No shortcuts: All-Star Joakim Noah’s passion leads to success on and off the court
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Joakim Noah really never has done what he was supposed to do, or at least what we think a person in his position or like him would do. Which is also why Noah Sunday will make his All-Star debut in Houston along with teammate and second time All-Star Luol Deng for the Eastern Conference team in the annual NBA All-Star Game.
“People can’t put me in a category,” says Noah, the insouciant free spirit who is more thinker and intellectual than you’d imagine, the rebel who delights in order and discipline. “I love the fact my image as a person is the way I feel about things.”
(Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images)
That Noah may be the most unlikely of all the All-Stars seems certain. No one perhaps in the entire NBA has star written on him less than Joakim Noah. Sure, many others grew up amongst grinding hardships that extended the odds against any sort of success. Noah hardly did, the son of famous and wealthy parents, a professional tennis grand slam winner and an international beauty queen.
But when Dwight Howard first encountered Noah they were both at the famed Adidas ABCD basketball camp, Howard a star and Noah handing out towels. Noah only got to attend because his coach and mentor, Tyrone Green, was a security guard at the camp. Noah slept on the floor in his room. And while Noah’s mother and sister spent the summers in Paris, Noah stayed on Green’s couch so he could play around the New York City summer leagues and AAU team, where he mostly was 12th man on teams with playground legends like Lenny Cooke.
“You have DJ Kool, rappers coming to your games. His girlfriend is Foxy Brown. This is crazy,” laughs Noah about those days. “He’s in music videos and he’s in high school. I’m in eighth grade. At ABCD he’s MVP. Everyone’s saying he’s going to the NBA, he’s got shoe contracts. I wanted to be Lenny. Everybody did. But he really messed up, got caught up with (bad) agents and people trying to get to him. I was able to see that.
“To this day,” says Noah, who remains close with Cooke, “I have that and see not only the good things but the bad. So you think about the criticisms and the hype and how he failed. For me it was huge. I always give Lenny credit in a way because if not for seeing how he messed up I don’t think I’d be where am today.”
It’s also why no one should ever try to change Noah’s shot, his side spinning tornado.
“I always shot that way,” says Noah. “Everybody always tried to change it. I’m very stubborn.”
That same recalcitrance clearly kept Noah from quitting or trying something else when everyone laughed and ignored him and pretty much humored Frenchie, as they called the skinny kid with the cute accent who often sat and watched from the stands. It’s the same headstrong determination that made Noah an NBA All-Star, less for how he looks when he plays than what he does when he plays, like that improbable save to win a game against Detroit earlier this season, stealing the ball from Paul Pierce and going full court for a dunk to wrap up the memorable triple overtime game in the 2009 playoffs and for the defiance against the best, challenging LeBron James’ behavior in Cleveland, calling out his former hero, Kevin Garnett, when others would not.
He’s a rich kid who refused to be spoiled, a rebellious kid who sought order. What you see is what you get, but hardly what you know. He’s a contradiction in appearance more than reality. He has the strong values of work, concern and commitment that perhaps as much as any define his Bulls team.
He’ll never be the star that was Michael Jordan and has been and will be Derrick Rose.
But he is one of the classic elements for the origin of a great basketball team. You need the gold of the Jordan or Rose and perhaps the iron of a Pippen or Deng. But there’s a need for the oxygen that helps enable it to function, the substance in Noah’s game from his rebounding and passing to his energy and effort, this remarkable alchemy that can produce that wonderful result.
You may not come to watch Noah, but you leave talking about him. You may not wish for Noah to represent your team, though you love that he would define it. You may not have sought out Noah, but you have to be glad the Bulls found him.
“What I’m most proud of is I never was a top recruit,” says Noah, relaxing in team sweats, his long hair tied in a knot, equal parts puckish and pensive. “I feel like a lot of these kids are pampered by process the process. So much is given to them at an early age in their growing years when your mind and your body are at different levels. All of this is given to you, you are pampered and they all think there will be money along the way. It messes with your mind, makes you softer. I never had that.
( Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
“To me, I always wanted to show that even though I came from a place where a lot was given to me I wouldn’t let that dictate who I was as a player and a person,” said Noah. “No shortcuts.”
It’s a philosophy that led to being an NBA All-Star, but has made him a much better person.
Noah was born in New York City, the son of something of an international royal couple, father Yannick a French hero for his French Open win and leading their Davis Cup team and his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, Miss Sweden. His parents divorced when he was three, but his mother moved the kids—Noah’s sister, Yelena, is a top fashion model—to France so they could be close to their father as well.
Joakim began playing basketball when he was eight years old, more a passion and escape than a calling. It’s tough being the son of the country’s most famous sports star. Jo wanted no part of it.
“I actually was pretty small,” Noah says. “I just loved the game. I never played tennis. My father always wanted me to do something, but he never pushed me into anything. For some reason, every time I picked up a racquet I didn’t like the feel, the vibe, people comparing me to my father, people watching all the time, the comments. I didn’t feel comfortable. So I picked up basketball.”
It’s easy enough to figure the reason without psychology classes. If not seeming destined for athletics, Noah was intent on independence, being a figure and not a shadow. You could always tell he danced to the sound of his own music without any headphones.
And while life can be more comfortable being the offspring of a sporting star, the inevitable comparisons are generally not kind. Greatness generally skips more than one generation.
But Noah found his passion in basketball. He didn’t excel. He merely enjoyed. His allegiance was to his native Knicks and he was up at 4 a.m. in France to watch the Knicks in the Finals in 1994.
When he was 13, his mother moved he and his sister back to New York. They settled in the upper West Side “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood, which sounds worse than it was. It’s the area west of the Broadway theaters toward the Hudson River, indeed grimy and a touch of earthiness which Noah embraced. He still went to good schools with his father’s wealth, and had some connections. His father and Patrick Ewing were represented by the same agent and he attended summer basketball camps with the younger Ewing. Jo was a scrawny point guard shooting threes.
“I could do it all a little bit but was always frail,” Noah recalls. ”I felt I was pretty skilled. I always had that weird jumper. People were always talking about it. I shot a lot of threes.”
Jo said he believed he was doing OK in France, and then he got to New York. The kids were just too good, but Jo just loved to play, every day at the local Police Athletic League. A housing projects was close and the competition was fierce. Noah was befriended by the director, whom he still calls Mr. (Tyrone) Green, and who saw something in the awkward French kid.
Jo was in eighth grade, not even six foot and 150 pounds. But the coach and playground director liked the way the French kid played. No dunking or great shooting or passing, but that relentless drive, perhaps as much a crusade to show he wasn’t just the rich kid. Everyone knew who his dad was.
“He liked the way I competed, always working hard,” recalled Noah. “Harder than everyone else.”
It came from Yannick, Pops, as Jo calls him, and Yannick’s father, a pro soccer player in Cameroon who was a factory worker by day.
“I saw how my father worked as a professional athlete,” says Noah. “He didn’t have a great backhand, not a great forehand. He played with a lot of fire. Unorthodox, and people say the same thing about me. I’m proud of that. He was a worker.
“I don’t think I had choice,” said Jo. “He was always jogging and finishing his jogs with hard sprints, always getting into the red, practicing tired to go that extra mile. In his generation, he was one of the first to lift weights. So these things came normal to me. But I did always want to show people even though, yeah, I came from a great background and yeah, I was never hungry, never poor, I always wanted to make my family proud. There was always that blue collar background in my family. Even my name, Noahbikie, in Cameroon means Man of Iron.”
So school would end and off his mom and sister would go to Paris and travel and Mr. Green told Jo: You want to be something in basketball, you’ve got to spend the summers in New York going to the big tournaments. So Jo went to Queens, slept on the couch, and they traveled the city, where nothing was promised by competition.
“I played in every tournament, worked on my game,” said Noah.
