It is media day for the Florida Gators, the NCAA’s reigning basketball champions, and Joakim Noah is holding court for a group of writers that hang on his every word under the net at one end of the practice floor at the basketball facility. He is glib. He is thoughtful. He is entertaining. He is Citizen Noah. He belongs to Gator Nation yet he also belongs to the world.
He is seven feet tall and obviously more muscular than last year when he was the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament as the Florida Gators completed their astonishing six-game run through the tournament field all the way to the national title in Indianapolis. The pony tail is still there held together by an elastic band, otherwise his curly hair just flops all over the place. The pony tail has become the trademark of college basketball’s most interesting and popular player.
Just as he charmed the nation when he coined the phrase “the Gator Boys are hot!” during the tournament, Noah is his usual, effervescent self on this day. He is bubbling over once again although he finds time to alternate enthusiastic humorous moments with thoughtful, introspective looks at himself and the Florida basketball team that begins fall practice on Friday at Midnight Madness.
He answers all questions from the heart, never once dodging or ducking. Along the way he gives glimpses of a personality shaped by life on three continents. At one moment, he is the suave Frenchman. Next he is the Viking warrior whose Swedish mother still looks like it was only yesterday when she was crowned Miss Sweden. Then he becomes New York street-wise and that is followed up by the African warrior from Cameroon. And this is all in one sentence.
He is passionate about life, the Florida Gators and his teammates. He is here because this is where he wants to be, not because he has to be here. He passed up instant millions and the notoriety of being the number one pick in the NBA draft all because it’s important for him to belong and this is where he feels that he belongs.
On this campus of 50,000 students that he calls home, he is the single most visible student and easily the most popular. On this team where he feels most at home, he is the single most visible player. He is Citizen Noah, yet to his teammates he’s simply Joakim. His heart knows no boundaries and his love of life and the teammates he calls his brothers has no beginning or end. He loves them unconditionally and his love for them is never-ending. It is contagious among his teammates. They are special, not just because they won the NCAA championship, but because of the way they went about the business of winning it. They showed that a team that never forgets the true meaning of brotherhood, friendship and unselfishness could dream impossible dreams and see them come true. And the visible heart that beats the loudest and longest on this team is Citizen Noah.
Here are excerpts from a few moments shared with Joakim Noah, Citizen of the World:
ON TEAM CHEMISTRY AND THE GOALS FOR THIS SEASON: “You don’t work team chemistry. I think everybody knows what’s going on. Everybody is smart on this team. I think everybody has the same goal and that’s what makes this team special and that’s why I think we like each other so much. Everybody wants to really, really win and everybody is ready to sacrifice to win! It doesn’t always happen that way. We lost six games last year and we beat six out of the 65 team sin the national tournament. Great, but I think that we all have the same goal and that’s to win.”
ON LEE HUMPHREY AND WHY HE MAKES NOAH’S JOB EASIER: “Humpty Dump is a problem because even if he isn’t scoring, he is such a problem around that three-point line. He spaces the floor so a guy like me can take a bigger guy off the dribble. Lee Humphrey’s man is not allowed to help at all. He can’t give him any room or it’s going up otherwise. He’s going to shoot threes. That’s what he’s going to do.”
ON HIS OWN ROLE ON THE TEAM: “Everybody has their role on this team and everybody has to appreciate that as long as we don’t get carried away and as long as we don’t let what others say affect us we’ll be okay. A lot of people told me that you have to show that you can make a jump shot this year. Why do I have to show that when I have guys like Lee Humphrey that can shoot a lot better than me? I’m going to just rebound and do what I do. I’m not going to let expectations hurt this team. I’m not going to let people say I’m supposed to be a first team All-American or be the college player of the year get in the way of winning. If I score eight points a game next year, as long as I give 150 percent I’m going to be okay regardless. Trust me, I’ll be fine.”
