When he walked off the court at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, perhaps for the last time Sunday afternoon, Joakim Noah did what he always does. He acknowledged the Rowdy Reptiles that adore him with winks and blown kisses and then he took time to slap hands with so many kids, all of them straining and leaning over the railing, hoping for just a moment of his attention.
When he finished his post-game stroll through his adoring fans, Noah disappeared into Florida’s locker room with a satisfied smile on his face. The Gators had beaten Kentucky handily and he had played with the same kind of passion and energy that became part of the March Madness landscape last year. If this was Noah’s final game at the O-Dome, it was one heckuva way to go out.
Noah is easily the most charismatic and popular basketball player in the history of the University of Florida and maybe only Danny Wuerffel is a more beloved figure in all of Florida athletics. It’s no accident that Noah is so popular. All you have to do is watch him spend a few moments with kids after a game or take time to talk to students when he ambles across the campus, easily its most visible and recognizable figure. When we hear him switch from English to French and back again to English, we’re reminded that he’s a true citizen of the world with Viking roots from his former beauty queen mother who was Miss Sweden and African and French roots from his pop music star father, a former tennis pro that has been an icon in France ever since he won the French Open back in the 1980s. As easily as Noah switches languages, he can shift the conversation from the passion of his life, basketball, to unstable political situations on other continents, world hunger or social injustice. Sometimes we forget that he’s just 22 years old.
He was already a popular figure on the Florida campus before he led the Gators to their first NCAA basketball championship a year ago, but since that moment when the Gators won it all, Noah has become somewhat of a cult hero. Maybe it’s the long hair that he ties back in a pony tail or the quick smile. Maybe it’s the one-liners. Maybe it’s the love he has for his teammates and the passion in which he plays the game. Whatever it is, he has it and because he has it, he’s spent the last year learning what his father has to go through every day. Not all the lessons he’s learned have been easy ones.
Entering this season, Noah was everybody’s cover boy. Predicted to be the national player of the year and expected to lead the Gators to a repeat national championship, Noah has had to deal with expectations far greater than anything he experienced last year. To his credit, he has done his best to live up to the hype while remaining the same old Joakim Noah, citizen of the world, accessible to everyone. As much as he has wanted things to remain the same as last year, he’s had to learn that with the national championship and the celebrity of being the poster child for college basketball come demands that just can’t be met.
Coach Billy Donovan warned it would be like this and he’s spent plenty of time counseling Noah, but there have been times he’s felt like the mama bird kicking the baby out of the nest. There have been plenty of times that he’s had to let Noah stretch his wings and fly solo.
“Joakim Noah wanted to win and he wanted what was best for our team, but what he didn’t realize is that other stuff comes with this playing with passion and emotion and with achievement,” said Donovan Monday afternoon.
The other stuff involved things like saying no.
If you have watched Joakim Noah in a crowd, then you know that saying no is probably as difficult a task as you can ask him. He’s done his best to be the same accommodating Joakim Noah that he was last year when there wasn’t nearly the hype and nearly the expectations on him and the Florida Gators. Probably the hardest task is to say no to family and the many friends that come to see him play at every arena.
“That’s hard sometimes when you have your family and friends coming in from out of town and having to say no sometimes,” said Noah. “I know that at the beginning of the season I didn’t know how to do that. I don’t feel we had to do that last year.”
Saying no is painful but a necessity that he now understands comes with the territory of being nearly 7-feet tall and a pony-tailed chest-thumper that is a lightning rod for attention. At the O’Connell Center, he is loved and adored. On the road, he is Public Enemy Number One, booed and taunted to the point that Donovan says that fans quite often cross the line of decency. Wherever he goes, the media seeks him out because he’s always funny and never ducks a question. He will answer questions until he’s told it’s time to go.
The accessibility and the charismatic personality magnify the immense talent. When he’s on his game, he’s an intimidating eraser on defense that blocks shots, puts the ball on the floor to lead fast breaks and finishes with thundering jams. Last year he burst on the scene like a fireball across the sky. This year, the fireball is expected to be a full-fledged comet but no matter how well he plays, it never seems to be good enough for the media or fans that expect him to play every game at or near the level he played against UCLA in the NCAA championship game last year.
“I feel like I’ve had to deal with expectations,” said Noah. “Last year, whatever we did people were happy with it. This year when we would win games people weren’t satisfied. I think that’s why I always felt like Coach always wanted to make it important like cutting down the nets so early, to make us realize what we’re accomplishing and not let people affect us individually. It’s definitely different than it was last year. When you’re defending a national championship everybody has baggage because there are so many distractions, so many people in your ear, talking about the next level. I didn’t have to worry about that last year.”
