The scene is the Florida locker room about 30 minutes after the Gators have cut down the nets in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome. Taurean Green is sitting in a chair in front of his locker, relaxed for the first time in three days. Like all the Gators, he’s been on edge, a primary reason why Florida is the SEC Tournament champ for the third straight year.
It’s been an afternoon of near perfect basketball, trophy presentations, individual awards (Green, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer were All-Tournament and Al Horford was the MVP), cutting down nets and a post-game show by Joakim Noah, who celebrated by dancing to the music of the Florida pep band while waiting to be interviewed by Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery of CBS. In a locker room filled with reporters from media outlets around the country, Green breaks into an impish grin when questioned about Florida’s answer to Fred Astaire.
“Jo can’t dance,” says Green. “He thinks he can dance, but he can’t dance. I’m a lot better dancer than Jo. He doesn’t win all the arguments — I win most of them — and he definitely can’t dance.”
Green reaches between two of the perhaps 30 reporters who are gathered in a semi-circle around Noah, who is patiently answering every question in as much detail as he can. Noah goes from serious to funny to philosophical, often in the same sentence.
When Green gets Noah’s attention with a tap on his shoulder, Noah raises his eyebrows and gives a look that says “do you mind?” It’s almost like a dare and Green just can’t resist.
“Jo, you can’t dance,” says Green.
“I can dance! Yes, I can dance!” Noah retorts. “What a hater! You’re a hater!”
Green’s grin gets wider. His eyes do a barrel roll. He could argue and prove his point that Noah doesn’t win the arguments, but instead he offers his friend and roommate a caveat.
“You can sing but Jo, you can’t dance,” says Green.
Noah figures it’s better to cut his losses than belabor the point about his dancing.
“I can sing,” says Noah. “I really can sing.”
“But you can’t dance; you really can’t dance,” Green replies and then he laughs from the belly.
Noah didn’t bring back memories of Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain” song and dance routine and he certainly wasn’t the gyrating John Travolta from “Saturday Night Fever” but the dancing was tonic for the Gator souls Sunday afternoon. When Joakim Noah is dancing, he’s playing loose and when he’s playing loose, the Gator Boyz are usually blast furnace hot.
Noah is the ultimate free spirit. There’s a little bit of hippie in him some 40 years too late. He would have fit in so well at Haight-Ashbury in the flower power summer of 1968 in San Francisco. Off the court, you can imagine him in a tie-dye shirt, tattered jeans and flip-flops, driving a Volkswagen micro-minibus with hand-painted flowers on the side and a big white peace sign on the front. The music moves him. Revolutions inspire him. The more philosophical the discussion, the more engaging he becomes.
And when he is feeling free as the wind that rushes through his naturally curly hair when it’s not tied back with a rubber band, he is at his best as a basketball player. Basketball is his game and if this was indeed Haight-Ashbury of the 60s, then we could also say it is his drug of choice. It is his addiction. He is a true basketball junkie.
When Noah is on a basketball high, the Florida Gators are ferociously competitive. When Noah’s basketball consciousness is elevated it has a ripple effect on his teammates. They feel his energy. They play the game at a totally different level. They play defense like a school of hungry piranhas. They swat shots into the seats. They overplay the passing lanes. They turn steals into track meet fast breaks that turn games into dunkathons that would go on forever except that at some point the clock must mercifully tick to zero.
“When he’s having fun and loose like that, he makes us all better,” said Green. “He brings energy to us and he does so many things that change the game.”
The game-changing Noah blocks shots, defiantly snags one-armed rebounds near the rim, breaks out of the pack on the dribble to start the fast break, and if someone else starts the break, he sprints the floor like he’s being chased by a pack of wild dogs, outracing everybody to the basket where he finishes with a thundering dunk. In the half court game, when he’s playing with free spirit inspiration, he is a ballet dancer around the hoop and a thread-the-needle passer with full court vision.
This is the Noah that was the MVP of the NCAA Tournament last year, a player with so many dimensions that he alters the way the game is played at both ends of the court.
Then there is the Noah that disappeared for games at a time during Florida’s regular season run to the SEC championship. Expectations were way too high to start with and the hype was something he had never experienced. It took him awhile to adjust and that had a ripple effect on teammates that were also dealing with the higher expectations on the entire Florida basketball team. Everybody expected them to win every game. Everybody expected them to be completely dominant for 40 full minutes of every game. When they won it was never by enough points. They had peaks. They had valleys. They had what can only be called a true learning experience.
“Before we won the national championship people were talking about expectations and I had no idea what expectations were,” said Noah. “I would just say that word like it’s nothing. This year we’ve really experienced what expectations means. After the national championship we didn’t know what that meant. We never experienced it as players.
“That’s why this year is completely different. I’m not going to lie. I feel like sometimes we would win basketball games and it was like we’re supposed to do that. We weren’t getting the same response out of people that it was last year. Last year it was so pure and everybody was so happy when we would beat anybody. Even the small games in the beginning of the season, it was almost like we were playing not to lose. It was like whew … we got this one out of the way. It’s supposed to be fun! I’m not going to say I was upset. This year I had people calling my phone saying you have to do this, you have to do that. Last year people were just happy I got the opportunity to play and that’s the reality of it. Everybody has their opinions about the team and about me. At the end of the day I’m going to listen to the people that are close to me and that care about me because that’s what really matters. It took me time to understand it but it’s all part of the process. I’m learning from my experience.”
Before the season began, the pressure on Noah was so great that he found it hard to sleep at times.
“Last year, I feel like everything I did was okay,” he said. “I could do anything. This year I’m under this microscope and everything I do, people are going to analyze it and have something to say. I mean the expectations before this season were just like unbearable. I remember before the season — yeah, like a week before the season — I couldn’t sleep. I was just so nervous. I as excited but it was just — it was intense.”
After the Gators had gone through a four-game stretch late in the year in which they lost three times, Green, Brewer and Horford, Noah’s teammates, best friends and roomates had a pow-wow in the apartment they share on campus.
“We said ‘Jo, you just gotta be Jo’ and told him don’t worry what people say,” said Brewer.
“He handled everything pretty well but sometimes I know it got to him,” said Horford. “We told him just be Jo. Don’t worry about anything else.”
The re-energized Noah showed up in the Gators’ final regular season game with Kentucky. Early in the second half he snagged a rebound, put the ball on the floor and did a coast-to-coast that ended with a left-handed hammer jam that sapped all the life out of the Wildcats and created such a stir among the Florida faithful that they nearly blew the roof off the O-Dome. In the three games of the SEC Tournament, he was the old Jo, doing all the things that elevate the Gators’ level of play.
The Gators responded with three dominating days of basketball. They took on the same persona of the team that romped to the national championship last year. They had the edge about them again. They had the swagger and the look of a hungry team, ready to prove something.
They’ll start their run toward a second straight NCAA championship in New Orleans Friday when they play Jackson State. They’ll be a number one seed, in fact, the number one team in the entire field of 65 in the tournament.
If they go all the way a second straight year, they’ll need the Joakim Noah that dances and celebrates.
“The dancing Jo is the best Jo,” said Brewer. “When you see Jo dancing you know he’s back.”
And when Noah is dancing, the Gators have the chance to waltz their way through the entire NCAA field.