WHAT ABOUT THEM GATORS!?!?!?!
Forward, Corey Brewer, who would go on to be named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player on Monday after scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds, giggled and said 1996 Kentucky, partly to appease his coach, who was sitting to his right, and partly because Ron Mercer was his Tennessee homeboy.
The rest of the Gators starters completed the assembly-line history quiz: Taurean Green said ’93 Carolina. Al Horford said ’98 Kentucky. Lee Humphrey said ’72-73 UCLA. Jo Noah said he lived in France for so long as a kid that he was unqualified to reply, but added he had been a fan of ’00 Florida.
Donovan then chimed in with ’96 Kentucky, as well as ’90-91 UNLV and ’70s UCLA. Strangely enough, no one said Duke’s ’91-92 juggernaut, the team whose feat of back-to-back national championships had stood unmatched for 15 years, until the Gators equaled it the next day with an 84-75 win over Ohio State. On the eve of immortality, perhaps they wanted to avoid the obvious comparisons.
By Monday night, though once Florida had departed from yet another confetti-strewn court, after dominating their second straight Final Four, there was little doubt that they had placed themselves at least on par with the Blue Devils, and possibly the Bruins, whose dynasty reigned in the days of a five-round dance rather than the 65-team NCAA tournament. So it begged re-asking the question: Gators, now who do you think is the greatest?
Donovan needed no prompting for his answer, putting the historians on notice in the opening remarks of his press conference: “I sit up here very, very humbled because I think I was fortunate enough over the last two years to coach a group of guys that has to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time. I’m not saying they were the most talented. I’m not saying they were flawless. But when you talk about the word ‘team, what that encompasses in terms of unselfishness, sacrifice, playing together, they have got to go down and be considered, in my opinion, one of the best teams to ever play.”
Their coach wasn’t the only one making best-ever references. Green, sitting in the locker room with clipped strands of the net tied to his championship hat, said, “We’ve gotta be up there. Two national championships in a row — and what’s made us so great is that we all love playing with each other. I don’t think there’s been a team with our chemistry and our camaraderie that played so well together.”
To really appreciate this Florida team and realize why they’re better than the double-Dukies you have to buy into those tired old notions of love and chemistry no matter how sappy they seem at face value. Because the Gators made it look so easy over the past two Final Fours destroying George Mason and UCLA in ’06, then UCLA again and Ohio State in ’07.
They never gave us a Laettner moment, a single shot or image that’s perfectly packaged for decades of Jumbotron montages. What they did was more big-picture. Their band of juniors gave up more than $6 million in NBA cash (that would have been the combined total of Noah, Horford and Brewer’s first-year contracts in ’06-07), and returned on a mission to continue playing the most stunning brand of team-ball the sport has ever seen. That will be their legacy, even if unselfishness is harder to archive in a highlight reel.
The essence of Florida’s camaraderie was displayed on the celebration stage just seconds after Brewer had been announced as MOP. The Gators barely acknowledged the individual honor and instead formed a ring around the NCAA championship trophy, looking inward at each other while tens of thousands of roaring, blue-and-orange clad fans were looking down at them.
Green moved to the center and began dancing, with the others swaying around him and yelling “Aha! Aha!” in gruff voices. He said the Aha Dance was a ritual that began at the start of this year’s SEC tournament as a way for the players to “get crunk” before and after games, and Green, whose nickname is “Crunk Juice,” acts as the ringleader.
Whereas Ohio State jogged (and Oden walked) out of its locker room and directly onto the court just minutes before the game, Florida stopped on its way to the floor to perform the dance in a back hallway of the Georgia Dome, culminating in a group yell of “Kick ass!”
It was only natural, then, that they repeated it afterwards or at least until the stage began wobbling dangerously from the gyrations of a dozen rowdy champs. “We had to do [the dance], because that’s what got us here,” said Green. “We stopped because we felt the stage shaking, and we thought it was going to break.”
Soon after, the Gators sat in a row on the edge of that same stage, soaking in every second of One Shining Moment on the Jumbotrons. Noah had his right arm around Brewer and his left around reserve Jack Berry, and the Noble One would recline, eyes wide in an expression of pure joy, every time he or a teammate appeared in the montage. Noah mouthed most of the words, while Brewer alternated between looking teary-eyed and ecstatic.
“It’s unreal, One Shining Moment, it almost makes you want to cry,” he said. “That’s why you love college basketball, all the guys diving on the floor, everybody playing as hard as they can play just to be in this moment where we are right now.”
A moment, mid-game, that exemplified Florida’s balance came with 9:39 left and the Gators up 58-47. A glance at the scoreboard revealed that four of the players they had on the floor — Brewer, Green, Humphrey and Horford — all had 11 points each, while Noah, last year’s Final Four MOP, had four. Ohio State did not enjoy the same equilibrium: At that point, Mike Conley Jr. had scored nine and Greg Oden had 17, but Jamar Butler and Othello Hunter had zero, and David Lighty had two.
