Posted Dec 24 2009 10:49AM
To most of us, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah are a very special part of the NBA's draft class of 2007. Those three former members of the Florida Gators that became back-to-back NCAA champions in '06 and '07 set a record of sorts when they all got selected in the top 10 picks. Top nine, in fact, with Horford (third overall) going to Atlanta, Brewer (seventh) to Minnesota and Noah (ninth) to Chicago. The specialness continued when teammate Chris Richard, a senior big man, was picked at No. 41 in the second round by Minnesota and guard Taurean Green, a junior like the first three guys, went to Portland at No. 52.
To those in the inner circle, though -- a tight circle, only four deep really (Horford, Brewer, Noah, Green) -- the point from which they begin marking time came three years earlier.
"We have a saying, the guys who came in with my class: '04's For Life,'' Horford said in the Hawks' locker room the other night about an hour before tipoff. "Any time that we talk to each other or whatever, that's always brought up. 'Joe' will send me a text and [type] "'04's For Life.'' I'll send the same thing to him or the other guys. We go all the way back to that.''
Why not? As momentous as that spring of 2007 was for the Gators, their fans and especially their NBA hopefuls -- becoming the first men's basketball squad to repeat as national champions since Duke in 1992 and the first to do it while playing the same starting five -- the memories really began about 32 months earlier, when the four teenagers showed up in Gainesville and began the teammates-to-friends-to-brothers process.
"We were close to Chris,'' Brewer said Tuesday of their one-class-ahead draftee, "but the rest of us, we all lived together. We used to do everything together for three years. The four of us. We have a unique bond. We're really close. We were, like, best friends.''
Still pretty much are, in fact. They talk to and text each other frequently. One man's success gets shared by all, one fellow's struggle is a call for support from the other three. Competitive? Maybe in a good-natured way, like buddies bantering as they play 18 holes. But not in any serious one-upsmanship way.
"I think we're the type of group, we've always been happy for each other,'' Horford said. "Back in college, we didn't really care who was scoring 20. At the end of the day, we were winning and we were all doing it in a big way. I think we've kept the same attitude here.''
In NBA terms, the pecking order at this point would likely go Horford, Noah, Brewer and Green. Horford, after all, brought instant impact to a budding Atlanta team that was ready for postseason status, and he's been a stable, mature-beyond-his-years presence in the middle of all the Hawks' young talent. The 6-foot-10 forward/center has become a double-double machine of late with 14 so far this season, including 18 points and 11 rebounds in his club's 124-104 loss at Denver Wednesday. Over his past 21 games, Horford has made an impressive 60.7 percent of his field-goal attempts (125 of 20).
"I knew Al was going to be good in this league because he's long and athletic, and he's in the perfect system,'' Brewer said. "They get up and down, so he's playing like we did in college. He's doing what he always does.''
As for the 23-year-old Horford's veteran-like demeanor on a roster where only two Hawks are older, Brewer said: "In college, coach kind of let us lead ourselves, you could say. He put us in the position where it was 'our' team, and Al was always one of the big leaders.''
Said Atlanta coach Mike Woodson: "As a rookie, Al did things that veteran guys who'd been in the league four, five, six years did. His IQ for the game is way off the charts, so I couldn't treat him like a typical rookie. He definitely is aware of what's going on around him.''
Noah started more slowly but broke through on the big stage of Chicago's thrilling first-round series against Boston last spring. He was one of the league's most improved players through the first quarter of 2009-10, averaging 10.3 points and 12.2 boards. Noah also gained respect in some circles by being the one Bulls player to challenge Cleveland's LeBron James for mocking Chicago during a recent game with some silly sideline dancing. But Noah has been hampered by rotator cuff tendinitis that has required cortisone injections in his left shoulder, and he has been bothered even more by the Bulls' disappointing season so far.
"Joakim is playing well but he hates to lose,'' Brewer said. "When he's losing, everybody tries to make a big deal if he does something or doesn't do something. But Joakim is always going to play hard no matter what, and he's not going to quit. He can have 20 and 20 or he can have 5 and 3 but he can be happy if they win.''
Said Horford: "I think he's figuring it out, how to play and how to be consistent every night. Now he's going out there and doing it. I knew Joe was going to come around -- it always takes him, I'd say, a little longer to get used to a situation. The first year he was at Florida, he was kind of like that. He didn't play much but he figured it out, and he's done the same thing here.''
Brewer seemed like he might be on track for some early playoff success, too, getting drafted onto a Timberwolves team that still had the great Kevin Garnett in June 2007. Slightly more than a month later, though, Garnett was traded to Boston in a blockbuster move that put the Wolves on a big-time rebuilding path. Then Brewer had rebuilding of his own to do after blowing out the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee early in his second NBA season. This past summer, Minnesota turned over the roster again so thoroughly that Brewer now ranks No. 1 in seniority.
Even after Minnesota (6-24) beat New Jersey (2-27) Wednesday in what some Wolves players referred to as the "Dirt Bowl'' -- and Brewer scored six of his 17 points in thefinal 40 seconds of the 103-99 victory in the Meadowlands, any postseason ambitions seemed a long way off.
"Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you get sent in a different direction,'' Brewer said. "But I feel like I'm in a good situation. It's just taking longer. But we're going to get up there. I'm just 23, so I've still got a long time.''
Brewer, after his lost 2008-09 season, has been showing the athleticism that got him drafted in the first place, along with improvement in the area where he has taken the most heat: His shooting. In the Nets' game, his somewhat awkward release on jumpers didn't stop him from hitting 7-for-11 shots, and the one he put up to beat the shot clock and give the Wolves a 99-96 lead was with his left hand.
"It's a little frustrating for him, because he's been part of success,'' Horford said of Brewer. "Coming into this situation has been difficult. I've been lucky enough that the Hawks had their worst days behind me, so to speak.''
For Green, the pro road has been even rockier. In barely 12 months time, he went from Portland to the NBA Development League to Denver to New York and most recently to Greece, where he was when Brewer spoke with him by cell phone Tuesday. Green's father Sidney works with the Bulls, one of the NBA teams for which Sidney played, although that's no guarantee that Taurean will end up there or anywhere else in the league.
On the tough days, though, when that challenge might look a little more daunting or the trek back to the NBA might seem too far away, Green can almost count on firing up his phone for the boost he needs. It will say " '04's For Life,'' and the one sending it -- or all three of them -- will mean it.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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