- Allison Farrand/Daily
By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 12, 2014
As glitter and confetti rain down on the Crisler Center floor Saturday, Jon Horford stands expressionless.
Eating a Cliff bar and taking a swig from his Gatorade bottle, Jon stands stiff as his peers smile while cameras flash in every direction.
As the second-oldest player on the team, Jon is second to climb the ladder to cut down his portion of the net. But before he even puts a foot on the ladder, he’s already thinking of a way to discard the little scrap of nylon. And by the end of the night, the t-shirt, hat and net that is bestowed to him will already be out of his possession.
If up to Jon, the gear would have met the same fate as every award he had won through high school — either given away or discarded.
More than once, Liz Horford, Jon’s mother, has been approached regarding an award or plaque Jon won and decided to give way. And more than once the mother of that person who was gifted the award has voiced concern that, well, Liz might want it even if Jon doesn’t.
Jon’s always been that way. The awards are meaningless. There’s no point to them for him.
Liz made him keep the Final Four ring, though. It’s at her house closely guarded.
Though Jon may never wear the ring, he’ll always have the memory of the journey to get the ring. And for him, that’s all that’s important.
“It’s the type of stuff you think about at the end of your life,” he said.
Basketball didn’t always produce happy memories for him. For a while, basketball tormented Jon’s life.
He started playing basketball in second grade. And with the last name Horford, it only made sense.
Jon’s father, Tito, was the first Dominican-born player to play in the NBA — playing three seasons for the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Bullets. Jon’s brother, Al, currently plays for the Atlanta Hawks.
Despite the last name, though, Jon didn’t play a lot.
Playing with a bunch of boys that were coached by their fathers, Jon rarely saw time on the court.
“Basketball in my family has always been a huge thing,” Jon said. “The issue was I’ve been playing basketball since second grade, but I literally sat on the bench from second grade to freshman year in high school. Straight benchwarmer.
“I didn’t play, I was very disrespected, made fun of a lot. That stuff didn’t kill me, but it was something that obviously bothered me.”
So Jon made a commitment in middle school to work out more than anyone else, despite his lack of playing of time.
Thanks to his trainer and longtime family friend, Larry Turnbow, who taught Jon how to play basketball, it was possible.
“He would pick me up every day,” Jon said. “Take me to the gym every day, make sure I got something to eat every day. I won’t say father, but he was that father figure, even though I did have a dad. He was that. But he was also my best friend and still is my best friend.”
Under the teachings of Turnbow, Jon’s love for basketball grew. But as it grew, Jon’s frustration did as well.
In middle school, Jon still sat there, on the bench, waiting for his opportunity. And while it didn’t come in games, he showed his ability in practice whenever he was given a chance.
Jon would beat everyone in shooting contests, he still wouldn’t play.
The trend carried over to Jon’s freshman year in high school, where he didn’t play a minute of varsity basketball. At the time, Jon stood 6-foot-5.
Though Jon disagrees that he was told to play angry when he finally did get playing time, he did admit that he was told not to “forget the situations that people have put me through.”
“(Turnbow) was so upset about the hand I had been dealt that he was like ‘don’t forget that these are the kids that used to treat you this way,’ ” Jon said. “Don’t forget that all the coaches that come up to you and shake your hand every game want you to come and work out with their kids and stuff. Don’t forget those are the same people who held you back for so long.
“You can be nice to them and you can help them out, but don’t forget how they treated you.”
By Jon’s sophomore year at Grand Ledge (Mich.) high school, he was averaging 12.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Jon was finally done riding the bench.
But with success on the court came pressure.
Pressure to back up his family name. Pressure from doing too much in order to make up for lost time. Pressure from finally getting an opportunity he thought he should have had earlier in his life.
And with that pressure came negativity. And from that came anger.
Playing in the 2008 Michigan Class “A” District finals against Battle Creek Central (Mich.), Grand Ledge held an eight-point lead with 1:30 left.
Jon thought they had the game won. With five seniors on Central, it appeared it was going to be their last game. Holding on for desperation, players on Central started “throwing guys on the ground” as the refs allowed the game to carry on.
After calling a timeout, even though Central had none left, the refs did not call a technical foul.
“I was going to snap,” he said. “But the game was still going. I was like ‘keep playing, we’re going to win this game anyway.’ ”
As the game neared its finish, Central forced a couple steals, made some free throws and ultimately won the game, 57-55, in the final seconds.
It was after the buzzer sounded that Jon finally lost his composure and took it out on the officials. Jon cursed out the refs as his high school coach, Tony Sweet, and Central’s coach stood there telling him he needed to calm down.
People were terrified. And after he calmed down, Jon was distraught. He needed to change his ways.
“At that time, sports meant a lot more to me than they mean now,” he said. “They gave me a sense of purpose, like a false sense of purpose. It was a knock against me as a human being at that time because we weren’t able to win the district championship. Now I don’t feel that way at all.”
It was after Jon’s sophomore year in high school that he knew he had to change his attitude and his mindset both on the court and off it to not only become a calmer person, but a sane one.