The final box from the title game shows six Gators with at least eight points, while just three Buckeyes surpassed that mark. Noah’s constant refrain of “When we win, we all eat,” had never been more evident. What other team could watch its previous year’s tourney star, Noah, deliver a subpar, eight-point and three-rebound effort on the biggest stage of the season and have it not be the least bit of an issue?
And what other team, for that matter, would have been able to weather such phenomenal performances from the likely No. 1 pick in the ’07 NBA Draft, 7-footer Greg Oden (25 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks) and a likely lottery-pick in ’08, speedy point guard Mike Conley (20 points, six assists, two turnovers)?
It was almost as if the defending champs consciously decided to take turns snuffing out every Ohio State run. When the Buckeyes cut Florida’s lead to two in the first half, at 24-22, the Gators’ gunners answered with three straight treys one each by Humphrey, Brewer and Green to take an 11-point advantage. And when OSU sliced the UF lead to six in the first two minutes of the second half, it was the fearsome frontcourt that responded, with Chris Richard throwing down a follow dunk and Horford hitting a jumper from the right elbow to make the score 46-36. From then on, the game’s end result was never in doubt.
Florida’s roster is as eclectic as it is talented, and Donovan’s biggest feat with this team was finding a way to fuse wildly different personalities into a well-oiled unit. Many previous title teams seemed a lot more alike, the old Dukies seemed a lot more alike; Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were cut from a similar brat-boy mold, and there was a general attitude of cockiness that pervaded the Blue Devils’ ranks.
Michigan State in ’00 was loaded with Flintstones who grew up in the same rough-and-tumble automotive town. Even the Buckeyes, whom the Gators beat on Monday, had an inside-outside duo in Conley and Oden who had played together since the seventh grade. While Florida’s Fab Five includes two small-town Tennesseans, they couldn’t be more opposite, as Humphrey is the innocent rube and Brewer is the goofy kid with a wild streak.
Put them together with the son of a French pop star/tennis hero (Noah), the son of a Dominican-born NBA player (Horford), and the son of another NBA player and college coach (Green), and how, exactly, was it supposed to work? How did they manage to go 33-6 and 35-5 over the past two years?
Donovan understands just how improbable this seemed three years ago. “I could sit there, recruiting a guy like Jo, and say, ‘There’s no way that he and Al Horford are getting along,'” he said on Sunday. “You know what I mean? Just their personalities being a room together [would clash]. I think the reason it’s all meshed and gelled is because of what’s most important for them. The most important thing for them is competing, being part of team, and they enjoy winning.”
While hordes of reporters were around Noah, Green, Horford and Brewer after the game, Richard, the team’s elder statesmen, stood on one side of the locker room absorbing the scene, wearing a title t-shirt thoroughly stained with soft-drink spray. When asked to explain the Gators’ harmony, he said: “We all mesh. All of us are completely different, but when we get together, we put aside all of our differences for the betterment of the team. Lee is just a quiet choirboy. Taurean is a hyper water-beetle. Jo is the rebel. Al is the mentor, the most mature one. Corey’s just a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. And I’m just enjoying the ride.”
The ride took the Gators from being an unranked team at the start of ’05-06, to a three seed heading into that dance, to a national-title run where they had one close game — beating Georgetown by four in the Sweet 16 — but won their others by margins of 26, 22, 13, 15 and 16. The ride continued back to Gainesville for ’06-07, where Noah, Horford and Brewer were lauded as heroes for bucking the trend of early departures to the NBA.
It put them under a media microscope that magnified their every move and misstep in their encore run. Noah had spent much of the lead-up to the game talking about how debilitating the attention was, especially when it turned negative during their late-February swoon. “People were scrutinizing your every move,” he said. “Do you know how much that weighs on you?”
On Monday, Noah was running around the court in his socks — having already thrown his shoes into the crowd — and singing a different tune. “People can say whatever they want, but there’s no lying in championships,” he said. “At the end of the day you have to say [we’re] back-to-back national champions. That’s serious in my book.”
It’s serious in any book, and in an era where most elite prospects are either one- or two-and-done, a veteran, NBA-talent-laden powerhouse like ’07 Florida may never reign again. While it will be years before we know for sure how these Gators will be remembered, Noah was asked how he’d like them to be. As the de-facto mouthpiece of the team from his “better than sex” lines after the ’06 title, to his “Keep hatin'” rants during this dance he deserved the right to weigh in.
“I want people to remember this team as one that made sacrifices,” Noah said. “I want people to remember this team as one that went through so much adversity. I want people to remember this as a team that could have taken the easy way out and got paid. Instead we decided to come back, because our love for one another, and our love for winning, was more important than dollars.”
The memories mattered more than the money. And with that wisdom, the Gators achieved greatness.
Labels: Atlanta, Final Four, Florida, Ohio State
Get inside March Madness with SI.com’s Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
Thanks for the great words about our GATORS, Winn! ~TBBQ~
I am very proud of the GATORS as a team and as the fine athletes that they are…GO GAOTORS! The GATOR Nation Rocks!
Reporting from the SWAMP
~The Baby Boomer Queen~