Al Horford deserves cheers, not boos, in return to Atlanta

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Friday night will be very important for the Atlanta Hawks.

Currently the leaders of the NBA’s Southeast Division and fourth in the overall Eastern Conference standings, the Hawks will host the Boston Celtics, a team that sits a game and a half ahead of them in the East. The two teams have yet to face off, but in the first of their three meetings this season, we stand to learn a lot about both squads Friday night.

It’s the middle of January, however, so most people won’t be paying attention to the result. Instead, they’ll be focused on how the city of Atlanta reacts to the return of Al Horford.

(Also read: Atlanta Falcons get their wish)

The Boston big man spent the first nine seasons of his pro career in a Hawks uniform before heading to greener – literally – pastures in Boston, getting a $113 million contract during the most important free agency period of his life. The Hawks wished him well, and the fans initially did the same.

But days after he departed Atlanta, Horford’s father, Tito, told WSB-TV that his son couldn’t wait to get out of Atlanta, and the fans were the reason why.

“There wasn’t as much motivation for him when he saw all the empty seats when they were winning,” Tito said.

Days later, Al answered by taking out a full-page ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution thanking the fans and the city for their support over the first nine years of his career.

See? No ill-will from Al, so there shouldn’t be any issues Friday night. Unless you consider Atlanta’s long history of booing players who return to the city with different teams, and the fact that they could hide behind an excuse – Tito’s comments – if they do choose to boo the former Hawk.

Here’s hoping Atlanta’s fans are better than that Friday night. The Hawks have already announced that they’ll show a brief tribute video to Horford before the game, and hopefully, there will be applause when it ends.

Horford was such a special player during the Hawks’ resurgence, and a cornerstone for nine years as the roster frequently changed. He joined a team that went 13-69 three years earlier, yet no Hawks team that had Horford on the roster ever missed the playoffs. He missed large chunks of multiple seasons due to injury, sure, but those nine teams won 411 regular-season games – 15 percent of the 68-year-old franchise’s wins and an average of 45 wins a year.

Hawks fans probably haven’t seen much of Horford in a Celtics jersey yet, so Friday night will be weird. But Atlanta shouldn’t make it weirder by booing a player who might end up getting his jersey retired by the Hawks, because adding fuel to a nonexistent fire would only make the fans look bad.

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