Georgetown: Symbol of Many Dreams For Noah

No life story, even if it is ongoing, would be complete without a few valleys to balance out the peaks. In Joakim Noah's still being told life drama, he is on a Mount Kilimanjaro-high peak as the Florida Gators move on to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament to face the Georgetown Hoyas in Minneapolis. For Noah, Georgetown is both symbolic of dreams realized and the shattered hopes of a teenager whose lifetime aspiration came crashing down.

During his two years at the University of Florida, Noah has become a walking advertisement of what it can be for a student-athlete. On one hand he is the total carefree spirit, a product of three continents that is a never grow tired social butterfly smelling every rose along the way. On the other hand, this New Yorker by way of Paris and Africa with the Viking blood flowing in his veins is the conscientious, caring deep thinker, the perfect fit in classrooms with challenging agendas that require constant self-examination. On the basketball court, carefree meets conscience and the result is a passionate, chest-pounding, multi-skilled center with an Energizer Bunny motor and unquenchable will to win.

Yet before he showed up on the Florida campus --- a 6-11 project whose most recognizable assets were height, hustle and a willingness to show the full range of his emotions on the court --- he was a Georgetown fan. His first basketball memory is a mini-basketball given to him by one of his father's friends, the face most associated with Georgetown basketball, Patrick Ewing. From age nine to 15, Noah was a regular at the Hoya basketball camps in the summer where the kids teased him, calling him "Frenchie," "French Toast" and "French Fry." When the Big East Tournament was played in New York, he was at Madison Square Garden, wearing his Georgetown gear, living large with every Hoya win and dying a little bit inside when they lost.

"Growing up, Georgetown was my dream school," said Noah Monday afternoon. "When I was nine years old I went to camp over there and I went to camp over there until I was about 15. I went every summer and I built up a great relationship with Coach (John) Thompson and Patrick Ewing's son."

As his game improved and he went through a growth spurt that took him from a 6-1 sophomore point guard to a 6-11 senior center, schools from all over the nation began to take notice. He was skinny but he ran the floor so well and he had such an easy to see burning desire to improve.

A project? Yes. But if you're a college basketball coach, there is an unwritten rule that says when taking risks, make them tall risks --- the taller the risk, the greater potential for reward.

There were plenty of willing risk-takers, one of which was Florida Coach Billy Donovan. Donovan saw a potential 6-11 gazelle that could impact the game with his feet and his height.

That's what everybody else saw, too. Well, everybody but Georgetown.

"I remember calling them and asking them to come recruit me but they never did," said Noah. "They never came to any of my high school games or anything."

When Noah turned in an eye-opening performance at the ABCD Camp in the summer before his senior year, Craig Eshrick, then the Georgetown coach, finally paid attention but it was too little and way too late.

"I always wanted to go there but I felt like it was a little bit too late," said Noah. "I felt disrespected because I remember taking my time to ask them to come recruit me. We had a past relationship and they still didn't come and give me a chance. I thought that was kind of messed up."

So one dream was shattered but from the ashes of a dream that went up in smoke, another dream blossomed and bore fruit. Noah signed with Florida as part of a recruiting class that included Al Horford, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer. The chemistry was instant. The never-ending bonding of these four amigos has made them four brothers from different mothers. They wet their feet as freshmen on a 24-8 team that was led by talented upperclassmen. This year, as sophomores and with David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson fond memories on the Florida basketball landscape, they have literally exploded onto the college basketball scene and propelled the 29-6 Gators to within four games of a national championship.

It is in Florida's last seven games that Noah has most visibly emerged as the game-changer, the Gator most likely to impact a game in a variety of ways. He's done it with scoring that is a spectacular blend of taking it to the rack and finishing on the break with thunderous dunks. He's done it with defense, the rejecter that swats away shots in a timely fashion. He's done it with passing, evidenced by 13 assists in two NCAA Tournament games over the weekend.

And always, his efforts have been fueled by a passion tank that never runs empty. The most complex of the four amigos and of this Gator basketball team has also become its poster child source of energy, determination and will to win.

He's happy in Gainesville, happy at UF, happy that he's learning something new every day in a diverse social and behavioral sciences curriculum, and happy to be a part of a Gator team that has tied the school record for most wins in a season. The old dreams of playing for the Hoyas may have been snuffed out along the way but the new dream of helping the Florida Gators win a national championship is a flame that only burns brighter and hotter by the hour that leads up to Friday night's Sweet 16 game.

The ultimate irony in this journey is that the next step will put him face to face with the Georgetown Hoyas. Eschrick is no longer the coach. The man who wears that hat at Georgetown is a familiar face, John Thompson III, son of the coach Joakim grew up idolizing.

For now, Georgetown and its 7-2 center Roy Hibbert is simply the bump in the road that the Gators must clear. Noah says Hibbert "is in our way so he's a problem." The Hoyas are a very good team --- they are one of only two that beat Duke this year --- and that is motivation in itself but then there is that lingering memory of a dream that ended so abruptly. Even though Joakim Noah has moved onward and upward in his quest to become a great basketball player, he's not quite ready to let go of at least one old dream that never came true.

When he was growing up, to play for Georgetown was his motivation to arrive earlier than anyone to practice and to stay late after everyone else had left to take one more jump shot or free throw. Now, at least for Friday night, the motivation is to show the Hoyas just how wrong they were when they passed him up.

"I'm happy here and I'm ready to go," he said. "I'm ready to prove them wrong. It's just extra motivation. You know, what goes around comes around."

When he takes the floor, he knows he will see a few folks on the Georgetown sideline that he's known a long time. Even though he's a Gator, he understands that the Georgetown experience was all part of a bigger picture.

"I have a good relationship with a lot of the staff over there," he said. "They really looked out for me. It was a great experience at camp and they helped me get to the point I'm at today so hopefully it bites them in the butt."

Friday night, it will be all about Florida. Getting the Gators one step closer to the goal of a national championship is his consuming focus this week. Georgetown is an obstacle but he knows the formula for overcoming obstacles.

"Right now it's all about those Gator boys," he said. "I'm not worried about Georgetown. If we do the right things then we're going to be tough to beat so we have to keep playing, game by game, possession by possession. Nobody can mess with us."

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