Vol. 44, No. 4 May 2007 .pdf version
Andy Katz: New issues facing USBWA
Joe Mitch: Honored, humbled by Quinn Award
Dick Jerardi: Shatel there at the right time
Steve Carp: Imus reminds us to think before we speak
Bryan Burwell: Here's hoping Florida changes culture
Writing contest deadline set for June 15

Bryan Burwell

Here's hoping Florida changes college basketball culture

By BRYAN BURWELL / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ATLANTA Finally there were no more doubters to convince or haters to dismiss. All the real and imagined enemies who haunted Joakim Noah for 12 long, laborious, yet ultimately enlightened months atop college basketball's mountaintop had all been chased away. In the semi-calm of the Florida locker room after the Gators had successfully defended their NCAA title with that stunning 84-75 victory over Ohio State, the gap-toothed, pony-tailed, peace-loving, 6-foot-10-inch extrovert sat on a folding chair surrounded by true believers.

"So Joakim, where do you think Florida should be ranked among the greatest college basketball teams of all time?" said one breathless scribe.

Noah almost fell out of his chair feigning a mock heart attack. "Wow, wow, wow," he said, slapping his big hands on his chest, then cackling like a giddy school boy. 'I'm just soooo happy you're saying that. I don't know where we rank all-time because I'm not really sure I can determine that. But thank you, thank you, thank you for saying that. I mean, it just sounds soooo good to my ears to hear you even think we belong in such company."

Oh yes, Noah and all the other Gators liked the way that sounded. Hoop historians were carefully trying to find a place for Florida in the college basketball annals with Bill Russell's San Francisco Dons (repated champs in 1955-56), Oscar Robertson's Cincinnati Bearcats ('61-62) and Christian Laettner and Grant Hill's Duke Blue Devils ('91-92). Yes, Florida belongs on that narrow shelf with the six other schools (UCLA, Oklahoma and Kentucky too) who managed the daunting repeat as NCAA basketball champs. But it's time to acknowledge Florida's place in college basketball lore, and it goes so much deeper than the remarkable feat of becoming only the third team in 34 years to do a NCAA championship repeat.

What the Gators accomplished was also a meaningful statement and a rewarding reminder of how college basketball used to be, when future lottery picks stayed in school and improved themselves on and off the court.

Better yet, maybe Florida's victory was the first step in silencing the foolish voices who believe that anyone with a killer crossover or lethal jumper is stupid if they don't make a hasty beeline to the pros a the first possible opportunity.

We live in a disturbing time where the basketball culture in this country too often encourages everything be done at an accelerated pace. Hurry up and grow up. Hurry up and get paid. Kids are being convinced by sycophants and seedy playground grifters that they'll be considered failures if they're not in the NBA before they know how to drive, even if they are too immature physically or emotionally to rush into that adult world.

But the Gators showed us another way.

"We did do something special," said Noah. "We decided that it was okay to come back to school and not get paid. I personally feel that money doesn't always buy happiness. I don't know what's going to happen in the future and I'm not going to judge anyone if they want to come out for whatever reason. Look, if they have a family situation where they need to take care of their people, I understand that. I also understand that some guys might want to come out just because they want to get a real nice watch. That's cool, too. But maybe what we did will change the culture in some small way. Maybe it will show the guys who come after us that they should never let other people make decisions for them about (going to the NBA). Make up your own mind. If you want to stay in school, enjoy being in college for a while, then stay in school. We showed 'em that it's all right to do that. I remember last year when I told some people, 'Hey man, I'm staying in school.' They were all like, 'WHAT? Are you crazy?!!?' But now look at us. We came back, we won it again, and now you guys are writing about us and history. How wild is that?"

Good for us and good for them. The lottery-pick Gators came back to school and no one suffered for it. They didn't lose millions. They gained memories, history, maturity and if you want to think about it from a pure, cold-hearted business standpoint, they even gained some invaluable high-profile marketing and celebrity status courtesy of their month-long run in CBS primetime.

I hope everyone not only saw what the Gators did, but appreciates what they did, too. This was no carefree exercise. This was 12 months of blood, sweat and maybe even a few tears. This was a grind and a joy, this was a ton of pain and a handful of pure pleasure. But as they stood ankle deep in glimmering confetti and long multi-colored streamers on the Georgia Dome floor, laughing and dancing and hugging everyone in sight, did anyone still think Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green were crazy?

"It's unbelievable," said Noah as he stood beside Coach Billy Donovan's wife and kids smiling uncontrollably. "It's ... it's ... man, words can't begin to describe this."

It wasn't just about pure basketball though there was plenty of that on display with Florida's selfless style of so many working parts doing whatever was best for the team. It was about playing basketball the right way. But mostly it was about the hope of starting a trend. I hope the young fellows at Ohio State and Georgetown, victims of Florida's veteran savvy and championship hunger, were paying attention.

I hope big Greg Oden the most dominant man on the floor on championship night with 25 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and countless fear-factor misdirections will get together with his buddy Mike Conley Jr., and the rest of the celebrated "Thad Five," and decide that they want to come back next season and get a little of that fascinating experience.

I hope Georgetown's Roy Hibbert meant what he said after losing to the Buckeyes in the national championship semifinals that he wants to come back next year and get another crack at Oden. I hope is teammate Jeff Green feels that way too. I hope player of the year Kevin Durant was taking notes, too.

I hope that this starts a wave of cultural change that will sweep through every aspect of our basketball culture. I hope this starts a trend that reverberates all the way down to the game's cultural roots, where 8th and 9th graders are already being surrounded by shamefully ambitious hustlers who are far more interested in cashing in on their potential riches than protecting them.

"I don't know if we've changed the culture," said senior Florida center Chris Richard. "But if we've just shown one guy that you don't have to rush anywhere, then that's a pretty good thing."

Bryan Burwell is a columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the author of "At the Buzzer! Havlicek Steals, Erving Soars, Magic Deals, Michael Scores: Greatest Moments in NBA History," and the host and co-writer of "The Color of Change," a nationally syndicated TV documentary on the Negro baseball leagues.

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