Joakim Noah's tennis career lasted about 10 days. He was 5 years old, and observers wanted to see if Yannick Noah's son had any of the tennis promise of his dreadlocked father. Young Joakim quit because he couldn't stand all the people staring.
Now a 6-foot-11, 230-pound sophomore and a fixture on Florida's NBA ready frontline, people still can't take their eyes off Noah.
After being saddled on the bench as a freshman, Noah is enjoying a breakout season for the third-seeded Gators (28-6), a preseason afterthought who could easily slip through the Minneapolis Regional and earn a trip to the Final Four. The heavily favored Gators, playing just 70 miles from home, must first get past pesky Wisconsin-Milwaukee (22-8) in a second-round matchup at 3:20 p.m. today at Veterans Memorial Arena.
"He impacts winning," said Florida coach Billy Donovan of Noah. "That's the best compliment I can give someone. Joakim Noah impacts winning."
Noah's also one of the more unique figures in college basketball.
Not only is he the son of the French-Cameroonian tennis star, his mother is Cecilia Rodhe, a Scandinavian model. He's more inclined to watch movies like Fahrenheit 9/1 1 than Hustle and Flow, and his apartment is decorated with African wood masks.
A native of New York City, Patrick Ewing gave Noah his first basketball as a toddler and John McEnroe was always hanging around his home. He takes as much pleasure visiting Cameroon as his grandparents' farm town in Sweden. He hopes to study world religions and learn Arabic and somehow has developed a bit of a southern twang from his time in Gainesville.
"I really didn't think about it much but now that I've been talking about it a lot with the media, I've really had some good, interesting experiences," Noah said. "I've been able to travel and see many different styles and cultures that has given me a different perspective on things."
But in his first season at Florida, Noah had to adjust to coming off the bench. His minutes diminished as the season progressed and Noah didn't play in the Gators' first-round NCAA Tournament victory over Ohio University last season. Part of the reason was Noah played behind David Lee, now with the New York Knicks, but his willowy body wasn't prepared for the rigors of Southeastern Conference basketball.
"I really wanted to play, and some of that was selfishness on my part," said Noah, who averaged 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds as a freshman. "I was playing behind David Lee who was an NBA prospect. But at the end of the season, I just got away from basketball."
He spent two weeks on vacation in Cameroon and forgot about hoops.
When he returned Noah took his game to the Mecca of playground basketball: New York's Rucker Park. He took on the likes of NBA stars Ron Artest and Jamaal Tinsley and playground legends like Adrian "Whole Lotta Game" Walton and held his own.
"In New York, if your game isn't right, you will get exposed," Noah said. "Even though I missed two free throws to win the championship, I got my swagger back."
And it carried over into his sophomore season.
Noah is averaging a team-high 13.9 points, and his 6.7 rebounds a game ranks second on the team. In Florida's 76-50 first round win over South Alabama, Noah scored 16 points and added eight rebounds, eight assists, five blocks and three steals.
"Last year at this point after playing Ohio, I was in the film room dealing with a kid who wasn't getting the opportunity to play like he wanted to," Donovan said. "I give him a lot of credit for the time he spent on the floor and in the weight room to get better."