In the cluttered walls of his dorm room--among the Rastafarian flags, his dad's Rolling Stone cover and a traffic-stopping shot of his mom, a former Miss Sweden--Florida center Joakim Noah has tacked up a photograph that represents everything he loves about his native New York City. In it a smiling Shea Stadium vendor is hawking raw tuna to hungry Gotham baseball fans. "That's my favorite," Noah says, admiring the cultural mash-up. "A black guy selling sushi!" ¬∂ For Noah it's not just a picture. It's a personal mission statement, a daily reminder to embrace the unknown and the unexpected in an increasingly diverse world. ¬∂ What happens when you cross Yannick Noah, the dreadlocked French-Cameroonian tennis star and pop icon, with his former wife Cecilia Rodhe, a classic Scandinavian blonde model who's now a sculptor? Add the influences of three continents, and you get Joakim (pronounced Jo-a-KEEM), an effervescent 6'11", 227-pound sophomore who displays the same charisma, relentless athleticism and wild hair on the court as his French Open--winning dad once did. ¬∂ Joakim likes nothing more than to challenge preconceptions, whether the subject is politics, society or basketball--and sure enough, he is having a breakout season that has helped turn No. 2 Florida from an unranked preseason afterthought into the nation's most surprising team.
Through Sunday the 16-0 Gators were off to the best start in school history, due in large part to Noah's 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. "Not many big men can run as well as he does," says Miami coach Frank Haith, who saw Noah burn his Hurricanes with 18 points, eight boards and six blocks in a 77-67 Gators win last month. "He made key buckets by just outrunning us downcourt."
Unlike Florida's recent outfits, which were often plagued by selfishness, this one has thrived on its chemistry, not least because its four sophomore starters--Noah, wing Corey Brewer, point guard Taurean Green and forward Al Horford (box, page 57)--happen to be best friends who share a campus suite. That closeness helps explain why the Gators were leading the nation in average scoring margin (21.5 points) and were in the top five in field goal percentage (51.8) and assists per game (19.3). "There's a level of trust on our team," says coach Billy Donovan, "where everyone thinks each guy is playing for the right reasons."
In fact, Noah initially balked at being singled out for this story, fearing it might hurt the team's hard-won fraternité. While it's true that he's not the team's most dangerous offensive threat (that would be Green) or even the top NBA prospect in his dorm room (that would be either Horford or Brewer), one thing is certain: Noah is no average Jo. "Unique is the best word to describe him," says Green.
Take Noah's taste in movies. He persuaded the guys to see City of God, a movie about life in a Rio de Janeiro shantytown. "It wasn't even in English," says Brewer, "so we were sitting there trying to read the subtitles. But I actually liked it." Noah recommended Hotel Rwanda, the acclaimed film about that country's 1994 genocide, to assistant coach Anthony Grant and recently asked Donovan to watch Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 so they could dissect the film afterward. "People think we're ignorant just because we're athletes, but everyone should be able to discuss things," Noah says while listening to the songs of Damian Marley (Bob's son) in his apartment's common room, which he has decorated with African wood masks and a black-and-white portrait of the Eiffel Tower. "Poverty, war, politics: There are so many important issues around the world. You have to be aware, and not just about your own country. If you're rich, think about what it might be like to be poor. Imagine you were a kid living in Iraq. How would your perspective change? You have to listen to different people's ideas, and then yours may change too." While most American players dislike traveling to tournaments abroad and spend their time overseas playing video games and eating at McDonald's, Noah takes the opposite approach. "Travel is the key to having more perspective on where you are," he says.
He has certainly been exposed to some extraordinary things in his 20 years. He had seen the World Trade Center from the windows of his school bus as it passed the buildings on Sept. 11, 2001, then watched, a short time later, the horror unfold on TV with classmates whose parents were in the towers. He's seen poverty-stricken kids in Yaoundé, Cameroon, walking along dirt roads with giant jugs of water balanced on their heads. He's seen the blue-eyed stares in √Ösa, his grandparents' Swedish farm town, that greet a 6'11" biracial giant out on a training run. He's seen swarms of Parisian paparazzi, taken baths in remote Maui waterfalls, hung out with dreadlocked Rastas in Guadeloupe.
"Jo's a citizen of the world, and he's very respectful of everybody's culture," says Donovan. "He's always talking about what's in the news. When Katrina hit New Orleans, the next day he was in the office saying, 'We've got to help those people in some way.'"
It's a sentiment that speaks to the influence of Joakim's parents. Yannick was discovered as a tennis prodigy by Arthur Ashe during an African tour in 1971 and left his family at age 12 to train and attend school in Nice. In 1983, at 23, he became the first Frenchman in 37 years to win a championship on the red clay at Roland Garros. Long retired from tennis and now a stadium-filling, Afro-reggae pop star, Yannick is still active in charities that he started in France and in Cameroon. "Joakim is French with African blood, and he was born in America, so he's in between all of this," Yannick says by phone from Paris. "In that situation you always feel for the victims. His sensitivity helps him appreciate not just what we have, but also that it can go away at any moment. He feels at home everywhere, which helps put things in perspective."
"Most interracial children have a basic open-mindedness," says Cecilia, who was a top five finisher at the 1978 Miss Universe pageant and has exhibited her sculptures at the United Nations in New York City and Geneva. "Because of the large bouquet of cultures Joakim has been given, he's very curious."
One pursuit that never sustained his interest was tennis. After spending the first three years of his life in New York City, Joakim moved to Paris with his parents and younger sister, Yelena, in 1988. (Yannick and Cecilia divorced a year later.) One day five-year-old Joakim asked his father to give him a tennis lesson, on the clay courts of the tony Racing Club. It was a disaster. "People were stopping to watch," Joakim recalls, wincing at the memory. "At that stage you just want to have fun. You don't want people comparing you and saying, 'Oh, that's Yannick Noah's son.'" He vowed never to play again.
