Moment of the Decade: Joakim Noah's Dance

Today at TSB, we're each giving our personal moment of the decade in sports. ↵
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↵To get to my moment, I must tell you my story. (It's long. I'm sorry.) ↵

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↵In the '90s, being a fan of the University of Florida meant being a fan of football. I don't recall the exact moment I became a fan of the orange and blue, growing up in the shadow of the space program on Florida's east coast, but I'm pretty sure it revolved around the 1996 Florida-Florida State game. I remember being crestfallen, reading in the newspaper the next day, about Bobby Bowden saying his players had played to "the echo of the whistle" but were not dirty. I was glad when the Gators took revenge in that January's Sugar Bowl, Danny Wuerffel riddling the Seminoles' secondary. I was six. ↵

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↵Honestly, I didn't realize Florida had a basketball team until I was eight or nine and saw a box score in the paper. I literally thought there wasn't a Florida basketball team: I was aware that teams like Kentucky and Connecticut and Utah and Arizona and Kansas, but Florida leaving the gridiron didn't click for me. (I was young.) But then I started following the team through those box scores, and then, when they were good enough to make CBS broadcasts, on TV. I learned the names and the style and the alternating agony and ecstasy of the three-pointer. ↵

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↵And I took it all to the backyard. I watched Wuerffel and Fred Taylor and Noah Brindise's cameo; I was Teddy Dupay. I was a football fan; I was a basketball player. ↵

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↵I don't mean to say that I was any good. I played basketball mostly by myself, or with my brother, on the six-foot plastic hoop we had in our backyard because there was no room in the driveway. Despite being tall for my age, I basically never played inside: I set up the hoop at the edge of our exposed patio, facing the lawn, walked fifteen feet into the grass, and launched threes. I was sometimes the blonde bomber, Brett Nelson, and sometimes the tall scorer, Mike Miller, but I always returned to Dupay, bombing out opponents because it seemed like fun. ↵

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↵I got lucky with the 2000 NCAA Tournament. I was home early from school for some reason, and I saw Miller edge Butler with his improbable runner...live. That run through the basketball aristocracy is still vivid; Those Gators beat Illinois, Duke, Oklahoma State, and North Carolina, before bowing to Michigan State. ↵

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↵But that magic was short-lived. Miller and Donnell Harvey jumped to the NBA. A heralded recruiting class that included Kwame Brown, David Lee, Matt Walsh, and Anthony Roberson failed to make the Sweet Sixteen once. Walsh's girlfriend was in Playboy, once, and that seemed like a bigger deal than the basketball. Christian Drejer happened. Florida became a team known for unmet expectations, not just in March, but with any iota of prosperity -- the team's first-ever top ranking in the AP Poll was immediately squandered with a loss in their next game. ↵

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↵And Teddy Dupay fell, and fell, and fell some more. ↵

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↵Then came the Oh-Fours. Joakim Noah and Al Horford and Taurean Green and Corey Brewer were not the constellation of McDonald's All-Americans we Gators fans had been trained to expect; they were unheralded, and untested as sophomores in 2005. Then they went 17-0 to start the season and burned through an NCAA Tournament that seemed unprepared for the young, hungry, unselfish Gators. They beat the ultimate basketball bluebloods that year, claiming the SEC from Kentucky and winning their NCAA title against UCLA. (That night, I wrote thousands of words on what that title meant and sent it to my local paper. The editor liked it. So you can basically blame that for any blogging I do.) ↵

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↵The next year was the basketball team's chance to become the football team after the football team took a page from the basketball team with their upset of Ohio State. Noah and the rest were the kings, and, in Noah's case especially, there was no shortage of aspiring assassins waiting to depose them. That squad struggled more than the team a year before, losing SEC games and at times wearying from wearing the crown, but the "struggles" were relative: A supposedly great team losing is more stunning than an upstart falling off. ↵

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↵It all clicked for Florida in that year's SEC Tournament. They dusted the field. Basketball was a little more fun again. And it was mostly because of Noah. ↵

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↵Joakim Noah's dance immortalized that. He was always the big, goofy guy with the side-spinning free throw stroke and the gangly assemblage of limbs and hair, the one who got the "You're so ugly" chants from opposing fans and took some of them to heart. He was also the guy who had a little more perspective than the average college basketball player, son of a French man and a Swedish woman and educated by New York City and Bob Marley as much as the hardwood. But him getting loose, as awkwardly and obnoxiously and utterly joyfully as he did, encapsulated all of who he was and reminded me that sports are supposed to be fun. ↵

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↵Those Gators would go on to repeat, beating Ohio State's Greg Oden-led team for the second time that season and sealing their place in Florida and NCAA lore. There may be teams that repeat in the future, but I think it's unlikely that they will do it with a class of players who postpone NBA lottery riches for a year to run through college hoops again. And though every fan will rightly cite heart and ignore talent to make their team scrappier and more lovable, the chasm in desire between the talented and disappointing teams of the early 2000s and the Oh-Fours' juggernaut made those Gators a much easier team to embrace. ↵

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↵Joakim Noah will always remind me of that. That dance will always make me smile. For me, he was what fun was for the better part of two years. And he summed all of that up, wordlessly, in under one minute. ↵

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↵Now, when I play, there's still a little bit of Dupay in me, taking pull-up threes and trying to play the point with a center's body. But there's a little more of Noah, enjoying the game for what it is and making the most of every second. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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