reason why he has a look of contentment even after a late-night date with the weights.