Donovan had help, of course, and from nowhere more than the Oh-Fours themselves, the roommates of the high school class of '04 who now must be considered one of the most cohesive and storied units in the annals of college sports. The four-man suite that houses Noah, Horford, Brewer and point guard Taurean Green looks just like any other dorm room in the Keys Complex on Stadium Drive in the center of the Florida campus, but the residents are pure sporting gold, a quartet that Donovan knows may be a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting class. "I hope not," he says of the group, which included only one McDonald's All-American ( Brewer), "because this is what coaching should be like all the time."
The Oh-Fours never faced a more daunting challenge, though, than the slide in late February in which the Gators lost three of four games, all by double digits. But then came an intervention that, according to everyone involved, changed their season. Less than 24 hours after the third defeat, an 86?76 loss at Tennessee on Feb. 27, Green's father, Sidney—a former NBA forward—took a day off from his job as a hotel executive in Orlando and made an emergency trip to Gainesville. When Big Sid, as the Oh-Fours call him, met with his son at the campus bookstore, he was shocked by his slumped body language and the filthy state of his Chevy Impala, which Taurean usually keeps spotless. Noah's bedroom was a mess too. The Gators had turned into a Behind the Music episode.
Over dinner that night at a Japanese steak house, Big Sid went to work. "You guys are 25?5, and you're acting like it's the end of the world," he told them. "You're trying to live up to everyone else's expectations, and you're pressing, and it shows." The players nodded, and a tearful Noah came clean. "You're right," he said. "I'm not having any fun." To restore the sense of youthful wonder that drove them to last year's title, Sidney popped a copy of the Gators' breakout win over Syracuse early in he '05?06 season into the DVD player back at the dorm.
On the screen was a vision from a previous life, a band of brothers diving for loose balls, running with abandon and playing with the joy of an unranked team making a name for itself. The dorm room erupted. "They were jumping up and down, yelling and rewinding and playing it back again," recalls Big Sid, a 6' 9" mountain of a man who starred at UNLV. "After they won the SEC tournament, Joakim came to me and said, 'Big Sid, I want to thank you.' It broke me down right there."
After the intervention Florida never lost again. "I feel like that turned our season around," says Horford. "We talked to Coach Donovan, and we told him, 'If we're going to go down, we're going to go down our way.' "
Suddenly Noah, in particular, was smiling again. Few college athletes have had a more bracing introduction to the peculiar American celebrity cycle than the ponytailed Gators poster boy, who has gone from being a bench-warming freshman to the 2006 Final Four MOP as a sophomore to college basketball's most vilified (and, yes, envied) athlete as a junior. Born in New York City to a French father ( Yannick Noah, the Hall of Fame tennis player) and a Swedish mother (sculptor Cecilia Rodhe), Joakim is the most politically conscious hoops star since Bill Walton. A 7-foot peacenik, Joakim once marched outside the United Nations in an Iraq war protest, and he was presumably the only player watching C-Span in his hotel during the Final Four and issuing a whoop of "My guy!" when Barack Obama appeared on the screen.
Noah, a dual citizen of France and the U.S., calls Gainesville "Real America," a place where he says he has learned tolerance for people who don't share his worldview. "I've met people like Coach Donovan, who is a Republican and a pretty conservative guy, but he's been like another father figure to me," Noah says. "It just showed me you don't have to have the same political views to get along."
Like a hoops version of Bernard Henri-L�vy or Alexis de Tocqueville, two other French philosophes who became expert observers of America, Noah is familiar with both the highbrow—his mother is a friend of the famed architect Frank Gehry—and the lowbrow. And you don't get much more lowbrow than some of the entries on Facebook, the social networking website used primarily by college students. Facebook had 170 different pages devoted to Noah as of late March, most of them with titles like Joakim Noah Looks Like Chewbacca (623 members), I'd Pay Good $ to Punch Joakim Noah in the Face (134 members).
"When people don't know you, who cares what they think?" Noah says. "But I've gone through more good than bad at the University of Florida, and I've learned so much this year." Foremost among those lessons: When it comes to this country's celebrity culture, you have to take the good with the bad. "People talk about Joakim being French and African and Swedish," says his mother, "but he was born in the U.S., and this country has given him his big break. We feel very lucky."
After the night with Big Sid, Noah reminded himself to savor the private moments, like the time he and the Oh-Fours went to the Gainesville Chili's after winning the SEC tournament title and encountered student manager Kyle Gilreath, who sent them a round of shots to celebrate. "Thanks, man!" they yelled back, only to laugh upon discovering the shots were just Grenadine-flavored water. ("I have friends who are managers at other schools who say [negative] things about their players," says Gilreath, "but these guys are just awesome kids, like brothers [to each other].")