Q&A: Al Horford on Reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Doing Yoga With Ivan Johnson, and James Harden’s BeardScott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images
Al Horford walks into the Hawks clubhouse, rounding the Ping-Pong table and the flat screen television, minutes after wrapping up a segment for The Jim Rome Show. He doesn’t look big enough to guard Dwight Howard, or brave enough to share the shower with Ivan Johnson. But he was just named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, averaging a near double-double during the Hawks’ five-game winning streak. Sitting in an enormous leather chair and smiling a lot, he speaks for 40 minutes. The only interruption: the delivery of his 401(k) packet. It’s big.
I want to start with the most important question: Was your little brother more excited by the candy or the cheerleader? And is he actually your little brother?
[Laughs.] Yeah, he’s 7. Wait, sorry, he just turned 8.
And was he more excited by the candy or the cheerleader?
Definitely the cheerleader. That reaction was very genuine. He had no idea there was a camera. When he saw the video, he thought it was funny.
We play horse. It can get intense. You want to have a camera there. My dad can shoot pretty good from outside. That’s where he’d get us in the past. He’d shoot NBA 3s. Now it’s different. We’re beating him more. In high school I used to dunk, but now it’s not right. It’s not fair for him.
You missed all but 11 games before entering last year’s playoff series against Boston. Was coming back then the right call, in retrospect?
I don’t think it was the best time. I was out all year, and I hadn’t even practiced with the team when I decided to come back. I was in good shape, but it was two and a half months after the surgery. My doctors, they didn’t really recommend that. But it’s the playoffs, you see your team hurting, they really want you to be out there.
So you were less than a hundred percent.
Honestly, I was about 75-80 percent. One of the things that the doctor told me was, “Make sure you just don’t fall.” I was like, “What do you mean, ‘Don’t fall?!'” He was like, “If you’re gonna fall, fall on your back. Maybe on your other side. But not the injured side.” I was playing hard, but I wasn’t diving for loose balls, like I usually do.
Are the Celtics still this Hawks team’s biggest rival, or has that changed with all the new guys on the Hawks, and the Celtics getting, um, older?
If you ask them, they’ll probably say no. But I’d say that we are, in a way. The games get very heated. There’s always some sort of altercation. Whether it’s Zaza or Kevin. The tension is still there. They talk a lot. Pierce and Garnett, they’re yapping the whole time. From our side, Josh is the one who’s gonna do a lot of the talking. I kinda let my game do the talking. Now and then I might say a word or two, if they really get me going.
Do you remember where you were when you heard that Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams had been traded?
I was in a small town in Venezuela, [during] the Olympic qualifiers with the Dominican Republic. It was a very weird time for me: I was hearing that I might be traded as well. I didn’t know what was going on. I had no Internet. I remember my dad called and told me, “They might get rid of you next.” I was like, wow. But my approach has always been: I can’t control it, so I just keep doing my job.
Who’d you call first?
Me and Marvin texted. I think that he was in a position where he needed a fresh start. He was OK with it; he’s that type of person. But I think I texted Zaza right when it happened. We were kind of up in the air as the team was being broken up.
So do you feel like it’s a new team?
I think that we’re still trying to figure out who we are, what we’re about. But we’re putting it together faster than I expected.
Who deserves credit for that?
You have to give credit to Coach Drew. I think he has really simplified a lot of things. And it’s tough: I think we’re a deeper team than we’ve been in the past. So it’s harder for him to figure out who he should play more minutes.
Did you see that Kobe Bryant is calling Steve Nash “Gatsby” now?
What nickname would you give Jeff Teague from a book you’ve read?
If we’re going on personality, I’d say something like Dr. Seuss. A kiddie book. He’s a kid still. Jeff is very … he’s like a year younger than me, but we always give him a hard time. We still consider him like he’s a rookie.
Read any good books lately?
A lot of the books I read are in Spanish. There’s this great author, García Márquez.
I’m reading 100 Years of Solitude right now.
Great book. It’s hard. A lot to keep up with, a lot to tie. I’ve read about eight or nine of his books since then. He’s so detailed, and he’s really visual. I didn’t like the recent one [Memories of My Melancholy Whores] as much. Paulo Coelho‘s books have taught me the best lesson though: to make the most out of your opportunities in life.
Speaking of teachers, is Larry Drew different in the locker room than he looks on the sidelines?
How does he look on the sidelines?
I don’t know … sort of timid. Quiet. Shy. The opposite of a Bobby Knight kind of coach.
That’s fairly accurate. He has a more laid-back attitude. But he can, you know, step his intensity up when he needs to. If he has to say something to you, he’ll say it.
What about Ivan Johnson? On the court he looks pretty scary.
Ivan can be super laid back, real cool. Actually, we did yoga this morning. Me and him together. But, if you, like, make fun or say something he doesn’t like, he can get in your face. He can step up to you.
Whose idea was it to do yoga?
Our trainer. As a team, once every week or two we’ll have an instructor come in, and whoever wants to do it can do it pre-practice. So a few of us always go in there. And it helps us. Downward dog and all that. [Laughs.]
