Celtics

‘Something that I really missed’: Here’s why Al Horford was excited to return to the Celtics

"Really appreciate how special of a place that Boston is."

Al Horford
Al Horford is excited to rejoin the Celtics. AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck

Al Horford used the word “excited” six times in his (re)introductory press conference with Celtics media on Thursday.

At some point, you have to believe him.

“Just really, really happy to be back,” Horford said. “Really appreciate how special of a place that Boston is. For me, being away from it, seeing the type of city that it is, what the team is all about, it’s something that I really missed.

“Obviously, I feel like I learned a lot, and sometimes, in my case, change was for the better. I’m just very grateful to have a second opportunity to be back here and to continue to work on what I started here.”

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Horford’s career hasn’t been smooth since he left Boston in 2019 following a disastrous campaign that also chased Kyrie Irving (and, a year later, Gordon Hayward) out the door. He inked a lucrative four-year deal with the 76ers that fell apart quickly — his fit was a disaster, and he was eventually relegated to the bench. Many Sixers fans blamed Horford for the team’s issues that season, although the team’s performance in this year’s playoffs suggest other factors might have been at play as well.

In the offseason, the Sixers traded Horford to Oklahoma City — attaching picks to satiate notoriously draft-hungry GM Sam Presti — and Horford played well. But the Thunder wanted losses more than production, and the team mutually agreed to part ways with Horford, although he remained around the training facility.

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“I know what it’s like to be a young, aspiring player, and at this point in the season I understand how important playing meaningful minutes is for their careers and their development,” Horford said in a statement at the time.

Then the Celtics needed an outlet for a Kemba Walker trade this summer, and new President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens struck quickly — acquiring a familiar face and a player who performed well during his Celtics tenure.

Horford said being back in Boston is “a little surreal.”

“Five years ago when I had to make a tough decision and leave Atlanta, Danny [Ainge] and Brad, they sold me on this — the culture, what we’re trying to build in Boston, and winning, getting that banner 18,” Horford said. “And that’s something that really excited me, really motivated me. And it was something that we were working towards.

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“Obviously I wasn’t able to get it done when I was with the group. And now that this time has passed and I get an opportunity again to do that, for me it’s looking at what kind of purpose, what can I do, what can I do to accomplish that. And I’m lucky enough to get a second shot to be with this group.”

Things look a little different in Boston today. When Horford left, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were coming off down years. This past season, both were deserving All-Stars and — before Brown went down with a wrist injury — both had made cases for themselves as All-NBA contenders. Robert Williams, meanwhile, looks like an NBA starter (and maybe more) if he stays healthy.

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Horford said Tatum, Brown, and Williams all reached out to welcome him back to Boston when the trade was announced. He added that he was impressed with Wiliams’s progress this season.

“He has such a good feel for the game defensively and on offense as well, trying to help him be in good positions,” Horford said. “I’m going to be in his ear, and we are going to be figuring things out together.

“I’m excited for him. He knows and he’s starting to understand everything, taking care of his body and making sure he’s putting in the work. I’m really excited for what’s ahead for Rob.”

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When asked if he regrets leaving, Horford — who hinted at the time that he might have reconsidered leaving if he knew Walker would sign with the team — said the decision is in the past.

“I didn’t know if I was going to get another opportunity or a chance to be in this position,” Horford said. “Obviously things didn’t end well then, but now I feel we have a fresh start. I can help the team, make an impact. I feel the guys are very driven and we have a lot of work to do. That’s the reality. I actually embrace that part of it, getting to work with this fresh opportunity.”

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