The confetti streamed down from the rafters of the Georgia Dome Monday night as the Florida band blasted out one song after another. Joakim Noah climbed up in the stands and almost ran by his mom. Cecila grabbed him and then leaped into his arms. Taurean Green hugged his dad, Big Sid, and his mom simultaneously. Corey Brewer hugged anybody and everybody.
It was a chaotic scene of celebration. As much fun as it was last year in Indianapolis when the Gators won their first NCAA basketball championship, this one was better. Better, probably, because everybody who was celebrating knew that we’d just seen something unique in the modern era of college basketball. We watched a group of kids from as diverse backgrounds as you can imagine become a band of brothers and then fulfill their mission. They won in 2006 when nobody expected them to win. They won in 2007 with all the pressure to repeat and everybody expecting them to win. Through the process, they held tight to the understanding that it was “US” against the world — not one, not a couple, but ALL of them, united together as one. There was no I in their vocabulary only words like WE and US.
Watching those kids hug their friends, family and fans, I thought about all that’s happened in this miraculous journey of the past two seasons. What a ride it’s been. We’ve been treated to great basketball by Coach Billy Donovan and his team, but we’ve also had the opportunity to share in the lives of a unique group of young men, as unique and outstanding a team as there has been in college basketball history.
I was one of those “wait till next year” Gators that hoped I would live to see the day when we won the SEC back in the 1960s when I started going to Florida basketball games. Now I’ve been treated to two straight national championships by a group of kids that is unlike any I’ve ever been around. This has been a once in a lifetime experience afforded me by a once in a lifetime group of kids. It’s really only hitting me now what I’ve had the opportunity to chronicle for Gator Country these last two years.
Here are a few memories of my journey through March Madness.
ONE SHINING MOMENT: CBS always ends its broadcast of the national championship game with “One Shining Moment” and everybody sees this marvelous video collage of all that’s gone on during the last three weeks in the march through the madness. What fans couldn’t see Monday night was the Florida Gators, sitting on the podium, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth to the music, singing along.
Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and Jack Berry were there at the left end of the podium and they were all three singing along. Corey reminded me of a little kid at Christmas the way he looked up at the video board. You could see the reflection of the bright lights in his eyes, which were moist with tears as he mouthed out the words of the song. If Corey was choking up, Jo wasn’t far behind. This was a special moment that they weren’t ever going to forget.
Asked at the post-game press conference about what was going on in his mind as he watched that video, Brewer responded, “One Shining Moment almost makes you want to cry. Second time I got to watch it, our team got to watch it, just to see what goes into people playing in the NCAA tournament. That’s why you love college basketball, all the guys diving on the floor, everybody playing as hard as they can play just to be in this moment where we are right now. We’re just very fortunate to win two in a row, just to win this one, we’re happy.”
My lasting memory of Corey Brewer will be the smile and the joy of playing the game that he never once tried to hide. This is a kid that spent his Saturdays working a trash route with his dad. Ellis “Pee Wee” Brewer wouldn’t have minded if Corey had wanted to spend time working on his jump shot, but Corey volunteered to work with his dad just so the two of them could have quality time together. Corey always talked about the lessons he learned from his dad, about how anything worth having was worth working hard to get. Maybe that’s why he always smiles when he plays. He understands hard, physical work and playing the game is sheer joy.
Unlike Taurean Green, Joakim Noah and Al Horford, Brewer’s family wasn’t comfortably secure with its finances. Pee Wee Brewer had a leg amputated this year and he’s had several heart procedures. Last year when NBA millions were calling, it was Corey Brewer that announced to his three teammates that he was coming back to go for two. When he said he was coming back, the other three said we’re there with you. He had more to gain from a financial standpoint than any of the others but he felt there was more to life than making money. He loved being a Gator and he loved being in school and he loved playing with his teammates. He knew the NBA would wait a year but if he left, he would never again have the chance to play with these teammates again. So he said yes to Florida and no to the NBA.
When he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2007 NCAA Tournament Monday night, I felt it was so appropriate that he was honored since he is the one that set off the chain reaction among his teammates.
IT’S GOTTA BE THE SHOES: Never one to hide his emotions, Joakim Noah stood on the podium with his teammates after the trophy presentation. Fans were chanting “Noah! Noah! Noah!” and he could no longer contain himself.
The right shoe came off first. Noah heaved that deep in the stands over to his left. Fans leaped to catch it then scrambled to be the first to claim Noah’s right shoe. Then came the left shoe and he heaved that one over to his right. Again the fans scrambled for the shoe.
Noah didn’t have a particularly good game Monday night but that didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered to him was the team won the game. The reaction we saw was the same one we would have gotten if he had played lights out and won the MOP award himself. Points? Didn’t matter who got them as long as the team won. Awards? Didn’t matter who got them as long as the team won.
The team won Monday so he celebrated by walking around in his socks the rest of the evening, hugging anyone that stood in his path and signing one autograph after another — they literally had to force him into the tunnel that took him to the locker room.
