- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
ATLANTA -- On Florida's Labor Day trip to Niagara Falls, Al Horford was busy discussing the depth of the Niagara River.
During the season, when a reporter toured the apartment Horford shares with three Florida teammates, he was quick to pick up a tourism book and point out the beaches and other hot spots in his native Dominican Republic.
On Sunday, after the Gators' 76-66 win over UCLA, he handled questions in Spanish, then immediately shifted back to English when asked.
Horford always is ready to ask questions off the court of his coaches, his teammates and his family and friends. He is constantly thirsting for knowledge. If you haven't noticed, he might be one of the most intelligent players who competed in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Horford's talent and muscular build bode well for a lengthy NBA career, but that's just on the court. Off it, Horford has the good looks, the infectious smile and the engaging personality to be a marketing hit, especially in bilingual communities.
"He's the kind of person that has a passion for everything he's doing," his mother, Arelis Reynoso, said after Saturday night's national semifinal win over UCLA, another of Horford's selfless games, grabbing 17 boards (yes, one-seven) to go with nine points.
"He's so disciplined and so organized," Reynoso said. "His mind and spirit is just one way."
Like most Dominicans, Horford has a passion for baseball. He loves David Ortiz. He is friends with a number of Dominican professional players. His mother assumed he would play the sport, but she said Al told her when he was 6 that he wanted to play basketball.
Reynoso and his father, former Miami center and NBA player Tito Horford, had Al when they were young.
"I'm 40 now, he's 20, and it was hard, but he has a great mom," said Tito, who was sporting a Florida tank top and still looks as if he could bang underneath the boards. "She did a good job with him and deserves a lot of credit."
Tito said he noticed when Al was a freshman in high school, the year he moved to Michigan and Grand Ledge High, that he understood the game.
"I knew [at that point] that this kid is something special," Tito Horford said.
Meanwhile, Al was searching for answers everywhere, for everything.
"[His basketball IQ] is as high as anybody I've coached."
-- Florida coach Billy Donovan
"He was always a straight A student," Tito Horford said. "He was always asking questions out of the blue and always wanted to know everything. He has been very special since he was a little kid."
Florida coach Billy Donovan doesn't even bother to debate who has been his smartest player since he's been coaching. We're not just talking about in school, either. On the court, it's also Horford.
"[His basketball IQ] is as high as anybody I've coached, and what's rare for a big man is that he knows all five positions," Donovan said. "I can put him anywhere on the floor and he knows what to do. He has great awareness."
Horford has elevated himself to another level this season. It was clear back on that trip to Canada over Labor Day that Horford had improved over the summer to where he was maybe the best player on this team. It's hard to split hairs as to who should be the team's MVP, but Horford's ability to score in the low post, pass out of a double-team, handle the ball in traffic, and know where and when to make a pass or shoot are all signs of his ongoing maturity.
His leadership and demeanor also are invaluable.
"He always knows to be in the right spot," roommate and junior classmate Corey Brewer said. "When I'm on the perimeter and I get beat, I'm always looking for Al because I know he's coming."
Joakim Noah rightfully receives plenty of attention on this squad. He has been the face of the team for two seasons and, at times, you could argue he has been the face of the sport this past year, but he has no issues acknowledging how valuable Horford is to this team.
"When I was getting a lot of attention, I would think about it because I know how good Al is," Noah said. "Al would never get any credit for what he did. Even last year, he was such a huge part; we would have never won if it wasn't for Al.
"There's no question who our go-to post player is -- it's Al Horford," Noah said. "He's a great player, but he's quiet. I'm not. That's why I was getting a lot of attention."
Horford will get his share soon. He is a rising star who almost assuredly will be a lottery pick if he enters this year's draft.
Tito Horford said the best move his son -- whom he calls an ambassador for the Dominican -- ever made was to return for his junior season. And to hear Al discuss the move, it's clear that he wasn't ready to jump after winning the title last season. Horford said he needed the one-on-one time with the staff. He needed to mature as a person in college before he could take the next step. He admits he discovered it was going to take longer for him to feel ready to leave. He's not definitively saying yet that he will this season, either, but he's clearly more prepared to make the jump.
Now he's on the doorstep of another title, something that would put him and his teammates into the modern college basketball era's folklore as rare back-to-back champs.
"I feel like I'm growing as player and as a person," Horford said. "I'm all about winning and whatever it takes, and that's what I've been trying to do since I've been here."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Al Horford's combination of skills, brains and personality makes him a hit on and off the court, writes Andy Katz.