Ask former University of Miami coach Bill Foster about Tito Horford, a free agent trying to earn a job with the Washington Bullets, and he'll enthusiastically discuss a player who -- with little basketball training -- showed the potential to be one of the top big men in the country.
"I remember a time when we played Florida State and he grabbed 19 rebounds and scored 30 points," said Foster, who coached Horford in 1986-87 and 1987-88 and now coaches at Virginia Tech. "Then he'd come back and have a game of two points and three rebounds against a team that wasn't that high a caliber."
A roller-coaster ride is basically how to describe Horford's basketball career. The 7-foot-1, 245-pound native of the Dominican Republic started playing basketball late. He played two years in the Dominican Republic and then became the Texas high school Player of the Year and a McDonald's All-American as a senior at Marian Christian High School in Houston. He averaged 14.2 points and 9.3 rebounds over two seasons at Miami.
But Horford lacked polish -- and that showed through two disappointing seasons (1988-89 and 1989-90) with the Milwaukee Bucks, where he played in 60 games and averaged 1.6 points before he was released. After playing in Venezuela, Italy and Brazil, Horford is hoping that a new-found work ethic will help land him a spot with the Bullets or another NBA team.
"I'm glad [the Bullets] have given me an opportunity to work out for them," Horford said yesterday. "I came here to work hard so I can bring myself back to the NBA."
Horford got off to a good start Friday night, scoring a team-high 15 points and pulling down eight rebounds in a 109-103 loss to the Bucks. In his 30 minutes, Horford defended the basket aggressively and was impressive rebounding.
"I was very encouraged about the game, and I was feeling good about myself," Horford said. "I felt a lot of confidence out there. For some reason, I like the way Wes [Unseld] communicates with the players. And I like the work habits here."
Horford says his work habits weren't that good when he opted to join the NBA draft before the 1988-89 season. While Foster was telling Horford to stay in school and work on his game for two more seasons, outside influences -- including the desire to help his family -- led him to leave early.
That turned out to be a mistake.
"I don't think I was motivated in Milwaukee," Horford said. "I was disappointed because I was a second-round pick [39th overall], and a lot of people thought I would be in the first round, a lottery pick. I was very disappointed."
The disappointment and lack of motivation put Horford on the bench, where he got up only enough to average 4.48 minutes in 25 games in the 1988-89 season. His second year was only slightly better, which was not nearly good enough to keep Horford in the NBA.
"It was my own fault. I came out of school too early," Horford said. "I had pressure on myself, and family pressure, and that was a hard time for me. If I stayed in school, I think I'd be a different player today."
"A lot of foreign players who don't grow up in the States, I don't think they know the urgency to work year-round," Foster said. "We would have loved to have seen what would happen in two more years [at Miami]. He would have started every game for us, and he would have been at a level where his mistakes would not have been as magnified as at the level he's at up there."
There are still mistakes. Horford committed a team-high five turnovers and at times seemed to have difficulty holding on to the ball. But he's done enough that's been encouraging.
"Tito has demonstrated some of the ability that's needed to make it on an NBA roster," said Bullets assistant coach Robert Reid. "His coordination is good. He has to realize that when he's on the offensive rotation, his shot is last. And if he doesn't get the ball, he's got to work to the middle."
And Horford, who says that if he doesn't make the Bullets he'll play in the Continental Basketball Association, realizes there's some work to be done with his game.
"I haven't been playing basketball for a long time," said Horford, 27. "It feels like a learning process for me, but it seems like I'm picking up things very fast now. I just know that this is another step for me. I'm looking forward to trying to help somebody, and I'm looking to establish myself with hard work."
NOTES: Pervis Ellison was examined yesterday by Dr. Steve Haas, who said the 6-10 forward/center is progressing well from off-season surgery on both knees. Ellison will be examined again Nov. 1. Until then, he will be allowed to walk through team drills but not scrimmage. . . . Buck Johnson missed practice yesterday after his pickup truck spun on a wet surface on Route 50 and hit a wall. Johnson suffered two bruised knees and a stiff neck. . . . Calbert Cheaney, who practiced with the team Saturday after missing most of the previous week with sore hamstrings, will play in tomorrow's preseason game against the Chicago Bulls in Louisville, Ky.