The story of Anna Horford and the Boston Celtics community is a love story. And this love story involves heartbreak. So, let’s get that out of the way right at the start.
On June 30, 2019, right before the official start of NBA free agency, five-time NBA All-Star Al Horford shocked the NBA community. He decided to leave the Boston Celtics and sign a 4-year, $109 million deal with their bitter rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers. A panel of ESPN analysts, including Rachel Nichols, found out about it on live TV.
"This is amazing, right? How did this not get out?"
Anna Horford, Al’s younger sister by six years, was also surprised. She had gotten the news a little earlier in a group text with all five of the Horford siblings.
"And that was that," Anna says. "And, at first, I didn't even believe it. I thought he was just joking."
After the initial shock wore off, some other emotions set in.
"I was literally so heartbroken. I think I tweeted about being heartbroken, and that I needed a minute, or two days, to kind of process everything," Anna says. "It was very emotional. I think I kind of cried a bit, actually. It was just like saying goodbye to your first love or something, you know? It was like a whirlwind experience."
Life In The Horford Family
Anna Horford’s love affair with the Boston Celtics was far from preordained. She rarely watched the NBA growing up in Grand Ledge, Michigan, a small town near Lansing. She definitely didn’t have any rooting interests. She was way more interested in getting her brother’s attention.
"Al was viewed more of, like, as the dad," Anna says. "He was like the protective older brother. The younger siblings, since we're so much younger than him, we'd be like, 'No, Al, stay in and play with us!' Or, like, 'Let's go play baseball in the backyard.' And he'd be, like, 'OK, fine.' "
As for Anna's role in that family dynamic...
"I think I'm just, like, the really obnoxious, opinionated one. Where my siblings are like, 'Okay, calm down.' "
For Anna and her siblings, basketball was always lurking on the periphery. Their dad, Tito Horford, played professionally in the late '80s and early '90s. He was the first ever Dominican-born NBA player. But, if her dad’s career influence wasn’t enough, his genetic influence was. Anna’s 6 feet tall, the shortest of all her siblings.
And she did play until she blew out her knee in early high school, at which point she fully embraced her role as spectator. When Al won back-to-back NCAA championships at the University of Florida, Anna was right there cheering him on.
The Atlanta Hawks took Al with the third overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. And, despite a bad 37-45 record his first season, they snuck into the playoffs as an eight-seed. Their reward? Opening on the road in the raucous, foggy TD Garden, home of the top-seeded Boston Celtics.
"I think I had started to pay attention to Boston around then because Al was so new to the league, and he had gotten into it with Paul Pierce that series," Anna says.
Anna’s brother has always been known for his composure. Celtics star Paul Pierce was known for his competitiveness and elite-level trash talk. So something had to give in the 3rd quarter of Game 3, when the Hawks started to pull away.
"Al hit a shot in Paul's face, because Paul was talking s--- to him all game," Anna says.
The Celtics went on to win the series, and then the 2008 championship. Al Horford spent eight more long seasons with the Hawks. Anna was growing restless.
"It was difficult, because we’d do so well," Anna says. "I mean, Al never missed the playoffs, ever, playing there. And we would do so well. We had gone to the Eastern Conference Finals, and it was like there were still empty seats."
Sticking Up For Big Brother
Anna did everything in her power to fill the void. She enthusiastically supporting Al on the court, and fiercely defending him off it. Like in the spring of 2016. Some Cleveland Cavaliers fans were insulting Al on Twitter and tagged Anna. But they referred to her as Al’s wife ... not his sister.
Though somewhat flattered, she had been confused for Al’s wife, Amelia, a former Miss Universe, Anna responded creatively.
" 'He's my brother,' " Anna said. " 'I know that kind of thing is allowed in Ohio, but it's frowned upon in most other places.' They did not appreciate that very much at all, even though it was just a joke, obviously."
Roasting people on NBA Twitter became part of Anna’s brand. And it wasn’t just fans. NBA refs weren’t safe. Neither were the players. Draymond Green, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, LeBron James — they all became targets of Anna’s ire at one time or another. And while 'Insulting people online since 2006' might as well be Twitter’s unofficial slogan, Anna dishes out burns with finesse — like a social media Sun Tzu.
Anna thinks Al ignores her outspokenness. "And he knows how I am, naturally. Like, this is who I am as a person," Anna says. "And I think that he respects that."
But Anna didn’t respect the Hawks' fan base. She knew Al deserved better. She had seen better. Every empty seat at a Hawks game was a reminder of the atmosphere in Boston during that wild Hawks/Celtics playoff series in 2008, when the seeds of Anna’s fan base crush had been planted.
It turned out Anna’s brother shared her feelings about Boston.
"He was like, 'It is one of the most challenging places to play at, is TD Garden.' And he's like, 'I would love to be on the other side of that.' "
Signing With The Enemy
And then, in the Summer of 2016, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck announced the team had signed Horford to a lucrative multiyear deal.
