Dominican-born Horford living NBA dream

Popular Hawks center proud to carry torch for native land

Al Horford fell in love with the NBA 15 years ago. He just wasn’t sure the game loved him back.

Like millions of young boys who grew up bouncing basketballs in their sleep, the Hawks’ starting center had that childhood dream. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, he remembers stealing any glance he could at the league, but rarely seeing any hint of himself in the reflection.

“When I was growing up there wasn’t really one guy you could point to and say, ‘He’s just like me,’” said Horford, whose father, Tito, was the first Dominican-born player to play in the NBA, when the younger Horford was still in diapers.

The sort of attention that international players inspire these days didn’t exist during Al Horford’s formative years, when the NBA was stocked mostly with domestic born-and-reared talent, with just a sprinkle of international flair.

Things have changed dramatically in the years since. Seventy-five players from 32 countries played in the NBA last season, including players from Poland, Cameroon, Georgia and Latvia. This season began with 86 players from 36 countries. The ranks are now stocked with a diverse group of talent, giving the game a truly global appeal.

Few players embody that spirit the way Horford does.

He has mass appeal on and off the court as one of the league’s rising young talents and one of its more high-profile Hispanic stars. He’s the focal point not only of opposing teams but marketers looking to push the NBA’s brand into the domestic Hispanic market. The NBA launched its first multiplatform Hispanic marketing campaign — — with Horford as one of its headliners.

“Instead of just one player, we try and grow fans of our game first and foremost,” said Saskia Sorrosa, the NBA’s senior director for U.S. Hispanic marketing. “But there’s no doubt that our [Hispanic and Latino] players like Al are a great emotional tie with the game for the fans. They are fans of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, too. They have an emotional connection with all of our players.”

But there’s no denying the impact a cultural connection can make.

Horford knows because he experiences it daily. He often points to the screaming fans in the stands at Philips Arena waving the Dominican flag, particularly after a dunk, a block or some sort of exciting play. When the Hawks are on long trips, he gets as much attention from Spanish-language media as he does English-speaking media.

“I get that a lot in Miami, New York and Philly,” said Horford, who didn’t move to the United States until he was 14. “I do a lot, and when I’m out west and in Texas there are lots of requests. It happens in Atlanta as well. But back home, I always talk to reporters, and I know they are writing stories about me. People are just focused on what we’re doing in the states because we do represent all those people back home.

“It’s not a burden. It’s something you’re proud to do.”

With 15 percent of the NBA’s estimated fan base being Hispanic (roughly 18 million people) and basketball the top team sport played by U.S. Hispanic teenagers, it’s no wonder the NBA has placed an emphasis on exploring that cultural connection domestically.

“It excites me more than anything,” Horford said, “just being able to represent Hispanic people. Knowing the impact it’s had for players in other sports, like baseball, and the way I grew up looking at them, this gives guys like myself and [Kings forward and Dominican national team teammate] Francisco [Garcia] a chance to do the same thing in basketball.”

The need to represent so many people also doesn’t seem to bother Garcia.

“You’re proud to be in this position,” said Garcia, who entered the league with a loyal following after a stellar college career. He played at Louisville under Rick Pitino while Horford starred on back-to-back NCAA title teams at Florida.

“I think you will find that’s true for just about every player in the league. We’re all representing our families and where we come from, wherever that might be.”

Kings rookie Omri Casspi is living proof as the first Israeli-born player to suit up for an NBA team. When the Kings selected him with the 23rd pick in the June draft, an entire nation celebrated. Israeli President Shimon Peres called to offer congratulations.

Yet Casspi said he feels no more pressure to succeed in the NBA than he did playing in the Israeli pro league. “I don’t call it pressure,” he said. “You just have everybody watching and encouraging [me] to succeed.”

It’s an added element that most of Horford’s teammates struggle to comprehend.

“I’ve never really thought about that,” Marvin Williams said of the idea of representing more than just his family, his hometown of Bremerton, Wash., and North Carolina, where he played college ball. “Representing the whole country, huh? That’s deep when you think about it. That’s something that most of us don’t have to worry about when we’re out there every night.”

Horford thought he was prepared for it when he entered the league, having experienced it on another level during his three years at Florida. But he had no idea that it would mushroom into the cultural phenomenon it has in just over two years.

“Just being where I’m from, I knew that I had a situation different from most of the other guys on my team and in the league,” Horford said. “The good thing is I won’t be the last. There’s so much more talent out there that’s coming up these days. It’s fun to be a part of the wave of [Hispanic] players coming up.”