Of all the things that Billy Donovan could have done on this night when fans packed the O’Connell Center to celebrate a second straight national championship and say farewell to two seniors and four juniors whose fingerprints are all over the trophies, nothing could have touched Cecilia Rodhe’s heart more than giving the 0-Fours a chance to have their own “Senior Night” experience.
Midway through the Friday night celebration, attended by more than 12,000 fans, Donovan said it was only appropriate to give the O-Fours — Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green — an opportunity to feel the Senior Night love. Brett Swanson, Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard, Florida’s graduating seniors, were honored with their senior moment when the Gators played Kentucky the last game of the season. With the 0-Fours opting to skip their senior years to enter the NBA draft, they were going to miss out on that chance to say that traditional good-bye to Gator fans so Donovan remedied the situation by turning Florida’s Championship Celebration into a special farewell for the four juniors.
One by one the 0-Fours were called up on the podium where parents and family waited. There they were given their jersey in a large frame, a lasting symbol of their time spent in a Florida uniform. Brewer went first, then Green and then Horford, all greeted by long, loud ovations from an adoring crowd that came to celebrate championships and say their good-byes.
The loudest ovation of all was saved for last when Noah was called up on the podium where his mom, Cecilia, waited along with his fashion model sister, Yelena. They held the jersey high while the crowd chanted “Noah! Noah! Noah!”
“What a beautiful gesture by Coach Donovan but I think they all deserve it,” said Rodhe, the 1978 Miss Sweden and first runner-up Miss Universe. “It’s been an incredible two years for these guys and to be able to get their jerseys given to them like this was so wonderful and we surely appreciate it.”
“It’s been amazing for all of us parents and families,” said Rodhe. “For us to have this chance to see our children go into young men with such skills and leadership thanks to such love and care from these coaches is so incredible. To think that they cared for our sons like this is just mind boggling. My heart is so big because of this.
“What I’ve experienced makes me a Gator for life. You can call me a Super Gator.”
For Yelena Noah, the chance to share the moment with her mother and her brother was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“This was just so amazing,” she said. “There was so much emotion and so much love for all of them and it’s the last time all of them will be here together. It’s just amazing to me that all these people love them so much.”
It was a happy-sad experience for Rodhe and Yelena, happy because the love they felt from the crowd at the O-Dome, but sad because they knew it was the last time for the 0-Fours and the three seniors.
“The last time they’ll ever be here but all good things eventually have to come to an end,” said Rodhe. “It’s progress and sometimes progress hurts but all of us have had such a wonderful two years. They’ve had such a learning experience here on so many different levels. It wasn’t all about basketball and now Billy says you have my blessing, it’s time to go. It’s like he’s pushing them out of the nest and it’s a beautiful gesture. Now they have to fly on their own but I know that Billy will be there to watch over those boys and guide them anytime they need help. They are the Gator Boys forever. They have a very strong connection with each other and with Billy.”
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Arelis Reynoso couldn’t contain her smile. Al Horford’s mom was beaming because she got to stand on the podium with Al Friday night when he received his framed jersey.
She dreamed about this moment, starting when Al first came to the University of Florida.
“It was always my dream that he would finish the school and then get this moment,” said Reynoso. “Al is a great kid and he will come back to school and he will graduate. He has to finish what he started. He knows he has to do this.”
When she stood on the podium with Al, lifting the framed jersey high, all she could think about was the emotional response of the Gator fans.
“To think that all of these people love my son so much,” she said. “I am overwhelmed.”
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The loudest ovation of the night was saved for Billy Donovan, who Thursday put to rest all the rumors that he would be leaving the University of Florida for the University of Kentucky. Donovan told the crowd that he had to go with his heart and that his heart belonged at Florida.
“You can’t buy happiness and I’m very, very happy here,” said Donovan, who said he took a page from the 0-Fours, who turned their back on NBA millions after Florida’s first national championship in 2006 to come back for a repeat performance. Donovan knew that he could have named his price at Kentucky and it would have been a done deal, but he thought about what he has built in Gainesville and chose to continue to build Florida into the nation’s premier basketball program.
Donovan thanked his seniors and the four juniors for their contributions the last two years, noting that this team will have to be mentioned with the elite teams in college basketball history. The Gators were 68-11 the last two seasons, 18-0 in post season play that included two SEC Tournament championships and two NCAA championships.
“This group of guys have got to go down in history and have to be mentioned as one of the greatest teams ever,” said Donovan.
Donovan said that the players from this team will better understand the history and significance of what they accomplished as the years go by.
“As they get older and look back on what they did, for the rest of their lives they are going to see that they have a place in college basketball with a group of very select teams,” said Donovan
Donovan credited his team with understanding the value of sacrificing for the good of the team. Without the sacrifices, he said, the championships wouldn’t have happened.
“They understand what sacrificing can do for each other,” said Donovan, who added that sacrifice “can take an ordinary group of guys and help them do extraordinary things.”