ATLANTA, GA — During this learning lab of a season Joakim Noah has discovered what life is like when it is dissected and placed in full view of the public. Noah was barely 21 years old last year when the Florida Gators won the NCAA title by stomping UCLA in the championship game in Indianapolis. Chronologically, he may only be 22 now but his heart and soul are at least 40.
Living life under the microscope makes you grow up fast and it has this nasty habit of petrifying the pure joy that has always flowed free and hot like molten lava from a spirit so free that it defies conventional descriptions. It has been a year of discovering the endless realities of life for Joakim Noah, who was besieged by reporters on the eve of Florida’s Final Four encounter with UCLA at the Georgia Dome on Friday.
When you are nearly seven feet tall and you have this mop of hair with a mind of its own that might fly off to another planet if not rounded up and shackled into a pony tail, you’re hard to miss wherever you go. That wasn’t such a problem until Noah and the Florida Gators won the NCAA Tournament, turning this gentle-soul hippie born 40 years too late into the object of everybody’s attention.
When your former Miss Sweden mom still looks good enough to cause heart failure and your fashion model sister redefines stunning and your dad is a French pop music icon that also used to play tennis well enough to win the French Open, you discover that folks are always going to be talking about your family. When Noah was just another basketball player on the Florida bench, nobody paid all that much attention to his family. They do now.
When your teammates and friends call you the most unselfish person they’ve ever met, you’re always going to find that there is someone out there lurking, wanting something from you. Sometimes it’s just an autograph. Sometimes it’s much much more, but always, it seems, somebody wants a little bit more of Joakim Noah.
And when you’re the poster child of college basketball — not that you lobbied for the honor, mind you — and you play for the team that won the national championship the year before and you’re back at the Final Four with a chance to win it again, at some point you discover that you aren’t the one that set the bar so high and made the expectations so difficult to live up to. Sometimes you have to learn that the media that writes or reports all those good things about you is the same media that will question and criticize you the first chance it gets when you don’t live up to expectations that aren’t of your own making.
“People are so quick to judge us,” said Noah in the Florida locker room Friday. He was in the center of a horde or reporters, patiently answering their questions in typical Noah style. He was thoughtful. He was funny. He was philosophical. He was intense and yet that gentle nature was never too far from the surface.
In this year when it seems that every move he makes has been documented and rehashed a thousand times over, he’s had to learn to deal with judgmental people. He’s also learned that the one person that he might have at one point thought was a bit too judgmental was really on his side all along.
Last year, after the Gators won the NCAA title, Billy Donovan was appreciative of all the attention the basketball program was getting but he was quick to point out that Florida’s run to the championship didn’t necessarily prove the Gators were the best team in the nation.
“There were 65 teams in this tournament — 65,” said Donovan when that same subject was brought up Friday afternoon. “There’s going to be one standing. The winner standing will have played six games. That’s 59 teams you never see, you never have to scout, evaluate and you don’t know. I don’t know how our basketball team would have done against some of these other opponents. I don’t know who the best team is in college basketball.”
When Donovan first broached that subject last spring, Noah was immediately offended. He thought Donovan was diminishing the accomplishment of the entire team. Noah remembered all those mornings when he was lifting weights and running at 6 a.m. to get himself strong enough and in good enough shape to last the marathon of a college basketball season. He remembered all those nights in the gym when he worked out by himself or with a teammate, trying to fine tune one little something he had learned in practice earlier that day. He remembered all the times his team had laughed together, cried together, lost together and then in the end, won the ultimate prize together.
And he thought Billy Donovan didn’t respect what the team had gone through.
“The thing about the NCAA Tournament in what I have realized is that the best team doesn’t always win,” said Noah Friday afternoon. “I learned that from Coach Donovan. At first I was mad when Coach Donovan said that. He said we won six games but that doesn’t mean we were the best team in that tournament. When I heard him say that, it made me mad. I was like, ‘Coach, how can you say that? Why are you disrespecting us like that? We won the national championship. We were the best team.’
“Well, it’s true. All it is is winning six games.”
It wasn’t until Noah began to see a much bigger picture that he realized the life lesson that Donovan was teaching. The Florida Gators won the national championship by controlling the things they could control. They played the six teams that stood in their way and they won all six games.
The Gators couldn’t control what the other 59 teams did and they couldn’t speculate what might have been if they had drawn different opponents or a different bracket. They had to live in the moment and deal with whatever and whoever stood in their way. When it was over, they were the last team standing. There were folks that said UConn should have won it or that Texas could have won it or Duke would have won it if only. If only frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their butts every time they jump.
Life lesson learned. Take care of your business. Live in this moment and don’t worry about what other people think.
There was another life lesson after the Gators beat South Carolina at the O’Connell Center to clinch the SEC regular season championship. It was only the second time in school history (the first was 1989) that the Gators won the SEC outright and Donovan let the Gators celebrate by cutting down the nets and dancing on the O-Dome court.
The significance of the moment took awhile to sink in but Noah understood once again that Donovan was busy teaching a life lesson — soak in each moment when something good happens because there may never be another one like this.
“Every step of the way I feel like this team has been critiqued and judged and sometimes that is so draining,” said Noah. “Not physically … but more mentally. That is why I feel like Coach Donovan … every time we had a chance to cut down the nets or do something special, we did it. Not every coach would let his players go out there and start shaking their butt like I did after we won the SEC championship. I feel like Coach let us do that because there are so many expectations on this team like the Gators are supposed to win the SEC championship.
“No we’re not. We wake up at 6 a.m. and we sacrifice and go hard for these moments to win championships and be in the Final Four.”
Donovan and Noah are polar opposites in so many ways. They may not agree on politics or a vast array of subjects. Some of the things Donovan thinks are irrelevant are vital issues to Noah. Donovan has learned to respect Noah’s passion for life and his caring, thoughtful nature. Noah has learned to respect Donovan because he knows his coach cares deeply about him as a person.
Basketball may be what brought them together but mutual respect and love is what makes this odd couple a happy work that might always need to make some progress.
“He’s a father figure to me,” Noah said. “I feel like we are so different in so many ways but we’re very similar when it comes to basketball. I feel like he’s very passionate.”
When Noah chose to return to Florida for one more year rather than go to the NBA where he would have likely been the first player chose in the June 2006 draft, he gave up guaranteed millions of dollars to be a Gator one more year. Maybe he didn’t recognize all the expectations and distractions that would be waiting for him but to his credit, he has never once regretted the decision.
He’s loved every second of playing basketball with his teammates. He loves to practice. He loves to play. He loves hanging around with teammates and coaches. He loves it when the lights go on in the arena and it’s game time.
And one of the reasons he loves it so much is because he’s had Donovan there to prepare him for every step along this road that few will ever travel.
“I feel that what Coach is teaching me is don’t worry about all the distractions and everything else,” said Noah. “I have gone through that at the University of Florida and he has been there for me throughout. What I love about him is that he has always been real to me. He’s never lied to me. He has always told me how it is.
“There were times during the season when I felt drained and there were times that were hard during the season. I would go up to him and he would just tell me, ‘would you trade all of it?’ There is no way. I wouldn’t trade any of this. I don’t regret anything and I am happy he’s been there for me throughout my career here.”
Noah reminded the media that Florida’s motto is PHD — poor, hungry and driven. It goes without saying that in this season under the microscope, Joakim Noah has earned a PhD in life thanks, in part, to a little help from Professor Donovan. Maybe it hasn’t always been a match made in heaven, but it’s certainly a heavenly match.