Besides, Joakim was already consumed with another sport, an obsession that had begun in New York City when Patrick Ewing, one of his father's friends, gave him a minibasketball as a present when he was a toddler. "We used to live in SoHo, and there weren't many parks close by," says Cecilia, "so we took our kids to the basketball courts and let them run. Joakim was only two or three years old, but I remember him saying, 'Mommy, I want to play basketball!' He was entranced by the whole scene."
Joakim's passion for hoops only increased with time, and it was one reason his mother decided to move back to New York with her children in 1998. Joakim soon found a mentor in Tyrone Green, his coach in the Police Athletic League and the man who had helped discover Ron Artest and Chamique Holdsclaw. During the summer, while Cecilia was abroad, Joakim would live with Green in Queens and play ball with him in Brooklyn's rough-and-tumble Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. "It was a different kind of travel," Noah says. "Instead of going on planes, I was taking the E train to tournaments in Jamaica, Queens. It opened up a whole new world, and I saw there was poverty in America, too."
With a work ethic that rivaled his father's at the same age, Noah threw himself into the game, starring at Brooklyn's Poly Prep and then at Lawrenceville Prep, a boarding school outside Princeton, N.J., where he won a state championship his senior season. He improved so much that he went from being the ball boy at the ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., one year to a fast-breaking, shot-swatting, Division I--quality big man the next.
After choosing to attend Florida, he spent a trying freshman season there, averaging just 9.4 minutes and 3.5 points while playing behind David Lee, a future first-round NBA draft pick. But back in New York for the summer, he thrived in the famed Rucker Park league against pros like Artest and Jamaal Tinsley. "I got my swagger back in Harlem," Noah says. He also got a sweet nickname from the Rucker deejay: the Noble One.
From the start of practice in Gainesville last fall, Noah's coaches noticed a change. "Last season Jo couldn't compete up front physically with anybody who had any size," says Donovan. "He still needs to get stronger and shoot the ball better from the perimeter. His greatest attributes are his passing, his emotion and how hard he runs the floor. I don't think Jo will reach his full potential until he's 26 or 27 years old."
In other aspects Noah remains on a different plane from most college players. Consider his stance on religion. Noah often wears a crucifix alongside a necklace of Muslim prayer beads from Senegal--a gift from his mother--and he'll go silent when the Gators say the Lord's Prayer in huddles, opting for his own internal worship instead. "That's just me," he says. "I believe in God, but I won't say that I'm a certain religion. I think I'm a little bit of everything."
Joakim has been influenced by Rastafarianism and the timeless music of Bob Marley, as was his father. Theirs is a complex bond. While they have almost always been separated by thousands of miles--Yannick, who has five children from three relationships, did make it to Joakim's game at Miami last month--they speak by phone every day. "When people say, 'Joakim Noah, the son of Yannick Noah,' it makes me proud," says Joakim. "My father is my best friend."
"I'm very happy that Joakim is working hard and having success doing his own thing," says the elder Noah, who celebrated his induction into the tennis hall of fame in Newport, R.I., last summer with his smiling son at his side. ("I'm not used to feeling like a midget," cracks the 6'4" Yannick.)
In Joakim's dorm room, not far from his treasured photo of the sushi vendor, he keeps a weathered snapshot of a boy and his dad taken many years ago on a trip to Cameroon. Still in diapers, young Joakim is riding on the shoulders of Yannick, who's the picture of cool with a smoldering Gauloise dangling from his fingers.
Now grown, the son is making his own way and even breaking new family ground. For all his memorable triumphs Yannick never rose higher than the No. 3 ranking. As a Gator, Joakim is already No. 2--and on the verge, perhaps, of No. 1.
Read more about Florida and Joakim Noah in Grant Wahl's Mailbag at SI.com/collegebasketball.
In Taurean Green and Al Horford, the Gators have two other players whose fathers were professional athletes
LAST SATURDAY, on a rare January weekend when Indiana didn't have a game, Hoosiers assistant coach Sidney Green finished practice and drove straight to the Bloomington airport. His destination: Gainesville, Fla., where he arrived just in time to see his son, Florida point guard Taurean Green, score 21 points in the Gators' 69-57 victory over Auburn. "I may not get to come back this season, so I really wanted to make it," said the elder Green, who was a second-team All-America forward at UNLV in 1982-83 and went on to have a 10-year NBA career.
Taurean Green and Joakim Noah are two of a trio of Gators whose dads played at the highest level of their respective sports. Sophomore Al Horford's father, Tito, was a 1985 McDonald's All-American who played two seasons at Miami and then spent three years in the NBA before bouncing around several European and South American leagues. Says Tito, "I don't want Al to make the same mistakes I did" by not developing his game. "He's told me to treat every day like I haven't achieved anything yet," says the younger Horford, a 6'9", 235-pound power forward who is already considered a potential NBA lottery pick.
All three fathers maintain that they try not to be overbearing, and their sons say they appreciate their advice. "It's good to have their perspective on the game and what it takes to get to the next level," says Taurean.
While busy schedules have kept the trio of former pro-athlete dads from getting together in the same place at the same time, Sidney Green and Tito Horford were able to compare notes when they sat next to each other at a Florida-Villanova game in Nashville last year. "We had a lot of fun talking about how proud we are of our boys," says the elder Horford, who's now a counselor at a children's home in Lansing, Mich., "and how we hope someday they'll get a chance to play in the NBA like we did."