Gators' Noah sitting pretty

Ncaa Tournament

March 28, 2007|By Dave Curtis | Dave Curtis,Orlando Sentinel

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Last season's lasting college basketball image, one that helped make Florida's Joakim Noah the sport's most popular player, came a few minutes after the Final Four's final buzzer.

Standing on the scorer's table, Noah, the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player, turned to a throng of Florida fans at Indianapolis' RCA Dome and delivered a Gator chomp.

Another image, one that helped make Noah the sport's most polarizing player, happened the same night. During the national title game against UCLA, Noah flirted with a few Bruins cheerleaders - winking at them once, blowing kisses another time.

"They were just talking crazy to me, like, `You're so uggggly,'" Noah said afterward. "Man, that was cold. I mean, it hurts when you have so many beautiful girls telling you how ugly you are and stuff."

In a basketball sense, Noah reigned as the most beautiful in last season's NCAA tournament. He scored at least 12 points in all six games, averaged 9.5 rebounds and blocked a tournament-record 29 shots.

More so, though, the tournament showed Noah to be a demonstrative and divisive player. He dived for loose balls. He dunked and blocked shots. And he never shied from showing his feelings, leaving fans to love him or hate him. Indifference is impossible.

Sunday, those two sides of Noah meshed in perfect fashion. His 14 points and 14 rebounds helped lead Florida to an 85-77 Midwest Regional final victory over Oregon. And his passion - pounding his chest, screaming, diving and dunking and defending - helped lift the Gators over their last obstacle to returning to the Final Four.

"What impressed me is probably Noah's energy," Oregon guard Aaron Brooks said. "Even though they've already won a championship and been to the Final Four, they had the energy and the poise to repeat and get there."

That energy earns Noah distinction on the court and disdain in opposing arenas. Fans mock his looks, chanting about that ugliness. They criticize his antics, from his chest-thumping to his playing invisible chimes after scoring and drawing a foul. The post-game dances, such as the one he performed to Florida's fight song after the Southeastern Conference tournament title game this year, draw ire as well.

But Noah's teammates love the behavior, in part because it hasn't hurt the team. In his past 70 games as a Gator, Noah's lone technical foul came during last year's NCAA tournament victory over Georgetown. "You mean the one when he dunked on [7-2 center Roy] Hibbert and screamed in his face?" forward Al Horford said.

That's the one. But it's not the only time Noah has come close to crossing the officials. Horford said he calms Noah during many games, especially during dead-ball situations and timeouts.

If Noah were a stoic, his story would attract loads of attention anyway. He's the son of a tennis champion/rock star and a supermodel/sculptor. He has traveled the world, spending chunks of his life on three continents. He gives interviews in French, and when he speaks in English, he sprinkles in commentary about cinema (he loved The Departed) and politics (he's anti-war). And he's almost 7 feet tall.

"Jo's always going to attract a lot of attention," guard Taurean Green said. "That's just the kind of guy he is."

Noah's choices and timing, though, contribute to the attention. He continued his involvement with cheerleaders this season against Kentucky, when he swatted blue-and-white pom-poms from his face after hitting the court at Rupp Arena.

He gained fame off the court for water skiing in the dark during the Gators' preseason trip to Canada and for wanting to skip the team's April trip to the White House. Then there was his sideline spat with Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings when Florida visited Nashville in February, another example of Noah's zeal pushing him onto a highlight reel.

Coach Billy Donovan said Noah will be a better pro player and person for enduring moments such as those. It's a secondary reason, Noah said, why he shunned the NBA's millions for a year and returned to Florida.

"If he hadn't come back," Donovan said Monday, "he would never have learned what he's learned about basketball, about life, about expectations, so much that you learn through going through this."

Going through this, and eventually playing for another championship, is the primary reason Noah returned. And three days from the Final Four, the place where Noah's national legend was born, he said he's ready to be beautiful again.

"This is it," he said Sunday night after the Oregon game. "One last challenge for us. Now it's here."

Dave Curtis writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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