Sitting On Bench Last Year Motivated Noah

The further the Florida Gators got into their march to the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in Atlanta last spring, the more time Joakim Noah spent on the bench where he was relegated to watching David Lee carve up opponents on the inside. It was when the Gators won their first-ever conference tournament championship by beating Kentucky that Noah discovered that all his time on the bench had served a far greater purpose.

He really didn't want to sit and there were times when he really didn't understand. He was so willing to learn, so willing to do everything that Coach Billy Donovan asked him to do and he yearned with a burning fire in his belly to help his team produce. What he didn't realize that he was helping the team. It might not have been on the floor during games, but by practicing as hard as he does with the energy that he puts into every practice, he was helping. One of the reasons David Lee made All-SEC last year was going head to head in practice every day against the supremely athletic Noah, a reed-thin, chest-pounding gazelle from a rather impressive gene pool.

Still, sitting on the bench and watching teammates contribute was frustrating for the 6-11 Noah, a dual citizen of the US and Sweden, whose mom Cecilia is a former Miss Sweden and whose dad Yannick won the 1983 French Open tennis title. His grandfather Zacharie Noah was the captain of the 1961 Cameroon team that won the French Cup in soccer.

"It was tough but at the end of the day we won a championship," said Noah the day before the fourteenth-ranked Gators (24-6, 10-6 SEC) depart for Nashville where -they will play the winner of Thursday's Arkansas-Georgia game in a Friday night semifinal (9:45 EDT) of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

"I wasn't that upset because when you're winning you don't want to say nothing even though it's tough for you personally … it's a selfish approach. My freshman last year I didn't' see it like that but looking back at it I see how it is for the guys this year who aren't able to play as much and who are in the same position this year that I was in last year. It's understandable. It's hard as a competitor and you don't get to play as much as you want to but it's part of it and those who appreciate it and accept their roles, those are the teams that go far."

He helped the Gators by putting everything he had into practice and he transformed that frustration into motivation. He's well aware that he might not have been selected first team All-SEC had it not been for the freshman year experience. It was humbling to find himself sitting on the bench, especially because the competitive fires burn so passionately within.

So he dedicated himself to doing all the things that are necessary to improve in the offseason. Never one to slack in practice, he pushed himself harder and further than ever before.

"He's the only player I've ever seen that just loves coming in to practice and doing individuals every day," said teammate Chris Richard, the first big man off the Florida bench. Richard, 6-8, 255, goes head to head with Noah every day in practices so he offers a different perspective to Noah's dramatic improvement.

"I've never seen anyone with the work ethic he has," said Richard. "He may be the most improved player in the conference."

The numbers back up Richard's contention. Noah averaged 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game as a freshman. The numbers so far this season are 14.1 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, 66.1 percent from the field, 71.6 percent from the foul line, 55 assists, 63 blocked shots and 35 steals. Over the last nine games, he has averaged 18.8 points and nine rebounds while hitting 62-85 (72.9 percent) from the field and 53-68 (77.9 percent) from the foul line. There isn't a player in the SEC that has experienced such a turnaround.

"I definitely feel like I wouldn't be doing the things I'm doing this year if it wasn't for last year because I feel like I learned a lot even through sitting on the bench playing behind David Lee," said Noah. "My experience made me hungrier and I think it's definitely humbling. It's a humbling experience that will always be there for the rest of my life."

Sitting on the bench also taught him lessons about how teams function and win together. Now he has a better understanding that one player's stardom is often the result of another player's unselfishness.

Getting to this stage in his basketball and personal development wouldn't have happened without last year's lessons sinking in.

"I learned that it's not all about one person in basketball and when I speak about it with my father, I don't think he understood that because he's never been in a position when he had teammates," said Noah. "At the same time, first team [All-SEC] … without my teammates I wouldn't be able to be first team … without guys like Corey (Brewer) giving me the ball wide open for layups. I don't even shoot jumpers. I shoot layups under the basket because my teammates are so unselfish and that's something that's gotta be said. It's not like I would be a first team if it wasn't for my teammates."

"My ultimate goal is not to make a team; it's more than something individually. We've been working hard for a long time now and it's do or die. We just have to keep doing what we're doing and hopefully win some ball games. People don't remember who made first team [All-SEC] … they remember who won championships so that's something we've been striving for all year."

Winning championships is just one of his many goals. He loves everything about his Florida experience. He loves his coaches, his teammates, the ever-growing circle of friends that he's found and going to class where he's studying social and behavioral sciences. The college experience is so rich that he can't begin to consider the thought of leaving before his four years of eligibility have expired even though his NBA draft stock should be through the roof by the end of his junior year.

"I love it here," he said. "I can't even describe it. There's so much more … even when my father was here there was so much more that I want to show him that we weren't able to see. Especially during the season I'm not able to spend as much time as I want to but I wish he could come and check out the environment of a football game and things like that. They haven't experienced anything like that. It was a lot crazier for my grandfather …. his first basketball game was in the O'Dome and that's a special place to play … I miss it already.

"I love it here ... whatever happens happens but I'm not thinking about it. I'm thinking about winning championships and I love it here. My four best friends in the world are here. I live with my four best friends and I love college. There's no reason to think about anything else right now. I'm loving it. Think about it. We've got it good around here."

His father and grandfather were in the stands at the O-Dome last week when the Gators beat Georgia and then in Lexington when Florida closed out the regular season with a hammer-dunk of a win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena. The Georgia game was the very first time that Zacharie Noah had ever seen a basketball game in person, much less one that his grandson played in and dominated with 37 points and 11 rebounds. He followed that up with a 15-point, 11-rebound, 4-blocked shot performance at Kentucky.

Yannick and Zacharie have departed now and in their place, Joakim's mother, sister and a couple of friends from New York will be the support system when the Gators play in the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Yannick has vowed to return for the NCAA Tournament.

As for Zacharie, he will be back in Cameroon but just because he isn't in Nashville or along Florida's path through the NCAA Tournament in person doesn't mean he won't be taking care of his grandson.

The Gators will be playing Friday night in the throwback uniforms, the same throwbacks that Florida wore in that 0-3 streak just before the two-game closeout to end the regular season. Joakim doesn't worry about the uniforms.

"Superstitious that way … about jersies? Nah!" he said with a laugh. "Superstitious about something like African voodoo stuff? Yeah! My grandfather said he's going to do a couple of sacrifices."

Animal sacrifices?

"Couple of chickens," he said.

The kind of sacrifices that will bring good fortune to the Gators or the kind that will cause misfortune to whomever the Gators play?

"No comment," said Joakim with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.

Just remember, the last time Zacharie Noah was doing sacrifices it was the summer when Joakim traveled to Cameroon to spend a couple of weeks with his grandfather. A first team All-SEC season followed that. Maybe Gator Nation should tell Zacharie Noah to please do that voodoo that you do so well.

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