Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
The question had to be asked. It was late on the Thursday night before the Final Four in Atlanta, and Florida coach BillyDonovan had spent nearly an hour recounting the challenges and achievements of his historic class of juniors: Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green. Four nights later, they would achieve one of the rarest feats in modern American team sports, becoming only the second squad in 33 years to win consecutive Division I men's basketball national titles.
It seemed like a good time to put things in perspective.
"Do you ever wonder," I asked Donovan, "if this is a once-in-a-lifetime group?"
The expression on the coach's face was a fascinating blend of pride, wonder and a slowly dawning nostalgia. How many coaches devote their entire careers to searching for that perfect combination of players and personalities? How many find it even once?
"I hope not," Donovan replied. "Because this is what coaching should be like all the time. I have the joy and the hope that this could possibly happen again with these types of kids."
They called themselves the Oh-Fours. They were the four freshmen who arrived in Gainesville during the summer of 2004, and it's revealing that they clung to that handle even as they won national crowns in '06 and '07. Consciously or not, the nickname reminded the Oh-Fours of a time when they were just four roommates, largely unknown -- only one, Brewer, was a high-school All-America -- and blessed with a hunger for collective greatness.
That they achieved it, with sharpshooting senior guard Lee Humphrey rounding out the starting five, is a testament to the ineffable qualities that, in a sort of mystical alchemy, produce teamwork. Horford, a fierce inside scorer and rebounder, was known as the Godfather, the leader Donovan could count on to set guys straight. Brewer, a soaring leaper and smothering wing defender, was the Gators' most dangerous big-play threat. Green, a smooth point guard, had a remarkable ability to manage tempo in the most important games. And Noah? The cosmopolitan forward may have been Florida's frontman off the court. He delivered classic interview lines, but was selfless on the hardwood, running and rebounding to the point of exhaustion.
Every season, it seems, college basketball becomes more obsessively focused on individuals, not least because the NBA age-minimum rule now brings transcendent talent to campuses for one year (and one year only). The story of the 2006-07 regular season was Kevin Durant and Greg Oden. This year it will probably be Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo, Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon. But Florida's Oh-Fours reminded us that the team is the thing.
"I'd like for this team to be remembered as the greatest team that ever played," Donovan said after the Gators had pulled off the Double. "I'm not saying this team would beat the UNLVs [of the early 1990s] and the UCLAs [of the John Wooden dynasty]. I'm not talking about wins and losses. I'm talking about the word team."
For their wondrous chemistry, for their once-in-a-generation success, for their emphasis on classic team spirit over individual ego, the Florida Oh-Fours are the obvious choice as 2007 Sportsmen of the Year.
Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.