Noah Copes With Cross to Bear

To the shock of nearly everyone outside the University of Florida, Joakim Noah decided last April to come back for another year in college -- only to find that the curriculum had changed.

The basket weaving that was 2006 has been replaced by the biophysics of '07. The continuing education of Jo Noah has, at times, been an immersion in the school of hard knocks, cheap shots and crude taunts.

A year ago Noah had all the answers, having catapulted out of relative obscurity to establish himself as the best player and brashest personality in the NCAA Tournament. Now the junior forward returns to the Final Four wiser but wearier. He's learned a fresh set of life lessons -- about the steep price of high expectations, the heavy burden of a season-long bull's-eye and the thin line between fresh and overexposed.

This repeat bid has been a struggle at times for the Gators, and by the end it's clear who struggled most with it: their leading man and lightning rod.

Insults in every opposing arena. Clucks of dismay over every diminished stat. Draft gurus deconstructing his game. Cheerleaders in his grille. Thirty-three victories, plenty of moments to celebrate, and nobody's satisfied yet.

That has been Noah's emotionally draining season in a nutshell. Being the Christian Laettner of the new millennium hasn't been easy.

"I don't regret anything," he said. "There were a lot of hard times this year, but this is a part of me growing up, not just as a basketball player but as a person.

"Last year, people around me were just happy that I got an opportunity to play basketball, that I got a chance to play, because my freshman year I didn't play. This year, if I don't have this amount of points, this amount of rebounds, this amount of blocks, it's, 'What was I doing? What was wrong with me?' "We were still winning basketball games, but it was 'What are you doing?' People didn't understand where I was coming from."

Actually, I'd argue that Noah didn't fully understand where he was coming from. Namely, the mountaintop. And there's usually only one way to go from there.

You average 16 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks, three assists and a steal over a six-game span with the whole world watching, you set an NCAA Tournament record for swatted shots and you lead a rampage to the national title? People come to expect that -- actually, more than that -- next time they see you.

The commonly held belief was that Noah was just scratching the surface of his prodigious potential -- just polishing up his raw game. When his shooting caught up with his other skills, when his strength caught up with his athleticism, when he had a full season imbued with the confidence of being The Man, he'd own this game.

It hasn't worked out that way. Ownership (and NBA draft status) was usurped by fresh-faced kids named Durant and Oden. The landslide preseason national player of the year choice was not a first-team All-American and has not been the best player on his own team.

There were times during this challenging season when Noah sought the counsel of his coach, Billy Donovan, whose guidance of this Gators team the past two seasons has approached art. Donovan offered a dose of perspective to his power forward.

"He would tell me, 'Would you give all of this up?'" Noah related. "And there's no way. There's no way. Sometimes this year I've taken things for granted. Sometimes you have to sit back and realize how many kids would love to be in this situation, winning an SEC championship for the third time, winning a national championship … getting to talk to all these people, press conferences, people asking for your autograph.

"We get so much love out there. It's overwhelming sometimes in Florida. But this is what it's all about. You've got to enjoy it. This stuff doesn't last forever."

But enjoyment and perspective can come and go. Human beings -- and Noah is one -- have their weaknesses. There can be stress among the good times -- especially when you're the guy in the spotlight before all your teammates.

"If that was me in that situation, I don't know if I could handle that," said teammate and roommate Al Horford. "There's so much expectations on him, so much on his shoulders. I think he did [struggle with those expectations] earlier in the year. I think that's why he wasn't as effective. … Sometimes you can't please everyone."

Noah has, at least, pleased his coach and teammates for the most part. He's had another fine season as an integral part of a relentless winner, but there has been more statistical regression than progression -- especially in this tournament.

Through four NCAA games, Noah's per-game numbers are down from last year's tournament in scoring (13.3), blocks (2.0), assists (1.8) and steals (0.8). They're up only in rebounds (11). His field-goal percentage has risen (from 55 percent to 64) but his free-throw percentage has dipped (from 84 percent to 75).

The junior Noah has the same limitations as the sophomore Noah -- same sidewinder shooting form, same lack of a jumper, same lack of upper-body strength. He undoubtedly worked on his game during the offseason, but did not show the same improvement as Horford, whose draft stock is probably higher than Noah's now.

And that Be The Man thing backfired in a lot of ways on a kid who always has been a blender on the court. As much as Noah plays the part of a melodramatic diva -- the hair, the chest-pounding, the gesticulations, the screaming -- he doesn't play the game like a diva.

He's only fourth on the team in scoring and has attempted the fewest shots of anyone on the starting five. That works wonderfully in the locker room with this selfless bunch, but it doesn't often put Noah in the J.J. Redick role of being able to shut up an opposing crowd with basket after basket.

And Noah has heard it from opposing crowds this year. More than any other player in college basketball, guaranteed.

"The amount of hate that is out there by opposing teams and fans, and Facebook pages that are created about him, it's amazing," Horford said. "I've never seen anything like that.

"At first, we thought it was funny. When it gets to the point where it's that bad, it's overwhelming. He gets a lot of hate, man."

There was the sign at LSU ripping off the Geico line -- "So easy, even a caveman can do it" -- with a picture of Noah. There were endless taunts and signs at Georgia, at Tennessee, at Vanderbilt. And there was the cheerleader at Kentucky who violated Noah's airspace, shoving her pompoms in his face after he fell to the floor in front of her.

I was seated about five feet away, saw the whole thing, and there's no doubt who instigated the situation. But when Noah angrily swiped at the cheer pixie's pompoms, it became an Internet firestorm and the victim was barbecued.

"Last year was all fun and games," Noah said. "It was, 'Oh, he's just so funny, look at him.' This year, it's under a microscope.

"This year, the cheerleader in Kentucky, she goes like this with the pompoms in my face [motioning to the NCAA representative next to him in a St. Louis news conference]. I was pissed off. It was my second foul, so I was mad. People look at this, and they say, 'Oh, Noah is such a bad guy.'

"You know what I realized? I don't care what people think anymore. I used to. I'm not going to lie. I used to play for everybody. You can't do that."

This is the hard lesson learned by progressing through to the downside of the fame cycle.

Last year Noah's story was fresh and fascinating: multicultural son of a tennis star and a Swedish model, oozing personality, fabulously candid, massively improved game. This year, we already know all that -- and his game stopped improving.

Time for a new story angle -- and the kid who morphed from confident to cocky to almost arrogant last spring gave his critics some ammo.

He won too much and emoted too much. Mostly, he won too much. Every team in America would love to have Noah wear its uniform -- but since he doesn't, he's the player to boo.

And as Florida has continued to win, the haters Noah so often refers to have had to suck it up and take it. The payoff for a grueling season is almost at hand, for a team much wiser now than it was at this stage last spring.

"We've learned so much," Noah said. "I know personally I've learned so much more about people this year than last year."

The valedictory moment in the continuing education of Joakim Noah is now at hand. Walking out of the Georgia Dome with one more piece of championship net would be all the diploma he needs to graduate.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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