Recalling 2007: Al Horford, Florida

When Florida arrived in Atlanta to defend its NCAA men’s basketball national championship in 2007, Al Horford allowed himself a moment to think beyond his collegiate career.

The center looked around and spoke to teammate Joakim Noah.

“I remember telling him, ‘Man, I would love to play here,’” Horford said recently. “At the time we didn’t know any situation with what was going on with the draft. I remember telling him and my mom that, ‘This is a nice city.’”

Florida went on to win its second consecutive national crown by defeating Ohio State 84-75 at the Georgia Dome. Four months later, the Hawks drafted Horford in the first round with the No. 3 overall pick. It’s funny how things work out.

Horford said that on rare occasion he thinks back and remembers the culmination of his junior season as he commutes to work at next door Philips Arena.

It was at the Final Four banquet, held at the Convention Center, where the Gators sized up the competition and drew their motivation, Horford recalls.

“We knew what to expect,” Horford said. “If you look at that particular setting, we had beaten all those teams in the past. We beat Georgetown the year before. We beat UCLA in the championship the year before. We beat Ohio State that year at home by almost 30 points. We had beaten all those teams, so we knew what we had to do.”

Horford pointed to a second-round matchup with Purdue (74-67) and a Sweet 16 game against Butler (65-57) as the toughest games on the road to Atlanta. Florida defeated UCLA (76-66) in the national semifinal. It disposed of Ohio State for the title, repeating with a team with all five starters back.

“Relief,” is how Horford described the aftermath. “It’s a lot of joy. Coach (Billy Donovan) told us after the game that we didn’t realize what we had done. We were like ‘Yeah, Coach we do.’ But you really don’t. You have no idea. After I think about it, it was special.”

After seemingly endless media commitments, players were finally able to celebrate on their own. They returned to the team hotel, the Marriott on Spring Street, and all gathered in the room of Noah’s father. Including parents, the group partied in a regular-sized hotel room. Horford estimates there were 40 people in the cramped quarters that included two queen-sized beds.

The coaches? Horford suspects they were holding a party of their own.

After little or no sleep, Florida returned to Gainesville. The team was met by a throng of supporters are the airport for a continuation of the celebration. Once back on campus, four-fifths of the starting lineup wanted to continue basking in the glow.

Horford laughs as he recalls Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Noah and himself piled in a car and driving through the campus, windows down and Noah honking the horn.

“We were shouting ‘We won! We’re national champions!’” Horford said. “All the students are just looking at us. I will never forget that. Corey was like ‘We are going to get so much love!’ But nobody even acknowledged us. I don’t think they recognized us.”

Horford is nearing the end of his sixth season with the Hawks and has become a cornerstone of the franchise. He recently scored his 5,000th career point and routinely faces Noah, with the Bulls, and Brewer, with the Nuggets, as an NBA player.

“Atlanta, in general, has been great to me, and it started with that,” Horford said of his Final Four experience here. “I’m grateful for that.”