National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Joakim Noah

Having picked the University of Florida Gators in our office pool to go all the way in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament again this year, it was a pleasant evening for me Monday, watching the finals on a big HDTV. There’s been more than enough talk about the team’s accomplishment, though mostly confined to the sports pages.

But this one deserves some attention from that bigger world that exists outside the domain of ageless and obsessive jocks. This team was a throw-back to an earlier time, when loyalty and a genuine, visible bond among the players defined the elements of a champion.

As rare as back-to-back championships are to begin with, this team is the only one in the history of college basketball to win a national championship with the exact same starting line up two years in a row. The only one ever.

This is an era when college hoops, clearly one of the most compelling of all sports, has become such big business on so many campuses, aided by preparatory programs that identify, track and develop the best talent from age six on, that the idea of any one team winning back-to-back is almost inconceivable to start with.

But there is an almost fairy-tale aspect to this team, because all five starters from the 2006 team, within days after winning their first national title, entered into a pact with one another that they’d all stay in school and make a shot at a repeat.

Some of these players could have easily entered the professional ranks after last season, but no one of them chose to break away for that. That, in itself, with all the money that’s out there in the pros, was extraordinary.

Still, no one of the players on the team is a superstar. All are very good, and the evenness of the talent on the team undoubtedly contributed to its cohesion. This season, all the five starters averaged more than 10 points a game, but none as many as 14.

To those who know sports, such statistics are stunning. In fact, taken together, all the remarkable ingredients of this team, especially against the backdrop of what this sport has become today, add up to something for the ages.

The team’s personality is summed up in its most colorful and visible character, a lanky youngster who still has another year of college eligibility, Joakim Noah. He’s the son of former professional tennis star Yannick Noah and a mother who was a beauty queen in Sweden.

Noah is special for the fact that, among other things, he may be one of the worst shooters for a starting player at any major college program, much less on your average playground. He shoots his free throws with a two-handed sideways spin and no trajectory. It’s amazing he ever makes one (can you believe he was six-for-six in the title game?), and he shoots no better from anywhere on the floor. Yet he defends, he blocks, he steals, he rebounds and, yes, he scores if it’s a dunk.

Most of all, however, he’s all passion. He bellows and thumps his chest not only when he scores, but when any of his mates do, or whenever they make a big play. His selfless enthusiasm is incredibly infectious.

He was exhausted after the first five minutes of Monday’s championship game, solely because he’d expended so much psychic energy. Despite, as with his teammates, being in absolutely tiptop physical shape, he had to sit down to catch his breath.

People complain about the big bushy gob of hair that he ties back with a band during games. It’s his signature look, and he’s unapologetic about it, even though many grumble that he should get a haircut.

Not everybody has to look or be alike, however, even on a basketball court, and he’s making that statement with his mop.

The best for me, though, was observing Noah at the conclusion of both championship wins, last year’s and this. Last year, when he ran up into the stands to celebrate, stupid CBS TV announcer Billy Packer, having hyped the celebrity of Noah’s father throughout the broadcast, commented, “There he goes, running up to see his dad.” Packer shut up when Noah went no where near there.

This year, Noah again ran into the stands at the end of the game. Packer kept quiet as the camera followed him stepping over seats going high into the grandstand. Behold, as if to set the record straight from last year, he came right up to his mom, not his famous dad seated elsewhere, and they embraced in a very touching way.

This young man, like the team he played for, did not do it according to anyone’s expectations. They all did it, as the Chairman of the Board would say, “Their way.”