He decided to find his inner peace.
“I was always upset,” Jon said. “If I did have a good game versus a bad game, that would be like if I was in a good mood or a bad mood. My life was controlled by my performance, more or less.”
Jon started to study the Law of Attraction — the belief that “like attracts like.” If he focused on positive thoughts, he would have positive results. From there, he looked into different philosophies like Taoism and Buddhism.
In his quest to find peace, Jon realized that whether he had success or not on the court, it was just a game. It wasn’t life.
Bringing positivity to all situations in his life brought positivity back to himself. It helped him grow, and not just physically from 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-10. It freed his mind from darkness.
It’s the positive energy that has expanded his mind and allowed him to grow as a person. It separated his life from basketball, instead of intertwining the two together.
Jon wasn’t your typical jock in high school.
As his teammates wore their varsity jackets and warm-ups during the day, Jon would wear skinny jeans and Vans sneakers.
“He was the kid in high school who hung out with the alternative kids, played hacky sack in the hallway,” said Anna Horford, Jon’s sister. “You’ll never catch Jon in his warm-ups unless he has to be, because that’s only one part of his life.”
Jon’s ability to be himself and not care about what others thought of him carried over to his time at Michigan. With an open mind and an enthusiasm to listen, Jon has become willing to talk to people about basically anything.
Almost weekly, Jon says, he walks and someone random will stop him and ask him about Taoism, the government, anything really.
But Jon’s point in these everyday conversations isn’t to push an agenda of his own. It’s to get people to think. Jon doesn’t want people to accept things for what they appear to be on the surface. He wants people to push boundaries.
Jon wants to help people as much as he can. The issue, though, is that people don’t understand how Jon thinks. As a Division I athlete, fans see him as that alone — not a person, just an athlete.
Jon hates the attention he gets as an athlete. He hates the glamor and glitz.
“We’ll walk in the mall and his poster’s up, and it makes him uncomfortable,” Anna said.
Jon thinks the contribution he delivers for the team is more important than the adoration he receives from fans.
“That’s not his life,” Anna said. “What other people have to say about him is none of his business. He doesn’t care.”
Though Jon dislikes the limelight that comes with being in his position, he knows playing basketball at Michigan gives him opportunities to help people that he might not have otherwise.
“The significance of what we do on the basketball court is limited,” he said. “Compared to the lives that we can touch in other ways, like putting time in the community or working with kids through basketball, that’s the stuff that really means something to people.”
As a captain, it’s part of Jon’s responsibilities to make sure his teammates are in the right mental state throughout the season. He wants his teammates to be comfortable with each other and as themselves.
Just as Jon wants the people he meets and talks to throughout Ann Arbor to have peace and their own opinions, he wants his teammates to as well.
“There’s always something intrinsically that just clicks when they hear things, and it causes them to ask me questions and be naturally curious about stuff,” he said. “That’s why I love that stuff. It’s not for a certain group of people. It’s for everybody. It connects us all.”
Being the second-oldest player on the team, Jon has experienced more than others. But due to his lack of playing time growing up and his series of injuries in college, Jon knows he doesn’t have the playing experience his younger teammates have.
His freshman year at Michigan, Jon averaged just seven minutes a game as he adjusted to the college system. Figuring to play a larger role his sophomore year, Jon missed the final 25 games of the season after suffering a stress fracture in his right foot.
After taking a redshirt that season, Jon returned last season and appeared to be at full health again, until he dislocated his kneecap, which forced him to miss five games.
This year, after figuring to be the third big man in the rotation behind sophomore Mitch McGary and fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan, Horford’s playing time expanded when McGary went out indefinitely after having surgery on his back.
Given the opportunity, Jon has averaged career highs in points, rebounds and minutes. Not that he would know. He said he has no idea what his statistics are.
While he still tries to work out more than anyone else on the team, it’s not so he can stand out above everyone.
“It is for them, to help them anyway I can,” he said. “Even though my role on this team isn’t necessarily to score a lot of points, it is for them, but it’s also for peace of mind.”
It’s that different perspective and experience that has stayed with Jon while he’s been at Michigan. Jon’s no longer trying to be better than everyone on the team. He’s trying to get the best out of everyone on the team.
Sometimes Jon wonders why he plays Division I basketball.
Though the basketball court brings him such relaxation when he’s alone, it’s that same place that brings him pain.
Jon sees how society looks at people if they’re not on television, in films, make a ton of money or are famous. He thinks it’s ridiculous that if you don’t achieve something like that, your life doesn’t amount to anything.
So why does Jon stay out there — on a stage that will only bring more lights and cameras as the season and Michigan’s success continues?
The extra shots, the extra lift sessions, they don’t mean the same things they did when he was struggling to get on the court growing up.
At that time, these things were designed to make him better and stronger on the court, make him better than everyone else playing.
Now, Jon wonders about that decision.
“Is this something I even want to do anymore?” he said.
But he already knows the answer to that.
He wouldn’t have climbed the ladder if he didn’t.