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Go-Go Gators
April 10, 2006
Behind center Joakim Noah's snarling, suffocating defense and a balanced, up-tempo attack, Florida cruised past UCLA to win its first basketball title
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April 10, 2006

Go-go Gators

Behind center Joakim Noah's snarling, suffocating defense and a balanced, up-tempo attack, Florida cruised past UCLA to win its first basketball title

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Their effect on their coach has been startling: Donovan now sounds like an Internet-bust survivor who figured things out in the new economy, and the Gators look like the Google guys of college basketball. "The more I do this, the more I believe if you're building a successful company or program, so much of it comes down to the makeup of the people, from your coaches to your players," says Donovan. "What sets these kids apart isn't their talent. They all complement each other so well."

The Oh-Fours all have their roles within the group. Brewer, a high-flying 6'8" matchup from hell, exudes a laid-back cool beneath his headband. Green, the son of former NBA player Sidney Green, yaps back and forth with the voluble Noah and wears a point guard's chip on his shoulder. Meanwhile, Horford, the 6'9" son of former NBAer Tito Horford, brings a sage, almost regal, unifying force to the quartet. "I feel like I'm probably the father figure," says Horford, who Donovan says is one of the smartest players he has ever coached. "We run a lot of stuff on offense," the coach says, "and Al could probably tell you what all five guys should be doing."

Yet the supernova of the entire tournament was Noah, who went from playing only two minutes total in last year's NCAAs to assuming a dominant role this season, averaging 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Ranked only No. 68 in his high school recruiting class, the 6'11", 227-pound Noah rose to potential NBA-lottery status in the past month by showing off a nonstop motor and a forcefulness around the basket that belied his nickname, Stickman (hung on him by Tyrone Green, his former summer-league coach in New York City, on account of his once-frail frame). So, Joakim was asked last week, is it time to abandon your handle now that you're filling out? "Nah, I'm always going to be Sticks, even if I get buff," said Noah, who likes to adorn his autographs with a stick figure.

The ponytailed Noah was also the MVP of the interview room last week, whether he was speaking in French to a reporter for L'Equipe, recounting his vomit-inducing workouts last summer "when I could have stayed in bed all cozy with my girlfriend" or laughing about the picture of him, which has been widely circulated on the Internet, wearing a sort of giant full-length blue muumuu on campus. Cecilia Rodhe, Noah's Swedish-born mother, likes to call her son an "African Viking," owing to his exotic bloodlines. His globe-trotting French-Cameroonian father, Yannick Noah, the tennis Hall of Famer, is now a pop star in Europe. And although Noah's parents divorced in 1989, his family contingent in Indy-his sister, Yelena; his paternal grandmother, Marie-Claire; Yannick; and Cecilia-watched together from the stands last week. They all had their own special memories of Joakim's meteoric rise to hoops stardom. When Joakim hugged his mother (a former Miss Universe finalist) after winning the Most Outstanding Player award at the Minneapolis Regional, she teared up thinking back to the days in New York City's Hell's Kitchen when her son was in the seventh grade and she walked with him in the cold to enroll him in a Police Athletic League basketball program.

Yannick, for his part, had sat angst-ridden in a Paris TV studio at 4 a.m. and watched the live broadcast as Florida clinched its Final Four berth. Last week in Indianapolis he thought back to the trip he and his father, Zacharie, had made to see the Gators play two home games in March. "It was good to be the three Noah boys again," said Yannick, whose dad hadn't seen his grandson since Joakim's visit to Cameroon last summer. "Our flight was late, so when we arrived, the game had already started. There was a timeout, and my dad let go with a big whistle. Even with 14,000 people there, Jo looked up and raised his fist. That was special."

So too, naturally, were the scenes in Indy. In their 73-58 semifinal win over George Mason, the Gators abruptly ended the greatest Cinderella story in NCAA tournament history without a shred of remorse. So skilled were Noah and Horford that they put the lie to the adage that guards rule the NCAA tournament. "In March you need playmakers and decision makers, and most of the time those guys are your guards," says Donovan. "It's a little bit different for us because the decision makers in a lot of what we do are Horford and Noah. A lot of our offense runs through those guys." Time and again last Saturday, Horford and Noah pulled down rebounds, only to forgo outlet passes and dribble to the front of the Gators' fast break.

While Florida fans were partying in the lobby of the Omni Severin hotel in downtown Indy just three hours after the win over George Mason, Donovan and his staff gathered one floor below in a windowless basement bunker to cram for UCLA. Assistant coach Donnie Jones edited clips of UCLA's offensive and defensive sets as the rest of the staff watched tape of the Bruins' tournament games. Standing before a massive dry-erase board, Donovan began drawing plays from the Bruins' screen- and stagger-heavy offensive sets, focusing on how to defend Farmar on pick-and-rolls. "You can have two guys go out and play Farmar, but that will leave one of their bigs wide open, and that's exactly what they want," Donovan said. "You want to make [Farmar] turn the corner and take it to our bigs and throw it out. Don't run two guys at the ball."

Florida's strategy worked to a tee against the Bruins. Farmar's high pick-and-rolls were harmless, and to stymie UCLA's three-point threat, Donovan sicced the 6'8" Brewer on Afflalo, who finished with only 10 points. Green went 1 for 9 from the floor, but he provided a dangerous spark all night. "Taurean was the one who ignited everything because he forced them to put two guys on him," Donovan said, "and we threw the ball back to Jo, who was really able to put the ball down and create."

Even though Yannick's 1983 French Open championship took place two years before he was born, Joakim has seen the tape of his father's victory more than a dozen times. Whenever he watches, he'll replay the triumphant scene in which his grandfather Zacharie leaps out of the stands onto the Roland Garros clay and embraces Yannick before an adoring French crowd. "Every time I watch, it gives me shivers," Joakim said last week. "It's pure, raw emotion. There's nothing fake about it."

Twenty-three years later, another touching championship moment between Noahs took place in the RCA Dome. In the delirium after the final horn, as a paper rainbow fell from the rafters, Joakim climbed into the Florida cheering section. He hugged his mother first, then his sister, and then his father pulled him close until the two men were cheek to cheek. "Je suis fier de toi," Yannick whispered in his ear. "Merci, merci." ("I am proud of you. Thank you, thank you.")

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