Little did Grousbeck know — Boston should’ve been welcoming more than just Al, his wife, and his son. Soon, Anna would leave her mark in a major way. Two months into his Boston tenure, Al missed a regular season game in November to attend the birth of his second child. Radio host Mike Felger had this to say.
"Al Horford, your $30 million man, however much you pay him a year, sat out tonight because he had the birth of his kid...what was it, yesterday? ... Yesterday! He had the birth of his kid in Atlanta. The game was in Miami. I know when you make $30 million a year, it ain’t much to get a private jet. Wyc would have probably picked it up. I would have gone to the game. I would have played the game. And I like my guys to sort of forsake everything for the team."
"And Al was, like, "This is my daughter, my child, my first daughter,' " Anna says. " 'Of course I'm not going to miss, you know, miss her birth."
So Anna did what she’s always done when someone crosses a line with her family. She sprung into action, firing off a tweet before going to sleep.
"I think I said something like, 'Well, Mike Felger can just f the f off,' or something like that."
What Anna didn’t realize at the time was that Mike Felger is a longtime Boston sports media villain. A quick search of his name surfaces results like, “Airing of Grievances against Mike Felger,” “Rant against Mike Felger,” and, even more concisely, “Mike Felger Sucks.”
"And then everyone was like, 'Oh my God, you just called out Mike Felger.' I was like, 'I don't know who the f Mike Felger is.' "
People loved Anna’s Twitter takedown. It went viral on Celtics Twitter. And when she woke up the next morning and saw all the attention, she tweeted again: "Apparently a lot of you guys dislike Mike Felger. Look at us all bonding over unlikable people." Her comments made the rounds on all the Celtics blogs. Soon there were write ups about it in Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report.
"And then I think that's when, like, the Boston fan base kind of started to really approach our family and whatnot, when they were like, "Oh, these people, they don't mess around."
Celtics fan cult hero status? Unlocked.
Part of her appeal was how different she was from her brother.
"Yeah. It's like comparing fire and water," says Celtics beat writer Jared Weiss of The Athletic. "I mean, Al is this incredibly pensive, notable presence within a room. He speaks more with his body language and with his eyes than he does with his words. And Anna loves to talk. And, I mean, Anna's energy is, you know, you could feel it whether it's in a tweet, whether she's in the room. She's a very loud personality."
Even though Al was beloved by the Boston community, he was tight-lipped. Especially with the media. Meanwhile, Anna was handing out uncensored commentary like candy.
"She grew in this city into something that was impactful," Weiss says. "She was a part of the Celtics experience, she was a part of the Boston sports fan experience, and she was just a part of, like, kind of the social scene and entertainment of Boston experience, which I think has really transformed over the past five years or so."
She started off as "Al Horford’s sister." But, ultimately, people just knew her as "Anna."
Which is what made the summer of 2019 especially hard. That's when Al Horford agreed to a 4-year, $109 million deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.
'It Just Didn't Feel Right'
Al Horford’s first game as a member of the 76ers was October 23, 2019. Their opponent? The Boston Celtics. Anna was watching from her mom’s house in Michigan.
"It was just weird," Anna says. "It was just ... it was bizarre. It was, just ... I don't know. I don't even know how to explain it. It just didn't feel right."
Anna was still loved by the Celtics fan base. But now her brother was playing for another team. Was she going to stay loyal to the Celtics, or try to bond with a new fan base?
All day, Celtics and Sixers fans argued in her Twitter mentions about which team she would be rooting for.
"And that was, literally, I felt like a mom with her two children who hated each other and just want to beat the crap out of each other," Anna says. "And I was, like, 'Okay, kids, well, you know, we're not going to go get candy if you don't shut up.' "
Anna has been vocal about her continued affection for the Celtics. Philadelphia fans have also been vocal, demanding she declare her allegiance to her brother’s team. More importantly, though, they also want her to denounce his former team.
"... I have enough love in my heart for both. I don't want to choose. I want to support both teams."Anna Horford
"It's just silly," Anna says. "It’s like if you fell out with your ex, but you guys were still on good terms, like your new significant other being, like, 'Hey, tell them they're a piece of s---.' Like, just say it. Just say it, you know? And it's like, 'Ehhh, I'm not going to say it, because I don't feel like that."
So things are complicated. For the first time ever, supporting her brother and the team she loves no longer mean the same thing.
"I think she realized, like, this is a family," says Kwani A. Lunis, the Social Media Coordinator for NBC Sports Boston.
" 'The Celtics will always have my back. The Celtics fans will always my back. So, Sixers fans aren't proud of it, but that's how families are.' "
When I spoke to Anna, she hadn’t been to a Sixers home game. At least not yet.
"Even with the C's, like, that came in time," Anna says. "So I think that they just need to give me some time to, like, get comfortable and process. And I have enough love in my heart for both. I don't want to choose. I want to support both teams."
Sports fans aren’t known as masters of nuance or compromise. But if anyone can motivate rival fan bases to find common ground — if anyone can become that common ground — Anna Horford has a good shot.
And, besides ... love is complicated.
This segment aired on January 25, 2020.