ST. LOUIS, MO — It has gotten to a point that it’s almost comical the stuff you hear opposing fans shouting from the stands at Joakim Noah. Probably 40 percent or more is best suited for one of those websites that feature “intimate online encounters” with Bambi or Chi Chi or one of those girl next door types that are earning their tuition money so they can complete their PHDs.
Over the weekend in St. Louis at the Midwest Regional, Noah was the greatest villain since Ox Baker. Friday night, the Butler fans tried to set a world record for abusive language hurled at one player. Sunday, Oregon fans didn’t set records simply because there weren’t as many of them as there were Butler fans, and they weren’t particularly creative, either. One particularly fat Duck fan kept screaming at Noah to get a hair cut and a few other unprintable remarks. All this from a guy whose barber gives him a haircut that resembles a toilet seat.
Saturday, the Gators will face UCLA in the semifinals at the Georgia Dome. Last year when Florida played the Bruins in the NCAA championship game in Indianapolis, a UCLA cheerleader kept calling Noah “ugly.” Noah just laughed and kept blowing kisses at her every time he dunked in the face (often) of one of those pathetic UCLA big men.
This year, Noah had an encounter with a Kentucky cheerleader. She shook her pom poms in his face. Noah swatted them away.
There were some moments earlier in the season when some of the abuse, which Coach Billy Donovan says has often “crossed the line on decency,” got to Noah. As if he didn’t have plenty else to deal with since he was on the cover of every pre-season basketball magazine, Noah was the lightning rod for showers of verbal abuse every time the Gators played a road game.
At some point during the SEC portion of Florida’s season, Noah admits he took a quantum leap in the growing up process and figured out how to channel the abuse into self-motivation. He figured out that he can’t control a single thing that other people say but he can control his own reactions. He could choose to let the hate raining down on him from the stands affect him in a negative way or he could turn it into incentive to play harder. He chose to play harder.
The competitive fire that burns in Joakim Noah’s belly is already hotter than your typical blast furnace. Now that it’s NCAA Tournament time, Noah has channeled the abuse as if it’s 50-gallon drums of NASCAR high octane thrown onto an already raging fire.
Aaron Brooks, Oregon’s shooting guard supreme, who torched the Gators for 27 points, raved after the game about the focus and passion that Noah plays with. Brooks talked about how Noah doesn’t take a play off and plays with the kind of hunger and desire you expect to see of someone who’s never made it to the top of the mountain, not someone who was last year’s MVP in the NCAA Tournament.
Against Oregon, Noah scored 14 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and played intimidating defense, particularly down the stretch, in Florida’s 85-77 Midwest Region championship win. He didn’t just grab rebounds around the rim. He ripped them away. Late in the game when two Oregon players tried to surround him after a rebound, Noah cleared them out in a hurry with a powerful roundhouse swipe of the elbows that would have broken a nose or a jaw if it had connected.
Oregon got the message.
Of course, the Oregon fans whined and cried. It’s okay for their guys to mug Noah but it’s mean and nasty if Noah retaliates in any way. But Oregon fans are no different than the fans at any arena where the Gators play these days.
Because he is the tallest, most visible and most charismatic player on a team that has every good chance of becoming the first since Duke (1991-92) to repeat as NCAA champs, Noah is the easiest to boo, the easiest to taunt and the easiest to hate.
What’s funny, however, is that all these fans screaming abuse and thinking they’re getting under his skin would willingly give up cash or body parts to have Noah on their team. Joakim Noah may be the player that everybody loves to hate. He is also the player that everybody would love to have on their team.
There’s a pretty good reason for this love-hate relationship: Noah is the one guy out there that makes everybody on his team better.
Think about it for a second. How many players do you know that make everybody better even when they’re not having a great game?
Larry Bird was like that. Magic was like that. Michael Jordan was like that.
In the college game, Noah is like that and he might be the only one capable of lifting an entire team to new heights. Greg Oden (Ohio State) can make everybody around him a better defensive player simply because he’s the eraser in the paint. Kevin Durant (Texas) can make everybody around him a better offensive player because he commands so much attention that everybody else is going to be open.
Noah can make everybody better without blocking a shot or scoring a point although he’s an intimidating shot blocker and he’s proven he can score when Florida needs him to put points on the board. Noah’s reputation as a defender is such that he intimidates even when he doesn’t go up to block a shot. On the offensive end, he’s so good putting the ball on the floor and passing to open teammates that he’s like having a 6-11 point guard out there.
He can also make everybody better just because when he steps on the court nobody plays harder or with more energy or with more passion. He brings it every play and teammates are compelled to elevate their energy and passion levels to try to keep up with him. Everybody gets better just because Noah is playing the game, no matter what he contributes to the stat line in the box score.
That’s why he’s so good. That’s why those same fans that hate him so much would kill to have him on their team.
That’s also why you have to figure the Gators are going to repeat as NCAA champs. UCLA, Ohio State and Georgetown are all exceptional teams or else they wouldn’t be in the Final Four. They all have their share of great players. Again, that’s why they’re in the Final Four.
But only Florida has Joakim Noah and that’s why you have to like the Gators’ chances to win.
Sunday afternoon, after the Gators had disposed of Oregon to earn punch their ticket for Atlanta and the Final Four, Noah kept shouting “Keep hating! Keep hating!”
He understands now. He knows the fans that hate him can elevate his energy level. He knows that when his energy level is at its peak, the Gators are pretty darn good.
Nobody’s unbeatable at this point in the season, but if Noah’s got more voltage than an electric chair on Saturday when the Gators face off with UCLA, you have to like Florida’s chances. You have to like them a lot.