Cross-cultural collages help explain Gators' '04s

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Apparently, few from outside the Florida program had ever been in this dorm room. It's not that the Gators' four juniors were hiding anything. If anything, they didn't want to make it a spectacle.

What you find on the inside are posters and photos that help explain four diverse personalities and offer up some understanding of why this team is so unique in today's got-to-get-my-NBA-check mentality.

Joakim Noah is parts Swedish, Cameroonian and French, and the son of a former tennis star and a model mom. Al Horford is a proud Dominican and son of a former pro player. Corey Brewer is devoted to his family and the only one who didn't come from significant means. Taurean Green is the son of a former big-time college player and coach.

They call themselves the "04s," as in the entering class of 2004. They share a quad.

When I was with this crew over Labor Day weekend in Niagara Falls, N.Y./Ontario, Noah went water skiing at night. He yelled out, "Ndongo!" -- his own tribal call for the team -- when he came in from the crisp water of the Niagara River.

Of course, the African mask hanging on the wall of their living room is named "Ndongo."

"He's our protector, the protector of the house," Noah said. "He protects us from evil spirits here."

The natural question: Did Noah bring Ndongo back from Cameroon?

"I love to tell people [that], but I actually got it in the mall -- in Gainesville," Noah said with a hearty chuckle.

Whose images do you think adorn the walls of this pad? Well, if you guessed John Lennon, John Coltrane, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix (in classic '70s attire) and Nelson Mandela, you're a lot smarter than most. That's quite a cast of characters from the past 30 years, a highly diverse group for this impressionable crew.

"John Lennon, great guy, really held it down in the 60's," Noah said. "To me, John Lennon, New York City, he's a Beatle, just a guy against war. It means a lot. I know my Mom really likes him -- that's why I put him up there. Big-time dude, John Lennon."

"Everybody has a couple of their posters here, a little piece of themselves. You know what I'm saying," Horford said. "This is Bob Marley right here; Jo and I are big fans of Bob, so we have a lot of Bob stuff up around."

Mandela's image hangs in the kitchen. Noah said he'll grab his box of Cocoa Krispies and look at the former South African president, one of the most famous political prisoners of the past 50 years.

"He's just an unbelievable man, one of the inspirations in my life," Noah said "Everything that he has gone through, from going to jail for so many years because of his beliefs, I mean that just speaks for itself right there, just a very powerful man, an inspiration right there."

Hanging on a wall opposite Mandela is a photo of the Gators watching CBS' sappy, final highlight package, "One Shining Moment," after winning the national title last April in Indianapolis.

"This is one of the more special pictures in our house probably," Horford said. "It was right after we won the championship. We're all celebrating."

"Look at the joy in everybody's face," Noah said. "Not everybody can get this feeling."

The quick tour of the four rooms offers up something a bit different in each one. Guess what Brewer is so proud of, what he has framed in his room. I'm not sure everyone would guess two all-SEC academic plaques. But he does.

"I know my mom would be happy. She's very happy about them, so I like them," said a beaming Brewer, who easily could have cited financial pressures relating to helping support a father who is battling a longtime illness if he had wanted to declare for the NBA draft after last season.

The other prominently placed possession in Brewer's room is a ball representing the first-ever triple-double at Florida. Brewer scored 15 points, grabbed 10 boards and had 13 assists against Jacksonville on Dec. 18, 2005.

"As long as we have [had] basketball at the University of Florida, for me to be the first person to do it makes me real happy," Brewer said.

Horford's room is behind Brewer's. Horford could be a tourist guide for the Dominican Republic. A picture of a tranquil beach scene dominates his room.

"Every time I look at this picture, this is where I want to see myself in the offseason, relaxing," Horford said.

A coffee table book on the Dominican, the kind that you would get if you were planning your trip, sits on his desk, so if anyone enters they know where he's pushing you to go on your next trip (apparently Florida coach Billy Donovan bit and is heading there with the family in the offseason). A Dominican flag is centered on his back wall with photos of the family, notably one of his father, Tito, bathing him in what looks like some sort of fountain at the University of Miami.

