by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad
Joakim Noah knows a thing or two about the NCAA Tournament. In 2006, Noah was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, leading Florida to its first National Championship in school history. The next season, with all five starters back, the Gators won it all again. Chomp that.
So Wednesday, we caught up with Noah on behalf of American Express and the NBA’s “Off the Court” series, which gives fans an inside look at players’ passions outside of basketball, to get his take on this year’s Gators squad. Not surprisingly, Joakim is confident in Florida’s shot at winning the 2014 Tournament.
“I think our chances are very good, especially playing UCLA,” Noah says. “The laws of the jungle—Gators can’t lose to no Bruins. And if you know your history a little bit, you know that we’ve been known to whoop some Bruin ass.”
Florida came into this year’s Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed in the 68-team field. Meanwhile fellow perennial power Duke, a 3-seed, lost to No. 14 Mercer in the first round. But Noah says he took it easy on teammates Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy.
“It is what it is. I was watching them play a couple times this year, I feel like Jabari Parker had a great year. But they had no bigs. It’s hard to win when you have no bigs. Jabari did his best but I had a feeling from the beginning they weren’t going to go far because they didn’t have any bigs. You gotta have bigs, gotta have bigs.”
One big whose team was also bounced early this year is Kansas freshman (and SLAM 177 cover co-subject) Joel Embiid, who is a native of Cameroon—where Noah’s grandfather played professional soccer, and still lives. Noah is excited for Embiid to help him begin building a love for basketball in Cameroon, noting “I think he’s a beast, but I’m not going to take it easy on him on the court.”
Noah’s unique, worldly personality comes in part from his love for traveling the globe. “I think traveling is really important. It puts everything in perspective, being able to compare different cultures is something that’s really important to me. I try to go to Africa once every summer, I go back to Cameroon and go see my grandfather out there. I think it definitely keeps me grounded, I love going back over there. I love going to Hawaii, I have family over there, too. I like sitting on the beach. When you’re in Chicago for seven months out the year, I think going to the beach is important.”
Back to basketball, Noah says it’s “tripped out” that it’s been seven-plus years since he was playing in March Madness. “But those times were the best times of my life,” he adds. “Being able to work so hard for a common goal to finally win a Championship, to bring that Championship back to campus, it’s really touching. They’re moments that I’ll never forget, and that’s why all of us that were on that team are so close, because we got to experience something special together.”
Can the Gators repeat the feat? The next step in the journey is tonight against No. 4 UCLA at 9:45 p.m. And you can bet Jo will be watching.
We’ll have much more from our conversation with Noah coming soon, so stay tuned!