Green worked security at the big summer ABCD camp, so Jo got in. Not to play, but basically as a ball boy. He never talked about it, in part because it seemed so outlandish. But he felt he could be an NBA player.
“It was my dream,” Noah admits. “People tell you they have a Plan B. Don’t believe it. No one does. Everything I did was so I could play basketball.”
Though it seemed farther and farther away. After all, Jo still liked to have fun. He went to the best schools still, and got kicked out of them, too. He got thrown out of the United Nations high school as a sophomore.
“Hanging out with the wrong people,” he agrees. “Rarely going to school. It’s why I give my mother a lot of credit. I know what I put her through when I was 15, 16, a single mother living in New York.”
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Sport)
Noah got left back and moved on to Poly Prep in Brooklyn.
“It’s when things changed for me,” recalls Noah.
That extra year has helped many late developing players, the Bulls John Paxson included when he did an extra year in military school. Jo had a chance to grow and sprouted to 6-8.
“I felt like I got a second chance,” he says. “Not a lot of people get second chances. I went to three high schools, but I always say Poly Prep when I’m asked (Noah has endowed scholarships at Poly Prep and funds for PAL programs).
“The principal (Bud Cox) there showed me love, tough love,” said Noah. “Every day he was on me, always talking to me, showing a special interest. It gave me confidence. The coach, Billy McNally, was very much like Thibs, so into it. Even if I had 20 minutes between classes he’d have me doing drills instead of chasing girls. When he got me on the court he knew I was going to give 150 percent.”
Jo was a center, maybe 6-8 and 150, still shooting some threes, spinning the ball up there. But chasing down everything. He wore a Penny Hardaway jersey, he loved watching and imitating Kevin Garnett. He was fascinated by Vlade Divac.
I asked some of the greats of the game about Noah. They all agreed he was unique, a deserving All-Star, the energy and effort a talent, his winning statistics harder to define. Jack Ramsay and Tommy Heinsohn saw some Dave Cowens in him. Artis Gilmore mentioned Dan Issel. Doc Rivers pointed to Dennis Rodman. But no one could say they could recall an All-Star NBA seven footer who plays quite like that.
Jo couldn’t get on the big AAU team, the Jaguars, so he was with the Panthers. Though he’d eventually find the great Cooke, by some rating services the top prep player in the nation at the time. They were close, but Jo would play the garbage minutes.
“I aspired to be Lenny,” Noah said. “I’d be going in the game, but he’d always be waving me back to the bench.
“Playing on the B team, they don’t drive you home,” Jo offered with a laugh, “They’d drop you off at the Queens subway station.”
But Jo began to get in the games and he was holding his own against the kids with the scholarships, the kids going to Syracuse and Connecticut and St. John’s.
Noah got a scholarship to Florida, and it started all over again as he barely played as a freshman. But he worked. David Lee, a Western Conference All-Star, was a senior then. “The progress was amazing,” he said.
Then came a championship as a sophomore and everyone saying Noah, who then was lined up to go No. 2 to the Bulls (who took Tyrus Thomas), should go to the NBA. But he loved college too much and stayed.
“I’m so proud of that,” he says. “I had a blast. I learned so much about myself, with expectations, to deal with criticism, what people say about you as a person and a player and it’s what you want out of it. It’s always that. People can’t put me in a category. I did it my way.”
And then Chicago wasn’t so friendly. Being booed by fans, suspended by teammates, again not ready to matriculate, frustrations boiling over that eventually came flowing out in that memorable overtime filled playoff series against the Celtics Noah says he still gets goose bumps thinking and talking about.
“I am having great times here,” Noah says of his years with the Bulls and Chicago. “I feel the best is to come; there’s gonna be a lot of good. The goal is to win a championship. We’re a team dealing with adversity now. But at the same time I feel like we’re going to have a shot at this thing. I really, really want to be a part of that. I love this story. I love it’s never, ever been easy. I’m feeling hungrier than ever and just really enjoying it.”
And that’s always led to great things.