ON THE DIFFERENCE IN THIS YEAR FROM LAST YEAR: “It’s definitely a process and there is a difference. It’s different because last year when we used to walk from our rooms to the basketball facility nobody would say anything. This year it’s ‘Oh congratulations! Oh man, you’re so awesome!’ Right away if you don’t come in with the right mindset, like it’s so easy to just say, ‘Come on man, it’s cool! Everybody likes me around here.’ It’s so easy to lose that hunger but as long as you’re aware of it, it’s no problem. When somebody gets killed in practice everybody in the locker room is going to let you know about it and they’re going to tell you why. If somebody gets dunked on in practice, you’re going to hear about it for a long time, too. That’s just the way we are. That’s what makes us tough. Last year is last year. We have a new group of guys. It’s exciting. Last night I had a hard time falling asleep just thinking about this season. I’m nervous but I’m kind of happy that I’m nervous. It’s a good nervous not like it’s a bad nervous. You know you can do it. I think we always thought we could do it. Now we know we can do it. Now it’s on us.”
ON WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN: “We know we have enough to win. It’s not going to be rocket science. All we have to do is give 150 percent and hopefully it falls our way. We have to have luck, too. We look at games in the tournament and stuff especially like that Georgetown game that came down to the last possession. We were dominant in the tournament but things could have easily not fallen our way. I look at the last three minutes of that game. One of the guys from Georgetown hits a shot top of the key off the glass, a shot you never make and then Corey Brewer makes that shot — you guys say THE Shot. He’s never made that in his life before but boom! Next possession Corey Brewer trips over his own feet, guy has a wide open three top of the key, we’re up two … he misses it, we get the rebound, game over. Basketball is a game that things have to go your way.”
ON HIS EXPECTATIONS OF HIMSELF: “We’re just talking right now. We lose five games and you guys are not going to be asking me the same questions. I don’t even know what to say. I’m just excited to play basketball. I haven’t played a game in a long time and I’m on edge and I’m ready to go. I’m just a player, that’s all it is. At the end of the day, I realize I can’t realize what people say about me. I’m not going to worry about expectations because the expectations are crazy on me. If I’m not the number one pick next year it’s a failure. I’m not going to let that happen because it might not. It probably won’t, but that’s okay because it’s a decision I made. I’m a man and I made my own decision and I’m excited to play with a group of guys that I feel that I’m going to win with. That’s the bottom line. I sacrificed that part to hopefully win another championship. I’ve got this clown over here [Walter Hodge, sophomore guard]. How could I leave this guy? I mean, he’s my guy.”
ON THE WEIGHT OF THIS YEAR’S EXPECTATIONS: “It’s going to make us that much closer. The thing about last year is that there were no expectations but we went 17-0 and the expectations were there. They were there. There were expectations when we went 17-0. I mean it’s not the same thing. We’re not starting the season with that kind of expectation but it happened so fast that it was obvious to us. You guys showed us no love and then like a month later you guys are all here and it’s like what’s going on? It’s like the same thing. Wally [Hodge] will tell you that it happened so fast it was so obvious. Your job is to write stories. Our job is to play basketball.”
ON THE PATRON SAINT OF THE GATOR BOYS: “I’m going to tell you the whole story about Ndongo. So I was with my girlfriend in the room. Taurean [Green] was in the room hanging around with us and I told my girlfriend that my grandfather in Africa already set up a wedding and everything and I’m going to get married someday. She’s like, ‘you’re serious? For real?’ And I was like yeah, that’s the way it is. In my country, in Cameroon, my grandfather and father decided who I’m going to marry and Taurean believed the story! It’s like ‘No way! You’re kidding me, man?!’ You know Taurean’s a stupid ass! Taurean goes ‘What’s her name?’ and I’m like her name is Ndongo. So Taurean is laughing. He’s dying, laughing out loud and all that. So last year when the tournament started — and the hardest part about the tournament is the waiting time in the locker room … you have to wait there for hours — I think that before all the games, when we had to walk out … Ndongo! Everybody was screaming Ndongo! Ever since that’s our cry! When we’re together we know who Ndongo is! Ndongo has been with us ever since. Ndongo is like a spirit. She is with the Gator Boys. She will be with us this year.”
A few moments later, Taurean Green confirmed, “Ndongo is our warrior, our good luck charm. She is the patron saint of the Gators. She is with us all the time.”