The NBA and FIBA’s Basketball Without Borders program held its first-ever camp in the Dominican Republic this week, and along for the ride was Hawks big man Al Horford, for whom the events held added weight.
Horford was born in Puerto Plata, lived in the country until the age of 14 and continued to visit every offseason to see family and help run basketball clinics. His father, Tito, also taking part this week, was the NBA’s first Dominican-born player. The Basketball Without Borders traveling contingent also included Mavericks forward Charlie Villanueva, whose parents are Dominican, and Horford's former Florida teammate Corey Brewer of the Rockets.
SI.com caught up with the All-Star center in the midst of his trip for a window into his experience and his take on a busy off-season for the Hawks, who are preparing to follow up on a 60-win campaign and the franchise’s first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference finals. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
SI.com: Given that you grew up in the Dominican, how meaningful is it to be a part of the first-ever camp there, and especially to be there with your dad?
Horford: It’s a pretty awesome experience. We're very grateful that the NBA has brought this caliber of camp to the Dominican Republic, and we get to have an impact in the community as well. I'm excited, my family and I, this has been a week-long celebration, just being able to teach kids, spend time together and make a difference down here.
SI.com: As a kid, you chose basketball over baseball. Obviously baseball's still the main thing there, but do you get the sense that interest in basketball has changed over the years?
Horford: No question. Baseball's our dominant sport, obviously, but more and more, you're starting to see kids from a very young age start to play basketball and really be interested in the game. There's a big following here. People follow us, they know what's going on in the NBA, and people here want to play basketball. It's funny, you drive anywhere in the city, you'll see courts and people out there playing at all hours of the day. It's pretty impressive.
SI.com: You’ve been on a lot [five] of these Basketball Without Borders trips now. What’s the value of it to you?
Horford: More than anything the value I see is the people here appreciate it so much. You feel it. Everybody that's been here has been happy to see how welcoming the people in the Dominican are, and how excited they are that this kind of camp is here. I never imagined the first time we did [Basketball Without Borders] that we could do one here, just because of the resources and everything. It's been a great turnout.
SI.com: I know you’ve gotten to catch up with Corey Brewer on this trip. On that note, have you reached out to [former Florida coach] Billy Donovan since he took the Oklahoma City job?
Horford: I spoke with him a few weeks ago. After he took the job and everything, I'm sure it was a little overwhelming for him. But he's excited for the opportunity he has, it was good to catch up with him.
SI.com: How do you see that Thunder roster as a fit for his coaching style?
Horford: I think it's gonna be a perfect fit. Obviously, so many talented players there, but just the way he wants to play, how he wants to get up and down the floor, that's the perfect scenario with the type of players there.
• MORE NBA: Duncan voted as the Teammate of the Year
SI.com: Looking back, how would you describe last season?
Horford: It was a great season for our team. I felt like everything started to come together as far as coach's system. I feel like we really all were able to sink in and play the way he wanted us to play. And it showed—[it was] the first time we made it to the Eastern Conference finals in Hawks history. Now, we're looking to build on that and try to be the best team we can.
SI.com: Have you had the chance to go back and watch any of the Cleveland series? [The Hawks were swept in four games.]
Horford: Honestly, no. They obviously dominated us, they were the better team. I don't need to see that, I know what we need to do, I know we have a lot of work ahead of us. Our whole team. So this is the time to do it. Individually, I'm working on my game and trying to get better for the upcoming season.
SI.com: What’s been your personal focus in off-season workouts?
Horford: Just making sure that I get more comfortable playing out at the elbows. A lot of the offense predicates on us bigs making plays there, and also making sure I keep working on my low post game. Those are the two things I'm really focusing on.
SI.com: How big was it for the Hawks to be able to keep Paul Millsap?
Horford: It was very important. I think that was the priority for us, to make sure we brought Paul back. Being able to add Tiago Splitter and Tim Hardaway, really was big. Unfortunately, we lost DeMarre [Carroll, who signed long-term with Toronto]—he's such a great player, but it was the type of thing he couldn't turn down, and it's what's best for him and his family.
SI.com: Was there a sense going into the offseason that you'd only be able to keep one out of Paul and DeMarre?
Horford: I honestly thought there was a chance we'd be able to keep them both. But it just didn't work out that way. I'm happy for DeMarre, but I'm happy for us, being able to keep Paul, he's such an important part of what we do. Just his versatility. He makes the game easier for all of us.
SI.com: How critical is keeping that continuity with the core players, especially with the style you guys play?
Horford: I feel like we've built chemistry, we trust each other and it's important to have the same group of guys. This was our first full season, all of us together playing under the system. In coach [Mike Budenholzer]’s first year [2013–14] I was injured. So I'm looking forward to this season to keep building on what we have.
SI.com: What will it take for the team to sustain that success?
Horford: Being healthy, that's the number one thing for our team. For the most part, we were healthy as a team last season. Two is to be able to keep playing the way we play, being a good defensive team, sharing the ball on offense. We had a lot of success doing those two things, and even though they're simple, that's what carried us.
SI.com: Considering the new additions to the team, what are some of the things you look for as far as fitting in?
Horford: I think for them, it's just being able to get comfortable with the system. We're just looking for them to impact the game and impact winning, and when you have a guy like Tiago Splitter, an experienced big man, I feel like he'll be able to help us right away. Tim [Hardaway] I feel like has a lot of potential, and I'm very excited to see him playing in the system. I feel like he'll be able to help us a lot.
SI.com: Have you reached out to Mike Scott? I know it’s been a tough summer for him. [Scott was arrested in Georgia after a traffic stop in July and faces two felony drug charges and potential prison time for the marijuana and MDMA found in his car.]
Horford: Yeah, we worked out together last week. Mike is doing OK. He's doing good. Obviously, tough situation for him, but we're standing behind him. He's my teammate, he's been my teammate for years now and he's got my full support always.
SI.com: How big is [Hawks rookie center] Edy Tavares in person?
Horford: Oh, he's big man. [laughs] He's definitely 7'3", his hands are huge. Once he figures stuff out, he's going to be a good player. I met him last season when we drafted him. Really nice guy. It's gonna probably take him time to get used to the speed of the NBA game, but we're excited to have him on the team this year.
SI.com: Lastly, I know you've said you're waiting after the season to figure out your contract situation. What led you to that decision? [Horford will be a free agent in 2016.]
Horford: For me, I'm very happy in Atlanta. It's one of those things where I don't want any contract talks to be a distraction for my team and me. I feel like my focus this year is for us to build and be better. Since we can't do anything right now, we'll wait until the season's over and then we can start talking about all that.