In the cluttered walls of his dorm room--among the Rastafarian flags, his dad's Rolling Stone cover and a traffic-stopping shot of his mom, a former Miss Sweden-- Florida center Joakim Noah has tacked up a photograph that represents everything he loves about his native New York City. In it a smiling Shea Stadium vendor is hawking raw tuna to hungry Gotham baseball fans. "That's my favorite," Noah says, admiring the cultural mash-up. "A black guy selling sushi!" � For Noah it's not just a picture. It's a personal mission statement, a daily reminder to embrace the unknown and the unexpected in an increasingly diverse world. � What happens when you cross Yannick Noah, the dreadlocked French-Cameroonian tennis star and pop icon, with his former wife Cecilia Rodhe, a classic Scandinavian blonde model who's now a sculptor? Add the influences of three continents, and you get Joakim (pronounced Jo-a-KEEM), an effervescent 6'11", 227-pound sophomore who displays the same charisma, relentless athleticism and wild hair on the court as his French Open--winning dad once did. � Joakim likes nothing more than to challenge preconceptions, whether the subject is politics, society or basketball--and sure enough, he is having a breakout season that has helped turn No. 2 Florida from an unranked preseason afterthought into the nation's most surprising team.
Through Sunday the 16-0 Gators were off to the best start in school history, due in large part to Noah's 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. "Not many big men can run as well as he does," says Miami coach Frank Haith, who saw Noah burn his Hurricanes with 18 points, eight boards and six blocks in a 77-67 Gators win last month. "He made key buckets by just outrunning us downcourt."
Unlike Florida's recent outfits, which were often plagued by selfishness, this one has thrived on its chemistry, not least because its four sophomore starters-- Noah, wing Corey Brewer, point guard Taurean Green and forward Al Horford (box, page 57)--happen to be best friends who share a campus suite. That closeness helps explain why the Gators were leading the nation in average scoring margin (21.5 points) and were in the top five in field goal percentage (51.8) and assists per game (19.3). "There's a level of trust on our team," says coach Billy Donovan, "where everyone thinks each guy is playing for the right reasons."
In fact, Noah initially balked at being singled out for this story, fearing it might hurt the team's hard-won fraternit�. While it's true that he's not the team's most dangerous offensive threat (that would be Green) or even the top NBA prospect in his dorm room (that would be either Horford or Brewer), one thing is certain: Noah is no average Jo. "Unique is the best word to describe him," says Green.
Take Noah's taste in movies. He persuaded the guys to see City of God, a movie about life in a Rio de Janeiro shantytown. "It wasn't even in English," says Brewer, "so we were sitting there trying to read the subtitles. But I actually liked it." Noah recommended Hotel Rwanda, the acclaimed film about that country's 1994 genocide, to assistant coach Anthony Grant and recently asked Donovan to watch Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 so they could dissect the film afterward. "People think we're ignorant just because we're athletes, but everyone should be able to discuss things," Noah says while listening to the songs of Damian Marley (Bob's son) in his apartment's common room, which he has decorated with African wood masks and a black-and-white portrait of the Eiffel Tower. "Poverty, war, politics: There are so many important issues around the world. You have to be aware, and not just about your own country. If you're rich, think about what it might be like to be poor. Imagine you were a kid living in Iraq. How would your perspective change? You have to listen to different people's ideas, and then yours may change too." While most American players dislike traveling to tournaments abroad and spend their time overseas playing video games and eating at McDonald's, Noah takes the opposite approach. "Travel is the key to having more perspective on where you are," he says.
He has certainly been exposed to some extraordinary things in his 20 years. He had seen the World Trade Center from the windows of his school bus as it passed the buildings on Sept. 11, 2001, then watched, a short time later, the horror unfold on TV with classmates whose parents were in the towers. He's seen poverty-stricken kids in Yaound�, Cameroon, walking along dirt roads with giant jugs of water balanced on their heads. He's seen the blue-eyed stares in �sa, his grandparents' Swedish farm town, that greet a 6'11" biracial giant out on a training run. He's seen swarms of Parisian paparazzi, taken baths in remote Maui waterfalls, hung out with dreadlocked Rastas in Guadeloupe.
"Jo's a citizen of the world, and he's very respectful of everybody's culture," says Donovan. "He's always talking about what's in the news. When Katrina hit New Orleans, the next day he was in the office saying, 'We've got to help those people in some way.'"
It's a sentiment that speaks to the influence of Joakim's parents. Yannick was discovered as a tennis prodigy by Arthur Ashe during an African tour in 1971 and left his family at age 12 to train and attend school in Nice. In 1983, at 23, he became the first Frenchman in 37 years to win a championship on the red clay at Roland Garros. Long retired from tennis and now a stadium-filling, Afro-reggae pop star, Yannick is still active in charities that he started in France and in Cameroon. "Joakim is French with African blood, and he was born in America, so he's in between all of this," Yannick says by phone from Paris. "In that situation you always feel for the victims. His sensitivity helps him appreciate not just what we have, but also that it can go away at any moment. He feels at home everywhere, which helps put things in perspective."
"Most interracial children have a basic open-mindedness," says Cecilia, who was a top five finisher at the 1978 Miss Universe pageant and has exhibited her sculptures at the United Nations in New York City and Geneva. "Because of the large bouquet of cultures Joakim has been given, he's very curious."
One pursuit that never sustained his interest was tennis. After spending the first three years of his life in New York City, Joakim moved to Paris with his parents and younger sister, Yelena, in 1988. (Yannick and Cecilia divorced a year later.) One day five-year-old Joakim asked his father to give him a tennis lesson, on the clay courts of the tony Racing Club. It was a disaster. "People were stopping to watch," Joakim recalls, wincing at the memory. "At that stage you just want to have fun. You don't want people comparing you and saying, 'Oh, that's Yannick Noah's son.'" He vowed never to play again.