It wasn’t an easy decision for Al Horford. After spending all nine of his NBA seasons with the Hawks, the four-time All-Star center signed with the Celtics as an unrestricted free agent this month.
In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday, Horford spoke about a number of issues including his decision to leave Atlanta, the recruitment process, whether he wanted to play with Dwight Howard and his father’s comments about the Atlanta fan base.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
Q. In the end, what did it come down to for you to leave?
A. It was extremely difficult but at the end looking at the future of the team and having an opportunity to win in a different scenario for me. It wasn't an easy decision for me but I think at the end Boston just felt it was the best fit for me when looking at everything from their players top to bottom, the amount of players they had and the potential there.
Q. When you said opportunity to win, did that mean not with the Hawks?
A. No, in Atlanta for many years we won and were able to be real successful. I think that in Atlanta I was hoping that things would have worked out. Once I saw that things weren't going to work out, I saw what was going to be the best situation for me to try to win an NBA championship. Like I said, I would have liked for everything to have worked out in Atlanta but it just didn't happen that way. This is a big opportunity in front of me in Boston.
Q. Can you tell me at what point during the negotiations did you realize it wasn't going to happen and it was time to look at your other options?
A. After the season, my agent and I sat down and looked at the possibilities of other teams if it didn't work out in Atlanta. There were three or four teams that emerged in case things didn't work out that I would look at. It started to be more realistic on July 1st. When I took the meetings with the other teams, I met with Boston and other teams as well, when I sat with them I just saw the roster and their vision. There was a lot of impact on me with Danny Ainge and coach (Brad) Stevens. It was a very positive meeting. Two of their owners were in the meeting and three or four of their players were there too. They seemed like a very close group and were focused on what their goal was and they got my attention. I wasn't sure in what direction I was going to go. But I knew in order to leave Atlanta it was going to take a very special situation.
Q. Were you still with the Hawks right up to the end?
A. At the beginning my plan was to stay (in Atlanta). I started to see that when the team stepped up and did what they had to do, I didn't think we were on the same page. That's when I was forced to start looking at other options.
Q. Are you talking about the Hawks signing Dwight Howard?
A. No, it was more from a financial standpoint.
Q. I talked to Kyle (Korver) and he said you reached out to him a little bit. Who else did you talk to or rely on during the process?
A. I talked to Kyle a little bit. I talked to Kent Bazemore. Both of those guys over the years I've grown close to, especially with Kyle. At the beginning we were all hoping it was going to work out (in Atlanta) and everything was going to be fine. I know the Hawks were trying to make it work. They were trying to make an effort. I was hoping we could have come to a happy medium and it just didn't happen.
Q. I heard (Boston guard) Isaiah Thomas was quite a recruiter?
A. Honestly, he reached out to me once. It wasn't like I was in constant contact with him and talking to him. He reached out right before the free agency began and just said hello. He was at the meeting with the team. He was one of the players. For me, I'm just looking at the opportunity to play for that type of team. I knew it was going to take a lot for me to leave my situation in Atlanta. We feel very good here. We love the city. All the things I said to you during the season are still true. There are a lot of positives here. But at the end of the day the best decision for me was the move on.
Q. You've had some time to reflect and process it all. When you look back on your time in Atlanta, what will you remember most?
A. It's more the relationships that I've built here – the people, the city. They've always embraced me. I really care for them. They embraced me and my family. It's something that I've always been very appreciative of because I've always known they've embraced me and my family. I've always been very happy with that because I know that's very rare in professional sports.
Q. So you are not leaving bitter?
A. No, no no. I love the fan base here. I thank coach (Mike Budenholzer) for giving me an opportunity to grow as a player and develop. He always had that confidence in me. I know it's extremely hard for him. This was a hard decision for me.
Q. There are a couple reports out there that I'd like to get your response or to clarify. One was that you didn't like Dwight, you didn't want to play with Dwight. True?
A. No, no, no. Not at all. I don't have a problem with Dwight at all. I think that he is a great player and he has a lot of ability and a lot of potential. It has nothing to do with not wanting to play with Dwight. I don't know if you remember but there was a time when I wanted to play power forward. With a guy like him, that would have been easier. It had nothing to do with Dwight. He's a good guy.
Q. Another thing was your dad said some things about one of the reasons you wanted to leave was the fans in Atlanta were not as good as the fans in Boston. Was that true?
A. That made me really upset. I was angry when I heard about that because I never felt that way. I've been here a long time. I've actually gotten to know a lot of our fans, a lot of our season-ticket holders with the Hawks. They've always been great to me. I've always been very content and happy with the way they've treated me and my family. Parents are sometimes a little more passionate about their sons and daughters. I can relate because I have a son now. So my dad, with him, sometimes he would come to the games and get frustration. His frustrations don't reflect on me with the fan base.
Q. How weird in the number change?
A. It's very weird. It's very different. It's like your whole world gets turned upside down. This has been my identity. I've been here for so many years. Going into free agency, I didn't think that anything was going to happen. Then I was put in a tough position and situation that I had to make a choice. I did. But it's a new challenge for me. I'm excited and looking forward to it.