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It’s harder this time around for Gators

Times Staff Writer

You have to wonder: Would this have happened to somebody from UCLA?

Florida won the NCAA championship instead of the Bruins, and Joakim Noah became the pony-tailed villain of college basketball.

Granted, it’s hard to miss the 6-foot-11 gap-toothed son of a French Open champion. He is part urban sophisticate, part chest-beating competitor, part self-searching college student with a political conscience.

And across a swath of the South, he is reviled.

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“He’s the most hated player in college basketball, I think,” teammate Corey Brewer said.

At times during the season as Florida clawed its way back to the Final Four, Noah was bewildered. He was taken aback by both the adulation on campus and the hostility on the road -- even though as the son of Yannick Noah, he most of all should have understood what could happen.

“You see me on the court, and I have all this energy. People expect me to be like that all the time,” he said. “I’m not like that 24 hours a day. I mean, sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I’m in a bad mood, you know? But people just don’t understand that. They see you on TV and see you in a certain way, and they expect you to be that same person all the time.

“I don’t think people do it maliciously. That’s just the way it is. You’re under a microscope. You’ve been successful like we’ve been, I feel like you’re under a microscope, whether it’s good or bad.”

Over and over during this NCAA tournament, Noah keeps using two words, “microscope” and “draining.”

It might seem an exaggeration until you look back at a season whose smallest moment could become a tempest on a website, with videos and commentary posted around the Internet.

Rewind to February.

Florida was playing at Kentucky when Noah hit the deck hard, falling facedown out of bounds along the baseline. A Kentucky cheerleader kneeling on the court leaned forward, said something to him and shook one of her blue-and-white pompoms in his face. Noah, raising, swatted back at the pompom with his right hand, and was vilified in some corners for it.

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Then there was Florida’s loss at Vanderbilt a week later, when Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings caught the ball and pulled it out of reach as Noah prepared to take it out of bounds, swiping away Noah’s arms when he kept reaching for it. Two officials cornered Noah as if to halt a confrontation. Only one spoke to Stallings.

“I learned so much about people this year, because last year was all fun and games,” Noah said. “Last year, it was, ‘Oh, look. He’s so funny. Look at him.’

“But this year it’s under a microscope -- like, OK, the cheerleader at Kentucky. She takes her pompom and goes like this in my face, and I was [angry]. It was my second foul, so I was mad. So people look at that like, ‘Oh, Noah’s such a bad guy.’

“You know, I don’t even care any more, not like I used to. I’m not going to lie. I used to think I played for everybody. But you can’t do that.”

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Instead, he plays for his teammates, and especially for the other juniors -- Brewer, Al Horford and Taurean Green, the players who decided together they would pass on a chance to jump to the NBA and come back to try to win another championship.

They didn’t understand that everything would change. Florida Coach Billy Donovan did, and he tried to prepare them, wanting to be sure that this season wouldn’t become a long miserable march to March.

“One of the things I’ve seen happen to teams that have had high expectations on them was the fun gets taken out of it,” Donovan said. “I think since we started practicing, when we took the trip to Canada, you know, ESPN was with us. Sports Illustrated was with us. Everybody wanted to track our team.

“There was so much publicity that people can start to critique every little thing you do. And the thing I did not want to happen to these kids, I did not want the fun to be taken out of it.”

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Noah was voted most outstanding player of the Final Four after his coltish romp to the title last season. But instead of becoming the national player-of-the-year candidate some expected, he is only the fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder on a balanced Florida team.

It isn’t that Noah didn’t play well, Donovan said, but that the expectations were too great. He tried to tell his players, but they had to learn it themselves.

“I mean, none of us had ever experienced it, so you can talk about it all you want,” Noah said. “After the season, everybody was talking about expectations. And we would just use that word, like, ‘Oh, OK, expectations. We’re going to deal with them.’ ”

Then came the season.

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“It was more than just playing basketball, because everything we did in Florida, everybody knew who you were,” Noah said. “Last year, I was just a wild kid. This year, I had to fall back a little bit sometimes and think, ‘I play basketball. I have to get out of here.’ I feel like I was under a microscope all the time, and sometimes that’s draining.

“There were times this year when I was really, really frustrated. And I would go to Coach Donovan and talk to him about how frustrated I was. And he would tell me, ‘Would you give all of this up?’ And there’s no way. There’s no way.”

You could see Noah was happy when he climbed into the stands to celebrate defeating Oregon to reach the Final Four again, greeting his friends’ parents, leading fans in the Gator chomp.

“I decided to come back this year to win and to make history with my friends and people I love playing basketball with,” he said. “And you know what? I don’t regret anything. Right now, I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that. We’re happy with what we’ve accomplished, but I think we want more. We’re not satisfied with just making it this far.”

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He and the ‘04s, as they like to call themselves -- after the year they arrived at Florida together -- have stuck together. You can see it in the way they play, sharing the ball, buckling down at crunch time.

“Nobody else lived it,” Noah said. “We’ve gone through a lot together in the last three years. We’re together every day. For me, personally, I feel like these guys were really there for me.

“They were able to see me so many different ways. My freshman year, all three of my teammates were playing and I was the only one who wasn’t. They were just like ‘Jo, keep it up. Keep it up.’ They were there to encourage me.

“They were there when I was MVP of the Final Four, and they don’t care about that stuff. They’re still my boys. They don’t look at me any different. I feel like everybody around me was just so different after that happened, after we won the championship last year.

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“But they were always just cool and normal. Just my roommates and my friends, you know?

“I don’t regret anything. I feel like there was a lot of ups, a lot of downs this year. I feel like it was part of me growing up.”

robyn.norwood@latimes.com


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