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October 23, 2019

Former Celtic Al Horford is the quiet leader the Sixers have needed

In a professional locker room, the guy who earns the title of veteran leader is often the player who you can see barking commands on the floor and letting his voice be heard off of it. Loud, vocal leadership is the easiest for people on the outside to see and understand, and those who guide through more subtle means are often chided for not having the right stuff to anchor a team.

No one knows that better than Al Horford, who has lurked in the background for much of his basketball career. That doesn't sit well with everyone. A Boston-based radio host dubbed him "Average Al" early in his Celtics tenure as a means to chide him, criticizing Horford for not morphing into more of a scorer and vocal presence when the Celtics were dealing with an injury crisis in 2016-17. His box score numbers are nothing extraordinary, which some use as evidence he's not as good as others claim. 

None of this, of course, has ever stopped him from being successful and respected in basketball circles. 

Dating all the way back to his days at the University of Florida, Horford has done just fine as a steady presence in the locker room, a contrast to the colorful personalities. At Florida, he shared a frontcourt with Joakim Noah, a demonstrative pest of a player who helped Horford win two NCAA titles and get selected No. 3 overall in the 2007 Draft. In Boston, Horford was the man who led by example as Kyrie Irving went on various metaphysical journeys, the anchor who held things together and brought Boston within a game of a Finals appearance when Irving was lost for the season in 2018. Now, he has Joel Embiid, the walking social media moment, standing next to him in Philadelphia's frontcourt.

He has, to let his teammates tell the story, been the same guy his whole career. Horford may not be a yeller, but that doesn't mean he isn't a communicator, and that style suits him just fine.

"Al's a great guy," says Mike Scott, who played with Horford for four seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. "He's a professional, hard worker, he has a great work ethic, he knows the game, he's a leader. He's breaking down plays, he's stopping the defense and talking to us, telling us how to defend certain players and plays."

"He stays within himself. It's what's always great about Al, sometimes he's too unselfish. He's a four or five-time All-Star, great person, plays the right way, makes the extra pass. He could get 20 and 10 if he wanted to, but he knows his role and plays within the system."

Coaches love him for that very reason. Acquiring Horford isn't just great because of what he brings to Philadelphia, Sixers head coach Brett Brown has explained, but because the Sixers have stolen the heart and soul away from their most hated rival. In training camp, Horford led by example and helped set a tone in Philadelphia, from showing up early to putting in extra film study to investing in the success and development of his younger counterparts.

"It's always, by a mile, actions that speak so much louder than words," Brown said during a training camp practice. "Al's history and resume put him high on an opportunity list, he's got a greater chance of being heard quickly because of who he is. What impresses me is how he talks to guys in practice, and he has a level of care and communication that is elite. His foundation and his starting point is high [as a leader]."

You can thank Elton Brand for that. And no, not for going out and getting him in free agency.

While playing together with the Hawks toward the end of Brand's career, Horford remembers being in the middle of a road trip and rounding up a few of his Atlanta teammates to go out and grab dinner together. As they spilled out of the elevator ready to hit the town, they were greeted with a friendly face. Brand was drenched in sweat, having just completed an hour of cardio, and was headed back to his room to bunker down for the night.

In his mid-30's and on the final leg of his pro journey, Brand made an impression on Horford, six years deep into his own successful career. And whether it was ever vocalized or not, the respect built between two men who prefer to act rather than talk set the stage for Horford defecting to Philly this summer.

"His commitment to wanting to win and do the right things inspired me back then, and I think that he believed in me, he believes in this group and what we can do," Horford said during his introductory presser in July. "And when they came knocking and approached me, it felt right. And that’s why I’m excited to be here because I know that he wants what’s best for this city, for Philadelphia and what we’re trying to do.”

What the Sixers will try to do on Wednesday night is simple — beat Boston. This time, their biggest roadblock to doing so has been removed. Horford is less convinced he was that important, joking that he's happy to be done playing against Embiid, who has often been spotted chatting with Horford and absorbing wisdom from his older teammate throughout the preseason.

Embiid is not the only guy benefitting from his arrival. Last season, the Sixers were an ultra-talented team who couldn't find the happy medium between balls-to-the-wall and going through the motions. Jimmy Butler would coast through three quarters to play Superman in the fourth. Ben Simmons couldn't seem to decide when he wanted to play defense. A cohesive identity flashed but never solidified, leaving the Sixers to try to out-talent everyone. It didn't end well. 

Led by the five members of the starting lineup, the Sixers are starting this year on a different foot. Tobias Harris has taken it upon himself to bring the team together, organizing activities to build chemistry on and off of the floor. Simmons has been more outspoken than we've ever seen him. Josh Richardson brings the edge of a hard-nosed Miami organization with him. And Embiid has dropped weight and embraced the role of load management in his career, understanding he may have to sacrifice now to gain later.

Horford? He's still trying to piece it all together, from team terminology to how to make it work as a power forward as he continues to age. But his professional approach has been a tone-setter, and the vibe at the practice facility has been noticeably different than in years past. He even delivered a speech to the team in advance of the first game, making sure everybody was on the same page before games got going.

Not that he thinks he's doing anything special, mind you. He's mostly just happy to get the first Celtics game out of the way.

"It's right to it, you're facing pretty much everything that you were a part of before," Horford said Tuesday. "All the guys know the magnitude of the game and the rivalry and everything, and I'm new on this side...playing it now is the best thing for me to kinda just go out there and do it, and really cement myself here in Philadelphia."

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