My lasting memory of Joakim Noah is the last question he was asked in the locker room Monday night before the reporters were shooed away.
Asked what he would miss most, Noah responded, “I’m going to miss practice. I’m going to miss getting taped and just talking trash to Duke (Werner) the trainer. I’m going to miss going with Horfy and doing individuals with him before practice. I’m going to miss going up to Coach Donovan’s office when I got to talk to him about something. I’m going to miss going up in the offices where it’s quiet and start screaming to try to get it all pumped up in there and those guys just laughing because they know it’s me. I’m going to miss so many things. I’m going to miss the whole process. I’m going to miss treatment after practice because I’m tired and sore.”
At that point, they told Noah it was time to go. When he got up from his seat, grabbed my hand and bumped chests with me and smiled.
“We did it, baby!” he said.
THE ETERNAL OPTIMIST: When the Gators were at their lowest point of the season, during that three out of four losing streak, Chris Richard never once wavered. He kept telling us everything would be all right, that there was no need to worry even for a second and he was right.
If you’ve followed C-Rich over the last four years, then you are familiar with his demeanor. He’s always positive, never negative. This is a guy that always believes today will be better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today.
I’m convinced his attitude had a lot to do with the Gators never losing faith in themselves in these last two seasons when they hit that late February swoon — three straight losses in February of 2006 and then the three out of four in 2007. He was always encouraging his teammates and he never once showed a bit of concern. He knew what his teammates were capable of doing and he did his part to get them in the right frame of mind.
Every team needs a Chris Richard. In fact, every team the Gators played in the NCAA Tournament this year needed Chris Richard in the worst way. He would have started for all six teams the Gators played. UCLA with Chris Richard might have been the national champ. Ohio State, with Chris Richard at power forward next to Greg Oden, definitely would have been.
But he was a Gator, and he’s one of the reasons Florida won it the last two years. His contributions on the court were as a solid low post scorer, a good position rebounder and a tough, physical performer. He was the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year. His contributions in the locker room where he was a steadying force that was respected by all his teammates are immeasurable.
When it came to dealing with the media, he always gave honest answers that were straight from the heart. You could ask C-Rich anything and he would give you a thoughtful answer. He is funny, intelligent, sweet-natured and caring.
My favorite Chris Richard interview memory: During the 2006 season I asked who was the team neat freak and who was the best cook. Al Horford and Taurean Green claimed that Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah were total slobs although they conceded that Noah is a pretty good cook. Asked about his own habits, Richard said without hesitation that he’s the neatest player on the team and the best cook. Little did I realize when I asked that question that Chris was raised in a single parent home and he had siblings. While his mom was often working a couple of jobs to make ends meet, Chris took over as the man of the house, made sure the place was always clean as a whistle and he learned to cook full meals. My respect for C-Rich grew by quantum leaps that day and I understood why he is always so thoughtful and mature.
We had a team with kids who have famous dads. We had Chris Richard who grew up without his dad around. Billy Donovan, Anthony Grant, Donnie Jones and Larry Shyatt became substitutes for the dad that was never around when he needed him. When C-Rich talks about the relationship he has with his coaches, there is a reason it sounds like a son talking about dad.
LIVE FROM MAYBERRY: Maryville, Tennessee isn’t Mayberry but it could be. Lee Humphrey isn’t Opie but he could be.
He’s always been the country boy from small town Tennessee who smiles and laughs at everything and he’s never tried to hide the pride he takes in his small town roots. If you want to watch Lee Humphrey light up, talk about life in Maryville. I made it a point at several stops along the way the last couple of years to mention “this is a long way from Maryville.” I almost expected him to say “Shezam!”
He wore his Indianapolis Colts cap so proudly after they won the Super Bowl. His hero has always been Peyton Manning, which is what you would expect from a kid who grew up a stone’s throw from Neyland Stadium.
Back in the summer of 2006 at the Peach Jam in Augusta, I spent some time with my buddy Bruce Pearl, the Tennessee coach. We talked about a lot of things but then the subject of Lee Humphrey came up and his eyes narrowed.
“Give me Lee Humphrey on the other side of the floor from Chris Lofton and let’s see people defend us,” Pearl said. “I can’t believe he wasn’t recruited to Tennessee. That just blows my mind. A kid that can shoot like that who’s 15 minutes from the campus and you don’t recruit him?”
There’s a reason Buzz Peterson now coaches at Coastal Carolina.
What I’ll never forget about Lee Humphrey is that he always felt privileged to play on the same team with Horford, Noah, Brewer and Green.
“I’ve just been so happy to be a part of this team and play with the guys that I’ve gotten a chance to play with,” said Humphrey, who was named the SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in basketball. “It’s made basketball just so enjoyable and a fun game to play. I couldn’t have asked anything more for my four years in college basketball.”
He knew he didn’t have the same kind of natural athleticism as his more publicized and hyped teammates, so he worked hard to become a gritty, tough defensive player. In Florida’s final two games, Humphrey held Nick Collison, UCLA’s ultra-quick point guard, to 3-14 from the field, and Ohio State’s twosome of Jamar Butler and Daequan Cook to a combined 1-9.
