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Besides, Joakim was already consumed with another sport, an obsession that had begun in New York City when Patrick Ewing, one of his father's friends, gave him a minibasketball as a present when he was a toddler. "We used to live in SoHo, and there weren't many parks close by," says Cecilia, "so we took our kids to the basketball courts and let them run. Joakim was only two or three years old, but I remember him saying, 'Mommy, I want to play basketball!' He was entranced by the whole scene."
Joakim's passion for hoops only increased with time, and it was one reason his mother decided to move back to New York with her children in 1998. Joakim soon found a mentor in Tyrone Green, his coach in the Police Athletic League and the man who had helped discover Ron Artest and Chamique Holdsclaw. During the summer, while Cecilia was abroad, Joakim would live with Green in Queens and play ball with him in Brooklyn's rough-and-tumble Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. "It was a different kind of travel," Noah says. "Instead of going on planes, I was taking the E train to tournaments in Jamaica, Queens. It opened up a whole new world, and I saw there was poverty in America, too."
With a work ethic that rivaled his father's at the same age, Noah threw himself into the game, starring at Brooklyn's Poly Prep and then at Lawrenceville Prep, a boarding school outside Princeton, N.J., where he won a state championship his senior season. He improved so much that he went from being the ball boy at the ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., one year to a fast-breaking, shot-swatting, Division I--quality big man the next.
After choosing to attend Florida, he spent a trying freshman season there, averaging just 9.4 minutes and 3.5 points while playing behind David Lee, a future first-round NBA draft pick. But back in New York for the summer, he thrived in the famed Rucker Park league against pros like Artest and Jamaal Tinsley. "I got my swagger back in Harlem," Noah says. He also got a sweet nickname from the Rucker deejay: the Noble One.
From the start of practice in Gainesville last fall, Noah's coaches noticed a change. "Last season Jo couldn't compete up front physically with anybody who had any size," says Donovan. "He still needs to get stronger and shoot the ball better from the perimeter. His greatest attributes are his passing, his emotion and how hard he runs the floor. I don't think Jo will reach his full potential until he's 26 or 27 years old."
In other aspects Noah remains on a different plane from most college players. Consider his stance on religion. Noah often wears a crucifix alongside a necklace of Muslim prayer beads from Senegal--a gift from his mother--and he'll go silent when the Gators say the Lord's Prayer in huddles, opting for his own internal worship instead. "That's just me," he says. "I believe in God, but I won't say that I'm a certain religion. I think I'm a little bit of everything."
Joakim has been influenced by Rastafarianism and the timeless music of Bob Marley, as was his father. Theirs is a complex bond. While they have almost always been separated by thousands of miles--Yannick, who has five children from three relationships, did make it to Joakim's game at Miami last month--they speak by phone every day. "When people say, ' Joakim Noah, the son of Yannick Noah,' it makes me proud," says Joakim. "My father is my best friend."
"I'm very happy that Joakim is working hard and having success doing his own thing," says the elder Noah, who celebrated his induction into the tennis hall of fame in Newport, R.I., last summer with his smiling son at his side. ("I'm not used to feeling like a midget," cracks the 6'4" Yannick.)
In Joakim's dorm room, not far from his treasured photo of the sushi vendor, he keeps a weathered snapshot of a boy and his dad taken many years ago on a trip to Cameroon. Still in diapers, young Joakim is riding on the shoulders of Yannick, who's the picture of cool with a smoldering Gauloise dangling from his fingers.
Now grown, the son is making his own way and even breaking new family ground. For all his memorable triumphs Yannick never rose higher than the No. 3 ranking. As a Gator, Joakim is already No. 2--and on the verge, perhaps, of No. 1.