Boston Celtics forward Al Horford, with 1:16 remaining in the third quarter of game four of the NBA Finals, knocked down a heavily contested three in front of a rowdy home crowd. The shot was reminiscent of clutch moments back in the Stephen O’Connell Center, where Horford played for the Gators 15 years ago.
Basketball history is written in the NBA Finals. Teams fight for a chance to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the biggest stage of professional basketball. For former Florida players like Horford and Golden State guard Chris Chiozza, the Finals are a common stomping ground.
Thirty-three Gators have made it into the league since 1969. Seven of the eight Gators who have won an NBA title did so since 2000. This includes Udonis Haslem (2006, 2012, 2013), Corey Brewer (2011) and Mike Miller (2012, 2013), who all played under legendary UF head coach Billy Donovan.
Despite Donovan’s absence from the basketball program for the past eight years, his impact is still present in this year's finals. Horford, who started at forward during the 2006 and 2007 title runs under Donovan, is in the first Finals of his career with Boston. The 36-year-old is also the first Dominican-born player to ever appear in a Finals game.
The former third overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and five-time All-Star was a pivotal piece for the Atlanta Hawks in his first nine years in the NBA, starting for nine playoff appearances. However, after the 2016 season, Horford moved to three different teams in pursuit of a ring.
The first stop was a three-year tenure with the Celtics from 2017-2020 that led to deep postseason losses. Horford then found a spot on the Philadelphia 76ers the next year, but he never truly fit into their system. After not making any progress toward the Finals, he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, only to be “shut down” by the team.
Now, back with the Celtics after a 2021 trade, Horford is closing in on his goal of becoming an NBA champion as a seasoned veteran on a young Celtics team currently two wins away from its first title in 14 years.
Horford took the court for game one rocking orange and blue shoes in homage to his alma mater, and he finished the game scoring 26 points on 75% shooting to help the Celtics steal the series opener on the road.
“Nobody deserves it more than this guy on my right, right here,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said about Horford after advancing to the Finals. “His energy, his demeanor, coming in every day, being a professional, taking care of his body, being a leader. I’m proud to be able to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like Al Horford.”
Horford isn’t the only Gator looking to win his first finals this year.
Chiozza is making his first Finals appearance in only his third year in the NBA. He spent four years with the Gators from 2014-2018 under former Florida head coach Mike White. He averaged 7.4 points per game during his collegiate career and started 32 out of 34 games in his last season in Gainesville.
His signature moment donning orange and blue came in 2017, when his miraculous buzzer-beater sealed a Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin.
The 5-foot-11-inch guard went undrafted in 2018 and signed with the Washington Wizards, who waived him after only a few months with the team. Chiozza then signed a 10-day contract with the Houston Rockets. In 2019, he inked a three-year deal worth a little more than $3 million to stay in Houston.
Chiozza joined his fourth team in three years when he arrived at Golden State, and now he’s got a chance to win it all.
Though both of these Gators’ journeys after leaving the Swamp are different, they’ve both been given a chance to add to Florida’s NBA legacy.
Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.