ATLANTA — Al Horford never put a timetable on it.
He wasn’t thinking that far ahead when the Hawks made him the third pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and he went from two-time college champion to starting center for a struggling outfit in Atlanta, where he knew enough to know that there would be no Final Fours and contending for titles right away.
Fast forward eight years and Horford and the Hawks are in the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage, facing off against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the right to go to The Finals. To say this ride has been something of a roller coaster would be an understatement of epic proportions. And not just this stunning season, one that began with no one outside of the Hawks’ most die-hard of supporters believing this sort of dream season was possible, but the entire trip from the moment he arrived to now, the moment when he and the Hawks have truly arrived.
“I think you acknowledge it,” Horford said of the Hawks’ breakthrough to the conference final round for the first time in the franchise’s Atlanta history. “But then you move on and realize that is more work to be done. That’s what I did after Game 6 in Washington. It was like, ‘man, that’s good but we still want more and we are still looking forward to the next round.'”
The compressed schedule for mountain climbing in college makes it much easier to get caught up in the moment at that level. Superstar players spend one, maybe two and rarely three seasons on campus before departing for the adventure that is professional basketball. Horford did not enter Florida as a guaranteed pro, a surefire one-and-done prospect headed for the top of the Draft. His journey was different.
And he knew that from the start. That’s what made winning back-to-back titles with the Gators so great. Same goes for a NBA career that began with him being selected behind Greg Oden and Kevin Durant eight years ago. The road to back to respectability for the Hawks has been an arduous one. The fact that it’s been paved on Horford’s watch, with his blood, sweat and perhaps a tear or two over the years, makes this moment even sweeter than you might imagine.
Once the youngster of the bunch — playing alongside Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, Zaza Pachulia, Mike Bibby and others — Horford’s the seasoned veteran now. A three-time All-Star, he’s the one pointing the way for youngsters like Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, alongside fellow veterans and All-Stars Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague and veteran swingman DeMarre Carroll.
As much hard work as it takes to grind away this long before reaching the conference finals, it also takes a ton of patience to continue plugging away with all of the distractions, on and off the court, that came up along the way. The cast of characters has changed dramatically and there have been regime changes in the front office and coaching ranks. The one constant has been Horford and his undeniable work ethic and desire to be better this year than he was the year before.
“You’ve got to look at yourself as an individual and it depends on where your goals are,” he said. “I always wanted to be a better player. I always wanted to challenge myself. For me it’s just, I feel like the league is changing quickly and every year I want to make sure I can be better and to put my team into a position to be successful. That’s always my mindset, to make it a point of just getting better and not feeling content with what you have done.”
Horford has found a kindred spirit in Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, whose arrival before the start of the 2013-14 season ushered in a totally different program than what the Hawks were used to. The emphasis on player development and individual skill building became more than just operational procedure. It became a mission for all involved.
The results are obvious.
The best season in franchise history during the regular season. The breakthrough, finally, to the conference finals. And who know what else looms on the horizon in the next two weeks. There are children growing up in Atlanta who will identify Horford’s time with the Hawks as some of the greatest times in franchise history, from the flash of the Highlight Factory days to this trip to the NBA’s version of the Final Four and the matchup against LeBron, the face of a generation in the NBA.
“When you get to this point, if you want to be one of the best teams, you have to go through the best players and teams,” Horford said. “There are no shortcuts when you get to this stage of the season. We have a huge challenge in front of us, and we obviously don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but I think this is the way you want to do things.”