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BOB RYAN

Noah was prepped to win

INDIANAPOLIS -- Because the University of Florida's Joakim Noah exists, Armond Hill's heretofore unquestioned status as the Best Player in the History of The Lawrenceville School is in jeopardy.

''It should be," says the affable Celtics assistant coach. ''Because the kid is just terrific."

The Lawrenceville School is a distinguished prep school located in Lawrenceville, N.J., a small community equidistant from Trenton and Princeton. Founded in 1810 by Presbyterian minister Isaac van Arsdale Brown, Lawrenceville took up football in the 1870s and ever since the school has considered athletics an important part of the school's fabric and identity. A wealthy alum named Edwin Lavino, Class of 1905, provided a way-ahead-of-its-time Field House in 1950 (colleges would crave it today) and it was inside that building that Hill, Class of 1972 and Noah, Class of 2004, took Lawrenceville basketball to its greatest heights; yes, sadly, even higher than when Yours Truly performed for the varsity more than 40 years ago.

Now, we did win the New Jersey Group IV Private School championship in 1963, my junior year, and I did score 12 that afternoon. But in the interest of full disclosure, we were already up by 28 when I was inserted midway through the third period, and thus my 2-8--12 (8 for 8 from the line with my recently adopted Bill Bradley legs-spread-wide technique) was not exactly crucial to the victory. It was such outings, I would think, that gave birth to the phrase ''garbage time."

I'm not sure whether Noah's presence in a Lawrenceville uniform pushed me from the 437th best player in Lawrenceville history to the 438th, or the 567th to the 568th, or even worse, but one thing I do know: We didn't have players like this on our team. Acrobatic 6-foot-11-inch guys who can rebound, run all night, block shots, score inside, and completely dominate games? Ah, no. Our slender center, Jim Mitchell, was 6-3. But he could dunk, which was more than the rest of us could do.

We didn't have players like Armond Hill, either. The 6-4 Hill came to Lawrenceville from Bishop Ford High School for a post-grad year in 1971 to prepare for Princeton. Thanks to him, the team went undefeated, the season highlight being the game against undefeated Trenton High, when the Tornadoes dared to guard Hill man-to-man, the only such attempt all season. When Hill left the game in the fourth quarter with his still-standing school high of 50, he had outscored the entire Trenton High team.

''The police escorted us into the Trenton High gym, and they escorted us out," recalls Hill. ''It was pretty wild."

''They still talk about that game around here," says current Lawrenceville coach Ron Kane. ''Almost any time I go into Trenton for a basketball event, someone will come up to me and say they were in the stands."

Every once in a while, Lawrenceville, whose best winter sport has always been swimming, comes up with a basketball team of note. The 1955-56 team went undefeated and provided Princeton (Jim Brangan) and Yale (Dan McFadden) with a future captain. The 1960-61 squad was a coulda/shoulda/woulda bunch with great talent, but also with, well, issues. There was Hill's team. And two years ago, there was Noah's team, which was 28-4 and won the state tournament, featuring not only Noah, but four other players currently on Division 1 squads, including Craig Moore, an all-freshman Big Ten selection at Northwestern, and David Whitehurst, a starting guard for Ivy League champion Penn. It was hailed by one Trenton paper as ''one of the great teams in the history of Mercer County," which leaves one question: How did they lose four games?

''Poor coaching," jokes Kane.

''We just weren't together early," says Noah. ''But then we got rolling."

But it's still a shock when Lawrenceville gets this good in basketball. We are far more noted for turning out legendary playwrights (Edward Albee); high-powered communications executives (Michael Eisner and the late Brandon Tartikoff); United States senators (Lowell Weicker); federal judges on the short list of potential Supreme Court nominees (J. Harvie Wilkinson III); rock stars (Huey Lewis, real name Hugh Cregg, '67, a righthanded pitcher); multiple Emmy-winning television directors (Bob Fishman, who'll be directing his 24th Final Four); newspaper publishers (Walter Hussman, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette); sports editors of big-city newspapers (Garry Howard, of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel); Boston sportscasters (NESN's Paul Devlin), and, in days gone by, celebrity offspring such as the late Joe DiMaggio Jr., a placekicker and shot putter. And let's not forget the assortment of CEOs, financiers, attorneys, professors, doctors, and politicians such as my classmate, Christopher Graham, a former speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives who is now a judge.

