Noah, Oh-Fours brought fun to Florida, along with Miss Sweden
Snow swirled as I hustled through the streets of downtown Minneapolis with my phone jammed to my ear.
"What happened?" my wife asked.
"Ms. Sweden's ... invited ... me ... for ... a ... beer," I puffed as I power walked past a few places where Prince might have played.
They probably heard the laughter from the other end of the line in St. Paul.
But I wasn't kidding. Minutes earlier, Ms. Sweden had actually said, "Why don't you come join us for a beer?" OK, so it was 2006, and Cecilia Rodhe won her sash in 1978, but still. Miss. Freaking. Sweden.
Whenever someone asks me to name the best team I ever covered, I always tell the story of that beer. Not because anything happened that would cause my wife concern, but because it encapsulates the adventure that was covering the 2005-06 University of Florida basketball team.
Rodhe asked me to meet her at that bar because she wanted to pass along an old photo of herself and her son, Joakim Noah. It was the day before the Gators faced Georgetown in the Sweet 16, and by then, everyone was getting hip to the Oh-Fours, the 2004 recruiting class that included Noah, power forward Al Horford, swingman Corey Brewer and point guard Taurean Green. As the Florida beat writer for
Rodhe, an artist, loved the idea for the story, too, and she knew exactly which family photo would make the story irresistible to readers. On her phone, Rodhe showed me a shot of a young Noah hugging his mother. Their cheeks squished together, making it impossible to tell where one smile ended and the other began.
Rodhe couldn't believe how far her son's team had come. Neither could I. I came to the beat shortly before the Oh-Fours arrived. I covered their freshman season, when they faded into the background while David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh led the way. Brewer and Horford looked like future stars. Noah needed to put on weight and rein in his impulses on the court. Green seemed serviceable, but not spectacular. But even before they did anything on the court, they changed the tone in the locker room. Before the Oh-Fours arrived, no Gator gave another a piggyback ride around the Georgia Dome after an SEC Tournament win as Noah did for Horford. The Lee-Roberson-Walsh group played a joyless brand of basketball. The Oh-Fours refused to allow the old guys to bring them down.
Lee graduated, and Roberson and Walsh decided to turn pro early. What appeared to be a devastating blow turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to the program. As November 2005 neared, everyone who followed the Gators agreed on one thing. No matter how good the group ultimately turned out to be, these guys would have fun.
Florida coach Billy Donovan rounded out the starting lineup with Lee Humphrey, a deadeye shooter from Maryville, Tenn., who looked like Alfred E. Neuman and talked (and acted) like Opie Taylor. The sixth man was Chris Richard, a genial giant who never failed to produce a newspaper-ready anecdote about his teammates. (If not for Richard, the world may never have known about the fight in the Oh-Fours' dorm suite their freshman year that left shaving cream hanging from every fixture.) Freshman Walter Hodge, the pride of Puerto Rico, provided energy off the bench. Filling out the rotation was Adrian Moss, a senior forward with the back of a septuagenarian. Like the rest of his teammates, Moss was imminently quotable. In fact, I often use his go-to line when someone offers one too many what-ifs. "If 'if' was a fifth," Moss would say, "we'd all be drunk."
Early in the season. Florida traveled to New York for a tournament. As Jay-Z's "Encore" blared in Madison Square Garden during warmups before a game against Wake Forest, I couldn't help but watch Noah. His head bobbed to the beat. As Jay-Z talked about going "from Marcy to Madison Square," I wondered if Noah was thinking of his own journey from Hell's Kitchen to the World's Most Famous Arena. The former ABCD Camp ball boy hadn't been as heavily recruited as his classmates. Schools caught on to him late, but he chose Florida because Donovan recruited him early. Noah is loyal like that.
Maybe his first taste of the Garden got Noah too excited. He got into foul trouble and scored only five points. But Green zoomed right past serviceable with a career-high 23 points in a 77-72 win. "We're just a team that's going to have different people step up on different nights," Donovan said that night. He had no idea how correct he was. In the process of winning the next two national titles, Donovan's Gators were the ultimate team. Some nights, Noah stuffed the stat sheet. Others, Horford dominated in the paint. Others, Brewer mixed 3-pointers and tomahawk dunks. Still others, Humphrey launched daggers from the wings.
While the second title was a slog -- a pressure-packed five months in which anything short of a national championship would be deemed a failure -- the first was a series of surprises. In early March, Florida broke an eight-year losing streak at Kentucky's Rupp Arena and then avenged two regular-season losses to South Carolina -- Gamecocks forward Renaldo Balkman was Noah's Kryptonite -- with a win in the SEC Tournament final.
After wins against South Alabama and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Oh-Fours entered uncharted territory. Florida hadn't advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2000. Georgetown awaited in Minneapolis. If the Gators could beat the Hoyas, they would likely face the same Villanova team that crushed them in the second round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. The night after I had a beer with Miss Sweden, Brewer made a shot from his back with 28 seconds remaining to beat Georgetown.
A few minutes before the Gators faced Villanova that Sunday, George Mason stunned Connecticut. Everyone knew Mason's magic was about to run out; the winner of the Florida-Villanova game would play for the national title. But how would the Gators handle a team that had thumped them so thoroughly a year earlier? Easily, it turned out. Florida crushed the Wildcats 75-62 behind 21 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks from Noah. Afterward, Noah sat on the back of a golf cart and warbled the Spice Girls' "2 Become 1" while the rest of his teammates yukked it up in the locker room. "I'll probably wake up at 3:30 in the morning, screaming, waking up all the neighbors," Moss said. "But they'll have to suck that up tonight."
Eight days later in Indianapolis, confetti rained on the Gators. The CBS production team deserves a gold star, because in the five minutes the crew had to splice the final footage into the "One Shining Moment" montage, it found the lasting image of the tournament.
A camera, poised high in the RCA Dome, caught Noah standing on a table on press row, chomping to the crowd. Slowly, the camera