With flair to spare, Noah is quite rare

The kid's fun. That's the best way to put it. He is vibrant and passionate, savvy and skilled, well-versed and well-traveled, and all of it makes him fun to watch, fun to interview.

Everywhere he has flair - in his hair, in his words, in the way he goes about his business on the court. He may be only 21 and best known as Florida's 6-foot-11 sophomore forward. But numbers and labels can't confine him, can't confine all that is Joakim Noah.


"I am large, I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass.

"It's hard to put into words . . . it is a unique story," Gators coach Billy Donovan said when asked to describe his star, who also contains multitudes.


That's obvious on the court, where he is a wraith with the wingspan of a pterodactyl, a big man able to handle the ball and drop a jumper and work effectively inside. It is also obvious in conversation, where he exhibits a touch as deft as his moves around the rim.

Just ask him about his first basketball, which he got as a gift from former New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing. He was a big fan of the Knicks back then and Ewing gave it to him one night at his father's restaurant, which Ewing frequented.

"I don't have it or anything," Noah said after sharing the anecdote. "But my mom talks about that story a lot. She's into metaphors, things like that."

Now that's fun and certainly not the stuff you get from your average sophomore, no matter if he's a future litigator or lottery pick. But then Joakim Noah is hardly average, not by the longest of three-point shots.

His father is tennis great Yannick Noah, who was born in Cameroon, once won the French Open and is now an AfroReggae recording star living in France. His mother is Cecilia Rodhe, who was born in Sweden, nearly the victor at the 1978 Miss Universe pageant and is now a sculptor living in New York City.

Noah was born there in February 1985, but three years later he moved to Paris with his family and began attending American schools there. Four years later, when he was 7, he started taking tennis lessons from his father, yet already there was an independence about him and he quit those lessons after 10 days.

"I wanted to play tennis ... but living in France, it was a pain," he said. "Everybody was trying to compare me to my father. I didn't want to deal with it ... not just the comparisons, the attention. I'm older, so I think I can deal with the attention better. But when you're a 7-year-old kid, you don't want to deal with that.

"I remember going to tournaments with my father and wanting him to lose because I just wanted to go home and spend some time with my father. I really remember that. ... When you're a kid, you just want to have fun. You don't want to worry about people watching you, you just want to have fun. I wasn't having fun, so I moved to basketball pretty quick."


When he was 13 he moved back to New York City with his mother, now divorced from his father, and began haunting the famous playgrounds in Harlem, where he was given the nickname "The Noble One." "I shined a little bit," he said by way of explanation.

He later starred at Poly Prep in Brooklyn and then Lawrenceville Prep in Princeton, but last year, as a freshman at Florida, he was buried on the bench and played little.

He flew to Cameroon when the season ended to visit his grandparents and clear his head, then returned to Gainesville and set out to make sure he wouldn't be buried again.

"That's tough. You start questioning yourself," he said. "As a competitor, you want to be out there. It was the first time in my life I wasn't able to do what I'd always done - excel in basketball. But it just made me hungrier, made me tougher."

It also pushed him to apply the work ethic he had learned from his father, and this season he emerged as a mirror of his father at work. "He was a warrior on the court," Noah said, and, like father ...

In two games at the Minneapolis Regional last weekend, he totaled 71 minutes, 36 points, 25 rebounds and 10 blocks. He was a constant presence in both games, lurking inside, helping his guards break a press.


He carried the Gators to the Final Four in Indianapolis, where on Saturday they will meet George Mason in the first semifinal. His mother recently underwent leg surgery, so it's not certain she will be there. Nor is he sure about his father, who'll watch a special satellite feed at a recording studio if he doesn't make it in person.

But no matter how they view the game, they will see parts of themselves on display in this fun son they both nurtured.

"My mom's very sensitive about everything. She's an artist," he said. "When I watched my father play tennis, I could see that he was definitely one of the hardest workers on the court. But the most talented? I don't think he was very talented in that he didn't have a great forehand or a great backhand. I just know how hard he worked and I know how hard it must have been being a 12-year-old kid having to leave his family in Africa.

"So his experience speaks for itself and it's definitely something I'm influenced by. He's my best friend. I'm very proud of what my father stands for. He shines in France."

Skip Myslenski writes for the Chicago Tribune.