Last Dance For The Band Of Brothers

ATLANTA, GA — Sitting up on the podium next to Billy Donovan at the Sunday afternoon press conference at the Georgia Dome, Florida’s starting five of Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford, Lee Humphrey and Joakim Noah are showing no signs of nervousness. If you’re looking for a team that’s feeling a little bit frazzled or high strung, you might want to look somewhere else.

They’re having fun as they answer a barrage of questions. Often, when Donovan is answering a question, a private joke will circulate among the five.

There are moments when Brewer’s eyes rivet to something he sees on the ceiling. He leans back in his chair and fixates on whatever it is he’s looking at. Down at the other end, Joakim Noah looks like he would much rather have his earphones on and some Bob Marley cranking out.

Noah’s distracted look is ended by a question. The moment he hears his name, Noah leans forward and listens intently.

“A little more than an hour ago, Ron Lewis was up there and described you guys as a good team,” said the questioner. “A follow-up question was asked, described Ohio State as great, and referred to you again with the word “good.” How do you feel about that assessment?”

Noah leans back in his chair and rolls his eyes. He responds, “Oh my God! He said that?”

“Yes,” the questioner responds.

It’s obvious the questioner thinks he’s getting a rise out of Noah. Maybe some bulletin board material here?

Noah tries to look serious but he can’t contain it. He’s having too much fun.

“What a bad person!” Noah says, almost bursting into laughter.

The moderator asks Noah, “Anything else?”

He’s got a case of the giggles, too.

“I don’t even know what else to say,” said Noah. “I really don’t know.”

Brewer interjects, “At least he said we were good. He could have said we were bad. Next question, please.”

Brewer’s grin, which has become his signature in the last three years, goes ear to ear. His teammates laugh along with him. They’re loving this.

And why shouldn’t they?

They are the 2006 NCAA basketball champions. They are the same five that won it last year and they are back in the championship game again. When they face Ohio State Monday night, they’ll be trying to etch their names in the history book. The last time anyone repeated as NCAA champs was Duke back in 1991-92 and Duke is the only team since John Wooden sat on the UCLA sidelines with that program rolled up in his hands to do the back-to-back thing.

They are asked if they can remember how many times they have been asked if they can repeat since walking off the floor in Indianapolis with the big trophy last year.

Brewer responds, “I wish I had a nickel for every time everybody asked me that. I’d have a lot of money. I’m just saying, we’ve been asked that question a lot. But, like coach said, we really can’t think about repeating. It’s a whole different season. We won the national championship last year. Nobody can come take the trophy away from us. We’re just trying to win another one. Starts Monday night.”

Horford adds with a wide grin, “86,344.”

Repeating as NCAA champions has been the goal this season. They understand the history but history is only a fraction of why these five kids are on this big stage once again.

History is great but camaraderie is better.

So is friendship.

Love? Now you’re at the heart of the matter.

We’re in an era when LeBron James gets several gazillion dollars to skip out on college and go straight to the pros. It’s an era when Christian Drejer walks out on teammates at midseason — and he doesn’t tell them he’s doing it — for a big contract in Europe. It is an era when Carmelo Anthony can be a one-and-done mercenary.

It is not an era when five guys care about each other so much that three of them will turn their backs on guaranteed millions of dollars from the NBA to play one more year together. Yet, that’s what Horford, Brewer and Noah did.

“The reasons they chose were basically one reason only: happiness and their joy of playing with one another,” said Donovan. “To me that’s the encouraging part. I think if it was for them, if they weren’t having fun, they didn’t enjoy being in Florida, didn’t enjoy being teammates, maybe that would have made the decision for them a little bit easier but I think it’s a great testament to them and their families that they chose what was best for them.”

Being happy meant spending another year rooming with Green, who arrived on campus with them in the summer of 2004. Being happy meant spending another year in a starting lineup with Lee Humphrey, who was the throw-in that gave the “0-Fours” the fifth player they needed to go against Florida veterans like David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh in pickup games that summer.

They clicked instantly as friends. On the basketball court, they clicked instantly as a team although they would have to wait a year for Lee to graduate and Walsh and Roberson to go pro before they got their chance to show what the five of them could do working together for the same goal. They won a national championship together last year and they have a chance to win another one Monday night.

They won a championship because they play so unselfishly that they all five average double figures. Humphrey, Noah and Horford average a little over eight shots per game. Brewer and Green average a little more than nine. The Gators have played 39 games this season. All five have led the Gators in scoring at one point or another.

Whether it’s on or off the court, they have camaraderie, friendship and plenty of love. They are five players from five different backgrounds, sons of parents with diverse interests and backgrounds from all different parts of the world.

They are different as day is from night, yet in so many ways they are the same. They are bonded by basketball, the Gators, friendship and plenty of love. They are not related yet they are as close as any five brothers you could find anywhere on the planet.

These five brothers understand that this NCAA championship game will be the last time the five of them ever play together again. Humphrey is a senior so he’s gone for sure after this game. Noah, Horford and Brewer will have to decide again whether to go pro or stay one more year at Florida. Nobody really expects them to stay. Green could go pro, too, although his dad says he’ll be staying.

Who goes and who stays is something that will be decided in the future and the future will be dealt with soon enough. For now there is the game with Ohio State. It means a championship. It means a chance to be thought of as one of the greatest teams in NCAA basketball history. More importantly, it means the last time the five of them are playing together on the same team.

That is what is important to them.

“Everybody this season has tried to talk to us about the past and winning a national championship and the future and the next level but it’s never about what’s going on right now,” said Noah. “We used to always make fun of Coach Donovan — there is this SEC commercial “Live in the moment” … he always talks about living in the moment — and it’s so true. Everybody wants to talk about what happens next or what happened in the past. Nobody wants to talk about right now.

“We have a chance to make history and do something really really special and people still want to talk about the future. We always feel like if we win, everybody is going to eat, everybody’s going to be okay. That’s been our motto throughout. We’re just happy to be in this situation. It would be selfish for any one of us to think about what’s going to happen later. We’re in a great situation and we’re happy.”

All those NBA millions couldn’t buy this moment they live in, much less one second of the happiness.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.