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 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 Scandinavian 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 about politics, society or basketball--and sure enough, he had a breakout season that helped turn the No. 2 Gators from a preseason afterthought into the nation's most surprising team.
Florida won it all in large part due to Noah's 14.2 points and 7.1 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 in December. "He made key buckets by just outrunning us."
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--happened to be best friends who shared a campus suite. That closeness helps explain why the Gators finished the regular season leading the nation in field goal percentage (50.6) and ranked fifth in average scoring margin (14.5 points). "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, as well as Hotel Rwanda, the acclaimed film about that country's 1994 genocide, and Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. "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 dorm suite's common room, which he has decorated with African wood masks and a black-and-white shot 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. 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 chugged past the buildings on Sept. 11, 2001, toward Poly Prep in Brooklyn, 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, and 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.'"