Noah knows his time will come


Published: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 12:42 a.m.
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The well- rounded Joakim Noah, right, has lived in Paris, Sweden, Cameroon and New York City.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
He is different. You see it in the lines of his maple-colored face, the high hair, the drooping shorts.
You hear it by talking to him about issues of the day that aren't related to shooting percentages or slam dunks.
Joakim Noah is not your typical Division I basketball player.
Noah, the freshman Florida center, is young and developing, full of energy and promise.
Noah the person is complex, multi-cultural, thoughtful, open to new experiences and new ideas.
He is the multi-racial son of a model-turned-sculptor and a tennis professional-turned-pop music star. And when Noah checks in this afternoon off the bench when Florida plays South Carolina, it will be the continuation of a basketball education that began in France and was honed in playgrounds and gyms in New York City.
"Every game is a learning experience for me," Noah said.
So was his upbringing. Celebrity was on both sides of his family. Cecilia Rodhe, his mother, was a former Miss Sweden in 1978. His father, African-born French tennis star Yannick Noah, was a 1983 French Open champion who was recently inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Celebrity and family ties allowed Noah to travel to every continent except Antarctica, and to spend significant time in four countries - France, Sweden, Cameroon and America.
It gave Noah a broad world view before he even stepped on the Florida campus. For many, college is the first place to get exposed to different ideas, different cultures. Noah's parents made sure that education came sooner.
"Traveling, getting exposed to different cultures, it takes a lot of the fear, a lot of the ignorance away," Rodhe said. "For our children, being multi-cultural, multi-racial it was important to show that through all of our different cultural aspects, we are all human beings."
Noah is learning a new culture, too - small-town America - after his first 14 years in Paris and last four in New York City.
"This is good for me, in a sense, that I've never lived in the South and I've never lived in an environment where it's all students, basically," Noah said. "But it's definitely cool, it's definitely helping me focus and I know what I have to do. It's definitely helped me stay here and spend lots of hours in the gym. It's good to stay away from distractions."
Not that Noah isn't taking in the college experience. He is, by all accounts, popular. Attention comes instantly with the wild hair and the 6-foot-11 frame.
"You walk around campus and everyone is looking at you," said Al Horford, Noah's best friend and freshman teammate. "He's just so tall and the way he's dressed. He draws a lot of attention."
Noah is used to life under the microscope. Everyone in France expected him to follow his famous father's footsteps, to play tennis. His parents divorced when he was two. Rodhe decided to move the family to New York City, in part, for her son's basketball dreams.
"I wanted to offer to all of the children, and especially with Joakim, the experience of the inner-city, of the streets," Rodhe said. "Basketball for him was a passion. Paris was very different, much more individual, much more pressured, and he could not have flourished in that environment."
So when Rodhe and Joakim's younger sister traveled to Europe each summer, Joakim stayed behind with Police Athletic League coach Tyrone Green in Queens. He worked out and played daily. Sometimes, current NBA players like Mike Dunleavy and Ben Gordon would stop by and scrimmage at the PAL gym in Hell's Kitchen, the Manhattan west side neighborhood where Noah lived with his family. Mostly, though, Noah worked out on his own, honing his skills.
Noah not only learned basketball, but life lessons in the neighborhood.
"I think it's good for people to explore areas," Noah said. "I lived in Hell's Kitchen where there was a middle class, there's projects right near us. I lived around people who didn't have much and it made me hungrier to see that. I think some people really take things for granted, and it shouldn't be that way."
It's the kind of social commentary Noah sometimes espouses, making him popular among both teammates and critical thinkers. Last October, Noah listed Manute Bol is one of the NBA players he most admired, because of his financial contributions he made for the famished in his native Sudan.
"That's in my blood," Noah said. "My father being from Africa, the culture is completely different. In Africa, you can go to a dinner table, and you might not know half the people at your own dinner table, and it's not a question of, whatever you have to eat, everybody gets to eat.
"So even when my dad goes to Africa, people expect him to give back. It's not an issue of, oh he's such a nice guy, look at him giving back. They expect him to do that. That's in his blood."
On the court, Noah has shown that he's not afraid to take the ball to the basket, even in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference.
"Coming from New York, you don't back down," Noah said. "That's the kind of mentality you have, the mentality of staying hungry and that attitude of survival of the fittest that I think I got living in New York."
"He's a hard guy sometimes, because he has such great potential and energy," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He sometimes makes mistakes because he tries to do too much. For him to grow and develop, we have to get him out there and let him play."
Like against Tennessee, when Noah scored nine points on 4-of-4 shooting, but was late on a few defensive assignments that resulted in a few three-pointers.
"It didn't cost us the game, but there were a few breakdowns there," Donovan said. "I love coaching him because he comes passionately to practice, he's always there early, he's energized. He's eager to get better and is about winning and the team."
Noah also loves his teammates, and pregame discussions often stray away from basketball. During last summer, Noah and senior forward David Lee sometimes went long into the night discussing different topics.
"He's big on world peace, just diversity issues," Lee said. "He's huge on those things. He pretty much has a love of every kind of person and anyone that says anything generalizing one group of people he doesn't really appreciate."
The debates get heated sometimes, but Noah comes away with more information to store away.
"It's definitely cool to talk to students, especially ones with different perspectives than what you have," Noah said. "I felt like when I was younger I had a hard time arguing with people who had different perspectives than I do. I've learned maybe more from them than I have from people who agree with me."
Not that Noah backs down. Like the teen they used to call "Sticks" in the New York City playgrounds because of his long, bony build, Noah is not afraid of a challenge to his intellect.
"To put it lightly," Lee said. "He doesn't think he's wrong very often."
Diplomacy, like a well-rounded game, will come in time. Noah was a bit down when he only played four minutes the first time his dad saw him play. It was against Louisville, a critical non-conference game. Playing time for freshmen that early in the season was hard to come by.
The two went to lunch the next day, went golfing and toured the basketball practice facility.
"He just reminded me what a great opportunity I have here," Noah said.
The next game, Noah scored 14 points against Georgia Southern, his career-high. But more than his modest numbers in limited playing time (5.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 10 blocks), both parents are happy to see their son is enjoying himself and growing into a man.
"When I see how open he is, and I hear his voice, stronger now," Rodhe said. "It makes me proud."
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at brockwk@gvillesun.com.

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