Last year, when all the attention was brand new Noah perhaps thought that a few weeks after the season ended, it would all go away and he could go back to being the most popular student on the Florida campus. The attention never went away, however. It has been magnified and it has multiplied. He is in more demand than ever before and that has often strained his ability to remain fully focused.
“Those are all things that I’ve never been through before,” he said. “This is the first time. Coach always tells me that sometimes I have to be able to say no and be more selfish because I have to save my energy and focus on the task at hand. If you try to be nice to everybody sometimes it’s not helpful to the team.”
It is the team that is his true concern in life. It is because of the team that he’s making every possible effort to put every distraction aside. It is tournament time. At most, there are nine games left in this season and quite possibly his college basketball career. Just as he learned during the tough grind of the Southeastern Conference schedule that every game is somebody else’s Super Bowl when you are the defending national champ, the upcoming SEC and NCAA tournaments will bring out the very best that opponents have to offer.
“Right now it’s the time of year when it’s do or die,” said Noah.
And do or die means total focus every single game. Unlike the SEC schedule where the Gators were so far ahead of the pack that they went on cruise control for a short stretch, this time when Florida gets an opponent’s best shot, it is for the right to advance and play one more game.
“Coach Donovan has always told us that teams are not only going to give us their best shot but they feel they have to play the perfect game to beat the Gators,” said Noah, who added, “what’s important to me and what’s important to me right now is winning and surviving and moving on to the next round. This is the time of the year. This is what it’s all about right now with March basketball, college basketball. Let’s get everybody in the right mindset.”
To get in the right mindset, Noah has found sanctuary in the on-campus apartment he shares with fellow 0-Fours Al Horford, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer. It’s a place where paper plates and plastic are required since Horford says everybody is too lazy to do the dishes, but it’s their place, their refuge from all the attention.
“When we’re in our rooms that’s our place, that’s our territory and nobody can bother us,” said Brewer. “When we’re in public we get mobbed and stuff.”
The four juniors, who have roomed together since they arrived on the Florida campus, are as close as any four brothers. So close, says Horford, that the almost daily fights between Noah and Green have become a source of amusement.
“Taurean and Jo get in a fight on a regular basis about stupid stuff,” said Horford. “Like who’s taking a shower first and get out of my room … I don’t like you. Stuff like that happens every day. Me and Corey sit back and watch them. It’s pretty funny because they really get into it.”
The fights with Noah and the decision whether to clean the apartment or wait until Noah’s mom arrives once a month — that’s first on Cecilia Rodhe’s agenda when she gets to Gainesville — is a tonic compared to what Noah gets when he’s out in public where unsolicited advice about everything from school work to women to turning pro is offered. If he needs advice, the first place he turns is to Horford, Brewer and Green.
“A lot of people talk to me and try to explain things to me all the time,” said Noah. “If I need advice I like to ask for the advice sometimes because I think that my roommates are the only ones who really understand what’s going on, who really understand my situation. I’m very comfortable speaking to them about it.
“I feel like everybody has something to say especially when I’m not playing well or when I’m down. I don’t like it when everybody has something to say because nobody understands what I’m going through. I just don’t like it when people who don’t know me [offer advice]. You don’t know how many messages I get after a game and stuff like that. I would rather talk to people who understand my situation but my roommates do and I appreciate that because I know they’re there for me regardless.”
In the learning process he’s gone through this year, he’s discovered that people say hurtful things and that there are bandwagon friends, 100 percent with him when he’s playing well while questioning him the moment he has a game that doesn’t meet up to their standards. Whether he likes it or not he’s had to grow up and deal with expectations that are not of his own making.
Dealing with both good and bad has been a chore, but he has no regrets. He could have been the first player taken in the NBA Draft last year and his contract would have been worth multiple millions, but he chose to stay with this friends and play basketball for the Gators. His friends, his coaches, his teammates are what he lives for.
“I’m growing up,” he said. “I’m learning from all these different experiences and there have been so many experiences that I feel like I’ve learned this year. I don’t regret anything. I don’t regret staying here. I love being here. I’m learning a lot just about people. I’m growing myself. I feel like my teammates and especially the people that I’ve been living with, we talk about these things. We’re in the room and we’re always talking after a loss to 3-4 in the morning after or after a win. We know what we have to do [to win the national championship] and there’s nobody that I would rather do it with than them.”