Al Horford ready to help fill in Boston's blank banner

The Boston Celtics were introducing Al Horford on Friday morning when owner Wyc Grousbeck used a break in a question-and-answer session to point out a blank banner that hangs alongside the team's 17 championship banners inside the practice facility.

"We’re hoping that we can work together on that one," said Grousbeck.

Horford was set to finalize a four-year, $113 million contract, the biggest free-agent pact the Celtics have ever handed out. Flanked on stage by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, coach Brad Stevens, and Grousbeck, Horford repeatedly expressed excitement in trying to help Boston's young core take another step forward after his nine seasons with the Atlanta Hawks.

"It was a very difficult decision for me. I had a great situation in Atlanta, great years. I have a lot of respect for the organization and the fans there," said Horford. "I like the direction that I saw when I met with [the Celtics]. I felt comfortable. I felt confident in the potential and what can be. And I’m very encouraged by the group of players that are here -- a lot of young, hard-working, talented players. And just playing in that [2016 playoff] series [against Boston], I saw the passion that they played with and how much better they got as a team throughout the season. It’s something that excites me to be a part of this."

Ainge and Stevens, who along with assistant general manger Mike Zarren flew cross-country after being with the Celtics' summer-league entry in Utah to greet Horford and be part of the press conference, are likewise excited by the potential to move closer to becoming a title contender with Horford.

"I think the biggest thing, and it’s a credit to Al, the best thing I can say about a basketball player is he's a person that constantly enhances his teammates on the floor," said Stevens. "And the No. 1 thing that his career has been defined by is winning. That goes back to his days in college, obviously, and through the nine years in Atlanta, leading Atlanta to the playoffs in every single one of those years.

"For us to have an opportunity here with a person who has achieved all that he’s achieved, who has not only the ability to help your team on the court with everything that he does well, but also the ability to lead what is a still fairly young team, in the way that you prepare, the way that you carry yourself, and everything else. I don’t think that there’s a better example out there for our players. We’re thrilled. And I’m thrilled."

Ainge was asked where the Celtics stand with the addition of Horford.

"Right now, it definitely makes us better than we were last year. We felt like we were rightfully the third seed in the Eastern Conference," said Ainge, whose team slipped to the fifth seed by virtue of a four-way tie-breaker in the crowded East. It was Horford's Hawks who eliminated Boston in six games in the opening round of the playoffs.

Added Ainge: "The addition of Al makes us a better team for sure, with his versatility, experience, leadership that we’ve all talked about today. But I think we’re not done [with roster construction]. I think we still have work to do."

Horford said he has admired the Celtics organization from afar, noting how it was the Big Three-era Celtics that ended some of his early playoff appearances. He called the atmosphere at TD Garden "electric," and praised the fans for their passion. Horford did note that free agency hadn't crossed his mind when the Celtics and Hawks were playing this season.

"At the time, to be honest, I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead or anything," said Horford. "I think that, just being honest, when I was able to meet with everyone -- Isaiah [Thomas] came down, Kelly [Olynyk] came down, Jae [Crowder] came down, and I really got talk to them. I just saw kind of their commitment to the organization. It really spoke highly to me, that they were down there at the meeting with me. That really made my decision easier."

Asked about the notion that big-time free agents wouldn't previously consider Boston, Horford said he believes he will be only the first of many notable big-name free agents that will consider the Celtics moving forward.

"There’s a lot of history here. I feel like everyone around the league respects it," said Horford. "We acknowledge it. It's a big part of the reason that I chose to come here. In years to come, I feel like this will open the doors for many other big free agents. You have to consider this is a special place. And I think that people that are open to it will see how special this place is."

During an appearance on Comcast SportsNet New England following the press conference, Horford admitted that he had been in touch with fellow free agent Kevin Durant during the offseason. It had often been speculated that Horford was one player that Durant desired to play with and that Boston's signing of Horford might have made them more attractive to Durant.

Said Horford: "I did. I talked to Kevin. I can't speak for him now, but I have to say that he definitely considered the possibility. He had to do what was best for him. During the offseason, I definitely talked to him and several other free agents."

Horford noted that Durant simply considering the Celtics spoke volumes about how the team is regarded now across the league, as well as the direction in which Boston is headed.