Two years ago, Florida Coach Billy Donovan appeared to be laying the groundwork for yet another disastrous chemistry project. Donovan had signed yet another talented and highly acclaimed recruiting class, and this one featured additional potential for combustion.
Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green were not only gifted high school players, they were also the sons of professional athletes. The fourth member of the class, guard Corey Brewer, was the ninth McDonald's all-American signed by Donovan but had no idea what it was like to be in the family of a tennis star or an NBA player; he grew up on a tobacco farm in Portland, Tenn., and, in the summers, worked the fields with his father.
So when the four arrived here, no one knew what to expect from a program that, under Donovan, has produced spectacular successes — a run as a No. 5 seed to the 2000 NCAA tournament final — and equally dramatic disappointments, such as the failure to advance beyond the second round in any of the following five years. But Donovan said he never worried that his four current sophomores would feel they were somehow above the program or each other, and the team has coalesced at the perfect time, having won nine straight games to advance to Saturday's national semifinal against George Mason.
Noah is the son of Yannick Noah, the 1983 French Open tennis champion, and Cecilia Rhode, second runner-up in the 1978 Miss Universe pageant and former Miss Sweden. Horford's father, Tito Horford, played center for the Washington Bullets and Milwaukee Bucks during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Green's father, Sidney Green, was a star forward at Nevada-Las Vegas in college and played for five NBA teams.
"They've never felt a sense of entitlement because their dads did this," Donovan said. "I think Yannick Noah lining up and playing tennis against some of the great tennis players, he probably realized, 'You know what? This guy across the net has as much talent as I do and what is it going to be that separates me from him?' I'm sure when Sidney Green was lining up against some of the great power forwards of the NBA, he probably said, 'You know what? This guy is as good as I am. What am I going to do?' I think that's helped those kids understand that the talent piece of it is a part of it, but the mental preparation and how hard you play and your team and winning is what it's all about."
While the Gators are certainly on a roll, their chemistry has been tested like never before during the NCAA tournament. Noah has become the face of the Gators because of his strong play in four NCAA tournament games, but also because of his charismatic personality, bulging hair and famous last name.
During a Tuesday news conference in a ballroom adjoining the Gators' basketball offices, Horford sat in one corner of the room and talked with a few reporters, while Noah was besieged by television cameras, reporters and tape recorders. More experienced players, such as senior Adrian Moss and juniors Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard, haven't gotten much attention at all with the focus on the team's four talented sophomores.
"Sometimes it bothers me when I'm getting so much attention because I know how good Al is and how much easier he makes the game for me," Noah said. "People say, 'Look at Noah dribbling down the court,' and Al is doing the same thing and not getting the love he deserves."
Noah's rise has been meteoric this season. In last year's NCAA tournament, he played only two minutes in the Gators' 76-65 loss to Villanova in the second round and didn't play at all against Ohio in the first round. Noah said his father's fame — he and his mother and younger sister left France in 1985 and returned to New York, so Noah could grow up outside of the public eye — has helped him navigate the sudden attention.
"I saw a lot of it with my father, and it's definitely helped," Noah said. "Last year, I didn't get any attention and it comes so fast. To a point, it's what you strive for: fortune and fame. But that's not what it's about. What I love about my father is even though I saw a lot of it with him, he let me learn through my own experiences. We speak about things and he'll give me advice, but he lets me do my own thing. He was never like, 'You can't do this,' when I was a kid. He never did that."
Horford and Green didn't see much of their fathers growing up, either, because they were playing professional basketball. Horford was born in his father's native Dominican Republic and moved to Michigan during high school. His father didn't see him play at Florida until the NCAA tournament last season.
Green's father introduced him to basketball when he was an infant. Sidney Green bought his son a miniature basketball after seeing him flick his right wrist in a shooting motion in the crib. When Green played basketball for the Chicago Bulls, he had Michael Jordan touch his son's head to bless him as a basketball player. Taurean Green was one of the country's most recruited guards at Cardinal Gibbons High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which he attended as a senior while his father coached at Florida Atlantic University.
"Just having somebody that played the game and coached the game, it helps just to hear his opinion on just the game of the basketball," Taurean Green said. "He was one game away from getting to the Final Four [at UNLV] , and he told me to tell my team to just go out and have fun and seize the moment."
Brewer, who was the fourth player in Florida's highly regarded 2004 recruiting class, can't really relate to how his classmates grew up.
"I'm different from all three of them," Brewer said. "They all have famous fathers and nobody knows my dad. He's just a normal guy. He's a farmer."
But Brewer said he learned as much from his father as his teammates learned from their more famous ones.
"He always said you need to go to college and get your education because you don't want to do this all your life like me," Brewer said. "He's famous to me."