Have you kept in touch with Mike Woodson since he left Atlanta?
No. I do follow what he’s doing though. And I’m very happy for him in New York. I really liked him as a coach. He was always great to me.
Are he and Larry Drew very different coaches?
Yeah. Woody, um, he’s probably more expressive. He’ll be talking at the refs. He’ll be talking up a storm. Woody played at Indiana, so you know where he’s coming from.
Were you more surprised that the Knicks let Jeremy Lin go to the Rockets, or that the Thunder traded James Harden?
Harden. I understood why they let him go. They probably didn’t want to deal with this whole circus throughout the year — “Is he gonna stay, is he gonna go? Can we get the best possible deal in return?” — and the next thing you know, he gets a max contract. For him it worked out great. But he made Oklahoma City so much better.
What does the beard look like up close?
[Laughs, shaking head.] I don’t know what he’s doing, man. I don’t approve of the beard. He seems like a cool guy and everything, but I just, I don’t know. It’s huge.
Your wife [2003 Miss Universe Amelia Vega] wouldn’t care for that?
I had a little baby beard a couple years ago. But she prefers the clean look.
The Hawks’ defensive efficiency is the best in the league right now. What differences have you noticed from the interior?
Communicating. In the past, I think that was one of our Achilles’ heels as a team. We’d be pointing fingers out there. And I think that this year, Coach Drew keeps harping on us about communicating on defense. It’s made a big difference.
Who are the better communicators?
Kyle Korver, he’s out there talking on the floor, pointing guys to the right places. Josh, he’s not communicating, but he does a great job moving and being there for you. You don’t even have to say anything: Somebody shoots it and he’s there to block the shot or take a charge. He’s different in that sense.
The number of 3-point attempts Josh has taken has gone up and down a lot over the past few seasons. I heard a rumor that someone once made a preseason bet with him about limiting his attempts. Know anything?
That’s a good question. I know that one year he came in and was like, “You know what, I’m not shooting any 3s.” And that was a big deal here. I think that was two years ago.
Have you noticed that Danny Ferry has brought more of a stat-based approach to your game plans?
I’m sure they’re probably doing all their numbers back there, but they’re not really showing them much to us. He’s just brought a totally new approach here, as far as work and attitude. We all have noticed it: Encouraging people to work. Getting in earlier. Staying in after. And when you’re working, you’re working hard. I think in the past we’ve kind of gotten away from things like that as a team. You need to have an edge, and I think he has brought that. And we’re buying into that.
I read that DeShawn Stevenson has Abe Lincoln tattooed on his neck, and Gilbert Arenas has MLK Jr. Who would you get?
I don’t have any tatts. If there’s something one day that catches my attention, I might consider it. But on my neck? I don’t know. I don’t like anybody that much.
I saw that Ivan Johnson broke a backboard in Indiana last month.
That was hilarious. We were just running through practice. I told one of the guys — I’m pretty sure it was Johan Petro — I was like, “Man, somebody is gonna break this backboard.” I just had a bad feeling about it. And I’d never said that before. Literally 10 seconds later, Ivan comes in and dunks the ball. He has those huge hands, so he like, just, throws it down. And it cracks up right away. We were under the rim, so we all had to get out. Practice was over. Thank you, Ivan!
If the Hawks got into a brawl, who would you want to have at your back?
I’d probably have Ivan and Zaza on my side. I stick with my big fellas. Ivan for sure. I seen him do a boxing workout this summer. I do boxing in the summer, too. But I seen him and I was like, “He’s on my side.” He’s got great hands and footwork.
Did you ever tussle with Joakim Noah, maybe in practice back in college?
Like, fighting? No. But we’ve had our intense battles. We’ve gotten after it. Jo was a hard-working player, in your face. But, nah. We never got into it physically like that.
For the Hawks to get a high seed in the East this year, what do you feel like you have to do?
I don’t think individually I need to hit certain numbers. As a team we need to, you know, keep being consistent. Right now I have good numbers, and I know I can be better, but we’re winning. And if I have better numbers if we keep winning, great.
You had kind of a breakout game against Charlotte last week, in which you scored 26 points and had 13 rebounds and three blocks.
Guys were finding me. I try to bring the same energy every game. Against Charlotte, they were very concerned with our shooters, so it was really opening up the middle for me. I was just finishing around the rim. There’s not a lot of science to it. I probably could have scored more, but it wasn’t necessary.
What’s been going on with the free throws recently? Someone described your current 4-17 streak as “a psychedelic free throw line excursion.”
Even in my collegiate career, I’ve never been through a slump like this. I’ve worked with Mark Price in the past, when he was with the team. He shot me a text recently: “Hey, if you need to get together, let me know. I can help you out. We can look at some film.” So what I’m doing is just getting more reps up, making sure I’m more confident when I get in the game. It’s definitely mental, because my form is fine.
Are guys giving you crap about it?
They’ll say something here and there. Especially when I had the 1-10 game. Thankfully we won. I would have felt awful.
A contributing editor at Atlanta magazine, Charles Bethea (@charlesbethea) writes for Men’s Journal, Outside, GQ and the Wall Street Journal, among others.