"I'm very proud of my heritage and of my country," said Horford, who follows Dominican baseball players like any fantasy player, but in his case he actually knows these guys like personal favorite David Ortiz of the Red Sox. "I'm just trying to do it big in basketball."

Green is the gamer in the bunch. He's usually playing some sort of hoop game -- sometimes Florida-Kentucky, and quite often against Corey Brewer -- on the Xbox 360.

How often is Green playing?

"Probably like when I'm done with class, after practice, I'll just be chilling in the bed at night and Corey will come in here and I'll just start killing him. I need some new competition. But we'll usually be playing for about three hours, four hours," Green said.

It would be a major mistake, though, to think that Green is the least political of the four. On one side of his wall is the late Tupac Shakur. On the other is a poster of the late Malcolm X.

"He's just an inspiration, and growing up, I learned a lot about him," Green said of Malcolm X. "My Dad sat down with me and we watched the movie. What a great leader."

No one, though, has as many and maybe as varied photos and ethnic representations in his room than Noah.

This is a young man who cut out a photo of an older Russian/Eastern European woman, simply because he was drawn to her cracked and hardened face. He said she looked like someone who had a hard life, someone who had to work hard to get to wherever she is, and that was just another photo to inspire him.

Noah mixes in personal photos of his family, like the one of a grandparent carving up a cooked pig in Africa, to a photo out of a magazine of a "guy selling sushi. It's just the irony of a black guy selling sushi in a baseball stadium. I thought it was cool. I saw it in a magazine and put it up in the room." He has pictures of his tennis playing, musician father, Yannick, on the cover of the French Rolling Stone as well as him "just dancing and acting crazy."

"I love all these pictures because it's where I get my power from, from these people," Noah said. "So I just put them up on my wall."

Of course there are Lennon and Marley, the two musicians that influence Noah more than any others.

"I mean, Bob's one of the biggest inspirations in my life. Just a guy that a lot of people admire, and he's dead for over twenty years and people still listen to his music. It's just kind of like my religion, you know," Noah said.

If there is one poster that is the most powerful -- and maybe the most surprising -- in Noah's room, it is the famous picture from the 1989 Chinese uprising in Tiananmen Square. How many college students, let alone basketball players in this era, do you think have this poster on their wall? My guess is not many.

"To me, it's just like the symbol of a guy just standing against tanks, and tanks are war to me and they're used to hurt and harm and I don't see nothing peaceful with tanks," Noah said. "And I see this guy just standing there probably coming home from work with groceries or something in his hand just like a normal man, and is about to give up his life for his beliefs for peace, and I think that's just really powerful. And I just love that picture."

Noah also has a scroll of inspirational words from the Dalai Lama and the Native American ten commandments.

"The thing that I like about it is all these different things are from completely different cultures," Noah said. "I'm not a Native Indian, but I can use things from their beliefs and use it in my life. Just because I'm a Christian or Muslim or whatever religion, you are just stay into those words. You know what I'm saying? You can go into other cultures and other beliefs and see things that inspire you, too."

Mixed among all of these things is a photo of Noah as a baby, in the arms of his mother, with his doting father giving him a kiss.

"Well my parents probably divorced like a year after that, but I know where that is ... that's in Sweden where my grandparents live, and I mean it's just a picture like how they were when they were in love and they lived together," Noah said. "I love that picture. My parents have been divorced a long time now, but I think that's something that sticks out and I really respect my father and mother for always being there for me. I lived with my mother, but my father was always there to support us financially and stuff like that, and I'll always give him all the credit in the world for that because not every father is always there for their kids, especially when parents divorce."

Noah wraps up the tour by showing me a photo of him and Shaq when Noah was a pre-teen and O'Neal was with the Lakers. Next season, he could be going against Shaq in the NBA.

Of course, in the center of the room, is the flag of Cameroon.

"I mean, Africa is always a big part, it's always in my heart, I love Africa and I love going back there and I love my family there. I put the flag there. It symbolizes them," Noah said.

I leave but not without feeling that the four juniors let me into their lives just a bit, enough to see that there is so much more to them than their spirited play on the court. They get their passion for the game through plenty of other interests, going through a natural kind of intellectual and cross-cultural search that will only enhance them as they surge ahead into their lives as professionals.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.