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The first time Al Horford was reportedly linked to the 76ers this offseason was the first time I’ve ever even contemplated the possibility of him joining the team. That’s rare for any good player -- like most Process Trusters I’ve fantasized about what just about every All-Star caliber guy in the NBA (outside of LeBron) would look like on the Sixers -- but even after it was first revealed that he would not be coming back to the Celtics, Horford coming here never occurred to me as a possibility.
Partly that’s because he’s a center, of course, and we already have one of those. But mostly just because… Al Horford going to the Sixers? Is that even, like, allowed? Really? And now we’re supposed to treat him like he’s just a guy on the Sixers, one we generally wish good things for? How’s that supposed to work?
I hate every member of the 2017-’18 Celtics team that beat our Sixers in 5. I hate Terry Rozier for randomly turning into Tim Hardaway. I hate Marcus Morris for mid-ranging us to oblivion. I hate Jaylen Brown for not being on the Sixers (we all agree he should be). I hate Jayson Tatum for haunting us as if he was actually a former Sixer. I hate Aron Baynes for hitting every three-pointer against us. I hate Marcus Smart for hitting even one three-pointer against us. I don’t really remember Semi Ojeleye’s deal but I’m sure he’s a jerk.
But there was only one guy on that team of villains who I nominated for Enemies of the Process, and that was Al Horford. (I scored him a 7, Mike and Spike mostly demurred.) Horford was everything infuriating about this Celtics team: He averaged unextraordinary numbers in the regular season but was somehow unstoppable against Philadelphia (even when he wasn’t really scoring), he made every big play down the stretch, and -- most critically -- he absolutely flummoxed Joel Embiid, who should have easily been the best player in the series. He did everything for that team, and he did it all without jumping. It was maddening.
This year, I became monomaniacally focused on the Sixers finally giving Horford the wedgie he deserved. When Philly lost to Boston on Christmas in heartbreaking overtime, I didn’t even mind that much because Horford had struggled to a 2-10 shooting night while Embiid posted 34 and 16, so the game was a W in my book. And while the rest of the Eastern Conference trembled at the idea of Boston somehow finding a way to trade for Anthony Davis at the deadline, I hoped they’d figure it out, since it meant they’d probably have to include Horford and his elbow-out set shot in the deal. The C’s with AD didn’t seem that intimidating or annoying by comparison.
Yet as much as I had to come to despite the sight of him, within minutes of hearing the rumors of his signing with Philly, landing him suddenly became just about the only thing I really wanted from this Sixers summer. I didn’t think it was even slightly likely to actually happen, and I still believed Run It Back to be the more probable and logical strategy. But wow, Al Horford on the Sixers! What a thought experiment! It’s like being a Blur fan during the days of the great Britpop wars, and all of a sudden Noel Gallagher leaves Oasis to become their second guitarist. And more importantly: Al Horford being on the Sixers means Al Horford not being on the Celtics. Seemed like a win-win.
Of course, signing him was the easy part. Soon comes the tough part: Figuring out how to actually root for him. This part in sports usually isn’t actually that hard -- the Phillies faced Bryce Harper about 20 times a year for the better part of a decade, but no one seemed to feel all the conflicted about giving him $330 million to hang out with us and the Phanatic until 2031. But in every sport, there’s a couple of Philly rivals with whom hate is so baked into the DNA of our relationship that switching to love requires full hostage deprogramming. David Wright. Tony Romo. I wanna say Martin Brodeur maybe? Anyway, even though he only played on the Celtics for four years -- while the Sixers only really cared about winning for two of those, two-and-a-half tops -- Al Horford is definitely on that list.
Seeing him in a Sixers uniform is gonna be strangety-strange. Watching him pick-and-pop for a three for the first time is going to be even weirder. And nothing is going to be more of a mindfuck than watching him and Joel Embiid patrolling the paint together, two big men in pursuit of a common goal. They could actually high five at some point. Horford might rub JoJo’s poofy hair. Much of the early part of the season should feel like a plot twist in a shitty thriller where one of the bad guys dramatically reveals himself to have been working with the good guys all along. Maybe vice versa.
It’s a good thing that we’ve already committed to the bit, then. Puffing our chests about how much we’ve always loved and appreciated Al Horford -- far more than stats-obsessed Celtics fans could ever comprehend -- should help us come to terms with actually starting to do so. Keep spouting the gospel about appreciating all the little things that Horford brings to a basketball team, and soon enough we’ll probably be doing it without even smirking like a fucking asshole. Stick to the script, and by the time he’s sticking that elbow out to sink fourth-quarter threes in the playoffs, we might love him as one of our own as much as we ever hated him as a Celtic. And if he ends up hurting us as much from inside the Sixers as he ever did from the outside, I better not be the only one voting him for Enemies next year.