His teammates knew what he brought to the table. You want to see one of the great pictures of this tournament, watch Lee Humphrey’s first three-pointer of the second half against Ohio State. Humphrey lets it fly and the moment the ball leaves his hands, Corey Brewer is running back on defense with his hands high in the air, signaling a made three-pointer.
“He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen,” said Brewer in the locker room after the game. “Any time he’s open and he shoots, I just run back to get ready to play defense. I know it’s going in.”
THE IMP: With Taurean Green, you always get the impression that there’s a private joke going on and maybe, if you’re lucky, he’ll share some of it with you. He’s always got that little smile and twinkle in his eye. If this was grade school and you were a teacher, you’d automatically assume he’s guilty of something. You might not know what it is, but you’d know it’s something.
Chris Richard and Al Horford both said on more than one occasion that watching Taurean and Joakim get into one of their daily fights was like watching a couple of school girls.
“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.”
After the SEC Tournament, Green told me that he and Noah are indeed always arguing but that Noah rarely wins.
“Sometimes I pick a fight with him just to have fun with him,” Green said in the locker room after the Gators had beaten Arkansas for their third straight SEC Tournament championship. “He wins sometimes … I win most of the time. Sometimes I let him win one.”
My lasting memory of Taurean Green is the way he always played his best in the big games. Against UCLA in the 2006 national championship he had eight assists and one turnover. Against Ohio State Monday night, he scored 16 points and handed out six assists. He fired up three daggers from the three-point line including one that made it 69-60 just when Ohio State thought it was going to come back late in the second half.
MAKING STATEMENTS: During Florida’s run to the 2007 championship Al Horford made it a point to let opponents know that the paint belonged to him. Even after the whistle would blow for a foul on a teammate, if the opponent continued to the basket and launched a shot, Horford would make every effort to swat the ball out of bounds.
Most of the time, once the whistle blows, everybody stops what they’re doing. If the player with the ball was thinking about shooting, he’ll go ahead and throw one up just in case he might get some continuance. Horford never let continuance be an option. It was his way of saying nothing is going to be easy.
I asked him about swatting the shots out of bounds and his answer was simple and very much to the point.
“Just letting them know I’m there,” he said.
Often, after he’d send a shot into the seventh row, Horford would flex his muscles. Monday night after his finished a fast break with a thundering dunk, he danced the Merengue for the cameras.
Al Horford was always polite and quiet, very thoughtful and respectful when dealing with the media. On the court, however, he was the strong man that liked to make a statement with his game.
I’ll always remember that he played against Ohio State in December with a high ankle sprain. He was hurting but he wasn’t going to let his team go against Greg Oden without doing his part. He outplayed Oden that day, bad wheel and all. The ankle hurt him all season long but he never complained about it. He just quietly went about doing his job.
Quiet, that is, until it was time to make a statement with a blocked shot or a jam.
WONDERFUL WALLY: Probably the most improved player on the team this year was Walter Hodge. He played a lot as a freshman but he was in for his defense then, not for his offense. That changed this year when he started looking like the Walter Hodge that averaged 30 a game as a high school senior at Florida Air Academy in Melbourne.
Hodge hit 50 percent of his three-pointers but late in the season when teams started closing out on him to take the three away, he showed that he is fearless going into the lane where he would either take it all the way to the rack for a layup or dump off to one of the big guys. Against Ohio State early in the first half, he was the first Gator to successfully challenge Oden. He drove the lane fearlessly and put the ball up high off the glass over Oden’s outstretched hand for a layup.
“You bring Walter in and Walter is faster than any of us,” said Humphrey. “He can really get out in transition.”
When he was a freshman, I wrote a few paragraphs about Hodge, the team’s only married player, and the next day he came up to me and said “thank you.” Every time I’ve ever seen him since then, Walter Hodge shakes my hand and has something nice to say.
My lasting memory of this season is watching Walter on the floor after the Gators won the title Monday night. He had his little girl in his arms and there was not a prouder daddy to be found anywhere in Atlanta.
LASTING MEMORIES: I’ve been at this writing business since 1965 and in all the years I’ve been writing about sports, I’ve never had the chance to deal with such a diverse and unique bunch as this basketball team. They re-defined unselfishness and caring. I believe what they have done and the way they have done it is going to make coaches everywhere and in every sport re-evaluate the team building process.
We call them a “band of brothers” and there is no question, this is a group of kids as close as any brothers that you can find anywhere. Take on one and you take on all of them. Jealousy? Non-existent. Egos? Parked at the door. They had one goal and that was to be the best they could be.
Billy Donovan always talked about living in the moment. These guys did that and goodness what moments they gave us. Knowing Billy Donovan, there will be other great teams at Florida but I cannot imagine that there will ever be a group like this one I’ve had the privilege to write about these last two marches through the madness on the way to a national championship.