Noah's talent now matching his star personality
It seems ludicrous now. As we watch the ponytailed rasta boy of celebrity lineage bounce and glide and soar and scream and pound his chest and hug his teammates and shower his charm all over America, is it really possible that this kid was barely worth noticing a year ago?
From nobody to Noah! Starlet of March Madness!
Hard to believe, but true.
Actually, it's only partly true. Joakim Noah was only a basketball nobody before this season. Everything else about him -- the bushy ball of hair, the cross-cultural combo platter of arresting features, the multilingual skills, the tennis-star dad and beauty-pageant mom, the extrovert's personality, the wide-angle worldview, the very fact he's 6-foot-11 -- commands attention.
Those traits will continue to get him plenty of attention this week, leading up to the Final Four, but so will his game. Noah is no longer just an interesting human who rarely took off his blue-and-orange Florida warm-ups. He's an interesting human who is positively blowing up as a basketball player, before our wondering eyes.
"The Gator boys are hot right now," Noah said in Minneapolis, after the Gator boys had cut Villanova down to size and cut down the Metrodome nets.
That's true. But this Gator boy is habanero hot.
The sophomore power forward has become the leading man on a team that rejected having such an animal all season. This Florida bunch has succeeded where recent predecessors have failed in large part because of the cohesion, the chemistry and the statistical parity of its wonderful four-man sophomore class.
That's a fine working premise in the locker room. But outside it, Noah's ascendancy cannot be ignored.
NBA scouts have gone from bored to intrigued to enamored with the guy, shooting him up to presumed lottery pick status if he were to come out this spring. Scuttlebutt in the Metrodome last week was that some scouts altered travel plans to attend an international tournament so that they could catch Noah's act in person against Georgetown's 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert.
They watched the lithe and athletic big man do his KG-on-training-wheels thing in KG's town, racking up 36 points, 25 rebounds and 10 blocked shots in two games to walk off as the Minneapolis Regional's Most Outstanding Player. His NCAA Tournament averages are 17.3 points, 10 rebounds, 4.8 blocks, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Talk about raising your game, right on cue.
"This is what it's all about," Noah said. "This is what we fight for, this is what we strive for. This is the big test. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Remember, this is a guy who was the No. 75 high school senior in America according to Rivals.com -- right between Chamberlain Oguchi and Justin Cerasoli -- and No. 68 according to Scout.com. And that was only after Noah had a productive senior season and a breakout performance at the adidas camp the previous summer.
Prior to that, there were a few wishful Ivy League schools that thought they might end up with the kid.
Last season Noah averaged nine minutes and 3.5 points per game, and by season's end he hardly was getting off the bench at all. He played two scoreless minutes in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
Even after moving into the starting lineup this season, Noah ranks last among the starters in minutes played per game. But that's been steadily changing.
He played 30 minutes or more just once in the first 24 games of the season. He's gone that much in nine of the last 13 games, including every outing this NCAA Tournament.
After not even registering last March, Noah is right there alongside George Mason and Big Baby Davis as the tournament's leading men.
"He is fun to watch," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III. "Just the energy and enthusiasm he plays this game with, the caring that you can see that he has because of how he handles himself and how he works. It is tremendous."
Noah is the anti-Husky. While Connecticut's players toiled with no apparent joy this postseason, Noah has been hopping around like a kid who just chugged three Red Bulls and burst through the front gates of Disney World for the first time.
"I've always played with passion," Noah said. "Even last year when I played four minutes a game, I had passion. It's nothing new."
That showman's passion, in the estimation of longtime Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley, helps makes Noah the most popular Florida basketball player. Ever.
"The two most important people in my 4-year-old daughter's life right now are Joakim Noah and Albert (the alligator mascot)," Dooley said.
That sort of celebrity is not new to someone who grew up in a performer's family. Father Yannick, a demonstrative tennis star with his own famous head of hair, won the French Open and was a national hero in that country and in Cameroon, where he has roots. Mother Cecilia Rodhe is a former Miss Sweden, a Miss Universe finalist and a renowned sculptor.
But those are all very individual pursuits. Joakim gravitated to team sports, soccer and basketball, as he grew up in France. As much as he enjoys the attention of a crowd, Noah is acutely aware of the importance of group dynamics.
He digs the Child of the World thing that has grown up around him. In Minneapolis, he was happy to talk about growing up in France, speaking French and being nicknamed "Frenchy," "French Fry" and "French Toast" by John Thompson Jr. at Georgetown's basketball camp. He talked about his visits to Cameroon. He said he knows some Swedish, courtesy of his mother. He talked glowingly about his New York roots, playing in the summers at Rucker Park and in Hell's Kitchen. Said he had Bob Marley, one of his heroes, on his iTunes.
But the more questions he got about his NBA potential and burgeoning star status, the more he squirmed.
"I can't care about things like that right now," Noah said. "All this attention for me right now, there's nothing positive that can come out of it. Right now, it's all about Florida basketball. These are my brothers. We've been going to war together all season. That would be so selfish of me to be thinking about something else right now, like going to the NBA.
"It's very flattering, but at the end of the day you've still got to go to the gym and get better. Is it harder for a kid to go to the gym who's got nothing and is hungry? Or is it harder to go to the gym when everybody's patting you on the back?"
Joakim Noah must get used to the back pats now. There's no avoiding them. The quality of his play has caught up to the quality of his personal story, and that combination has made him a March star.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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