But right now they're all way back in second place to the Lawrenceville Man of the Hour, Joakim Noah.

What we're seeing is exactly what Kane saw when he first laid eyes on Noah at his original school, Brooklyn's Poly Prep. ''He was still developing, but you could see he had a certain presence," says Kane. ''He had very good hands and he ran the floor well. He was a slightly smaller version of what he is today."

What Kane would learn only when he coached him was that Noah's contributions don't end with what he does on the floor. ''He is a tremendous team player and a great leader," Kane asserts. ''Usually, it's an undersized guard that's the spark plug of a team. But in this case, it's a 6-10 [6-11, actually] guy."

Kane found out just how powerful a presence Noah could be during the postseason. Lawrenceville was having internal problems, some ''tension," as Kane puts it. One guy was unhappy about this. Another guy was unhappy about that. Meanwhile, there was a rather important game looming against a mighty St. Benedict's team. The schools are longtime rivals (when I scored 15 as we finally beat them in my senior year, I wasn't sure life could possibly have subsequent meaning), and Lawrenceville had given the Newark school, whose marquee player was current New Orleans Hornet J.R. Smith, its only defeat in a hotly contested regular-season affair. Coach Kane was apprehensive as the state championship game with St. Benedict's approached.

''The kids had a meeting, just the starters and one other kid," Kane explains. ''At the end of it, 'Jo' extended his arms and said, 'Fellas, if we play together, nobody can beat us.' Then he repeated it. I wasn't sure I believed it, but he believed it, and he made them believe it."

Final score: Lawrenceville 90, St. Benedict's 68.

''It was one of those moments you remember forever," says Kane.

Armond Hill knew his alma mater was getting a special player because he had been tipped off by his Brooklyn connections that Noah would be leaving Poly Prep to spend his senior year at Lawrenceville. Hill never saw the young man play for Lawrenceville, but when he finally caught up with him at the ABCD camp, he immediately fell in love with him. ''He was long and lanky, and he ran the floor just like he does now," says Hill. ''But the big thing is his intensity. He's always up and down the floor and he tries to involve himself in every play.

''He is the definition of 'long,' " says Hill. ''And he plays with such passion. They even use him at the top of their press. He's just great to watch."

Intense. It's the one word everyone uses to describe him. It's as if Dave Cowens has been reincarnated in the body of a European-bred kid whose father won the French Open and whose mother was Miss Sweden. That alone makes him a Final Four curiosity. But it's the basketball that will make him rich and famous, and it's the intensity that sets him apart.

''You only have to watch him two minutes in any game to see the perspiration, the facial expressions, and the relentless effort he plays with that make it abundantly clear to any spectator that nobody plays harder," says Kane, who has to be one of the proudest coaching papas in all the land with five players in Division 1 basketball (the other two being Columbia guard Kashif Sweet and Bucknell walk-on forward Andrew Morrison).

Joakim Noah still has a way to go before he officially supplants Armond Hill as Lawrenceville's best player. After all, Armond Hill captained a Princeton team that won the last truly competitive NIT before the NCAA tourney expansion really diluted it, and he was an Atlanta first-round pick, the No. 9 man selected in the 1976 draft. He played in 468 NBA regular-season games and 16 playoff games.

It doesn't matter, says Hill. Joakim Noah is going places, and he will emerge as Lawrenceville's Best Ever.

''That's an easy one," Hill says, laughing. ''I'll be very willing to relinquish my crown."

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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