By Steve Aschburner (NBA News)
Together, they were roommates, teammates, friends and champions. But for now that will wait.
Apart, Joakim Noah and Al Horford are foes, rivals, contenders and obstacles.
Side-by-side at the University of Florida, Noah and Horford shared some of the greatest moments — now memories — of their young lives: winning the NCAA men’s basketball national championship twice (2006, 2007).
But as starting centers for the Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks, to experience eights like that again, one will have to go through the other.
It’s inescapable…inevitable …and painfully obvious, with an emphasis on the pain.
“We’re out there boxing out, we’re wrestling, we’re tussling, that’s the way it is,” Horford said last weekend, as the teams’ best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals series shifted to Philips Arena for Games 3 and 4. “It’s all good. We’re out there trying to win.”
Said Bulls forward Taj Gibson: “You look at the film where they bang, the way they’ve been hitting all year long; if you see these games, you can tell they have a big history. It’s a friendship but at the same time it’s business and guys really want to win”
The two have been on parallel paths for a while, since they showed up in Gainesville as teenagers in the summer of 2004. Talented recruits, frontcourt players, international roots — Horford was born in the Dominican Republic, while France (dad), Sweden (mom) and Cameroon (grandfather) all have claims on Noah. Both, in fact, have famous fathers: Yannick Noah was a professional tennis pro turned international pop star, while Tito Horford was a 1988 second-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks who logged three seasons in the NBA.
They came together at Florida with classmates Corey Brewer and Taurean Green, developing at somewhat different paces.
“My freshman year, I wasn’t playing,” Noah said after the Bulls’ practice Saturday. “I was behind David Lee. Al was starting, Corey was starting and Taurean was playing heavy minutes behind Anthony Roberson. When your three roommates are playing and talking about the game, taking about those experiences, and you’re the only one who can’t share that with them, it was a really tough time. It made me work a lot harder.
“My rookie year [2007-08] was pretty similar, just not being able to play as much as I wanted to. Getting a lot of criticism from the [Chicago] fans, things like that. I just wasn’t ready – physically or mentally. This is a grown man’s league”
Horford, at 25, is 15 months younger than Noah and was more mature then, on and off the court. And he was more NBA-ready when he was drafted by Atlanta with the third overall pick in 2007. Noah, taken six picks later by Chicago, needed time to grow up and into his game.
“He always had that real professional approach, the way he went after the game,” Noah said. “I always worked hard but I always had problems with other things, like going to sleep early, things like that.”
By their sophomore year at Florida, though, Noah had closed the gap. The Gators went 24-6, breezed through the SEC tournament and to the Final Four, eventually beating UCLA in the title game. Those were high times, with a White House tour and high draft projections for Noah, Horford and Brewer, but they opted to stay in college.
In 2006-07, Florida went 26-5, won the SEC tourney again and went into March Madness as a No. 1 seed. When they beat Ohio State in their final game, they became the first repeat champions since Duke in 1991 and 1992.
Back then, Horford noted, they rarely even practiced against each other. “We were on the same side,” he said.
Horford and Noah have met 13 times as pros, six of those coming since March 2 (three late regular-season games and three in this series before Game 4). Prior to 2010-11, Horford held a 4-3 edge in outcomes and generally posted better stats. But Chicago has won four of the six recently.
Head-to-head in this series, Noah is averaging 10.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks to Horford’s 8.3, 11.7 and 1.0 blocks. The Bulls center has had more impact defensively, too, helping to crowd Hawks shooters Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford out of pick-and-rolls.
Horford, with Atlanta fans edgy about the 2-1 deficit in the series, has been accused of disappearing at times.
Neither man is yielding, though, until elimination demands it.