Andrés Nocioni : : Hungry Heart
By Conrad Theodore | Posted April 9, 2008
With the score tied, Bulls forward Andrés Nocioni works relentlessly to free himself from his over-aggressive opponent.
The ball eventually makes its way into his hands. He takes note of all his options—pass, shoot, dribble. Being smothered, Nocioni lowers his left shoulder and drives hard to his right toward the basket. There’s heavy bumping … skin slapping … sweat flying. But it doesn’t matter. He’s as likely to be stopped as a loose boulder coming down a cliff.
Nearing the hoop, Nocioni elevates, cocks back his right arm and lowers the boom, making sure that every last dust particle has been removed from the net. A game-winning, in-your-face slam dunk. The opponents shake hands. Another fun and exciting two-on-two match with the assistant coaches after practice.
Regardless if Andrés Nocioni is engaged in an NBA playoff game for the Chicago Bulls, an Olympic gold medal Championship contest for Argentina, or a pick-up scrum in a musty gym or at a park, there’s only one way he knows how to play—all out. But that’s exactly what his teammates love and opponents hate about him. “I love to play basketball,” Nocioni flatly states. “It doesn’t matter where. It’s just always fun.”
Sometimes you don’t realize just how much you enjoy something until it is ripped away from you, as Nocioni experienced for much of last season. Back then, everything seemed to be perfectly falling into place for the lively 6’7” Argentine national. In just his second year, Nocioni was named Chicago’s MVB—Most Valuable Bull—entering his third year in the NBA with high hopes of a lucrative new contract looming just ahead. Then, suddenly, a mid-season injury (plantar fasciitis) caused him to miss 28 regular season games.
Even though the Bulls continued winning without one of their key components, it proved painfully hard for Nocioni to sit on the bench knowing he was no longer a regular fixture in the rotation. His love for playing was strapped down as tightly as the protective walking boot he was forced to wear.
Finally, after weeks and weeks as a civilian, he was granted a reprieve as team doctors gave him the green light to once again suit up. Then Head Coach Scott Skiles joked with the media that he didn’t really know if Nocioni’s injury had healed completely, but the team felt that they had to do something drastic because everyone was simply tired of seeing “Noch” dressed in the same sport coat game after game.
His familiar number “5” uniform was back on the court, where it rightly belonged, as well as his trademark scraggly beard and animated expressions whenever a semi-questionable call came his way. But his game was just a fraction of itself. Nocioni lacked stamina, which affected his speed and jumping ability. His game strengths suddenly became his weakness. As expected, Nocioni relentlessly worked, trying to get back into the best shape possible before the start of the playoffs.
In the first round against the Miami Heat, Nocioni hit two huge fourth-quarter baskets and finished with 11 points in the deciding Game 4, but afterwards was clearly favoring his right foot again. When asked about the return of a limp, Nocioni brushed it off as nothing.
“I play for the team, we need to win,” he said. “We needed everybody here on the court. It’s important for the team.” Skiles certainly understood how Nocioni could feel defensive. “I wouldn’t want to even go near trying to tell him he’s not playing. He’s been through a lot, nursing his foot. He badly wanted to play in the playoffs. If he says he can go, I’m going to play him—no matter what anybody else says.”
A fourth year pro out of Santa Fe, Argentina, Nocioni only knows one way to play the game of basketball—all out.
As the season came to an end, Nocioni found himself not only wearing a protective boot once again, but now he was officially unemployed since his initial contract had just expired. Suddenly, media speculation spread that Chicago’s 2005-06 MVB was now the most expendable of the team’s young core.
This may have played out nicely for debates on sports radio, but for Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, John Paxson, it was clearly a moot point. Paxson has set up his team based around loyalty and accountability, and he wasn’t about to bail on one of his key players based on a couple of sub-par games due in large part to injury.
“I played with pretty much the same group [as a Bulls player during the 1990s Championship years]. A few adjustments were made here and there. We obviously had two top-50 players of all time [Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen], which certainly help a lot. But continuity means something. I think over time a natural trust develops among players. I always want to keep as much of our group together for as long as possible. I think teams win and grow that way.”
Shortly after sharing his philosophy, Paxson backed his words by signing Nocioni to a healthy five-year deal. A giddy and slightly slimmer Nocioni showed up at the start of training camp smiling from ear to ear. And why not? A great weight had been lifted with the signing of his new contract. But, perhaps more importantly, he was now pain free.
“I’m the Old Noch,” he proclaimed. “My foot is much better, man. Believe me, I’m a new guy. I’m better than ever.”
To show his determination to be back at full throttle at the beginning of this season, Nocioni opted not to play for Argentina in the World Championships over the summer. He also lost ten pounds to help speed up the healing process and said he felt stronger and more confident with every new day. “I’m doing everything I want,” he pointed out. “I’m perfect, man.”
Although the Bulls started this season in a surprisingly less than perfect manner, the one bright spot is that Nocioni is finally healthy, and arguably playing the most consistently of everyone on the team. He is the one player who has met or exceeded expectations this season. In a recent four-game span, Nocioni averaged 18.3 points and 7 rebounds and shot 45 percent from the field.
“Even on nights when he doesn’t play well, he always brings intensity,” interim Bulls coach Jim Boylan said. “I need to get him out on the court more. I simply haven’t played him enough.”
Nocioni feels that in order for the Bulls to get back to their winning ways, it has to start at the defensive end.
“We need to play defense. I understand sometimes you struggle with your shot, but I do not understand not playing defense,” explains Nocioni. “We need to react faster. The Eastern Conference is different, with more competitive teams. We need to react now. This is no time to play like this.”
As frustrating as the Bulls have played this year, that aggravation pales in comparison to what some of Nocioni’s opponents experience on a nightly basis. During the Bulls’ infamous annual Thanksgiving road trip, Nocioni was inserted into the starting lineup, and he responded by averaging 19.5 points his first two starts, then aggravated the Los Angeles Clippers to the point that he was on the receiving end of two flagrant fouls. First, Tim Thomas shoved him shortly after Nocioni was whistled for a hard foul. Then, later, center Chris Kaman gave Nocioni a push under the basket while he was trying to score.
Besides being dynamic on the hardwood, Nocioni often likes to get involved in community affairs, and is a frequent visitor to local schools and recreation centers.
Lamar Odom of the Los Angeles Lakers later suggested that Nocioni wears an elbow wrap on his right arm for more than health reasons—that is, Nocioni likes to throw around “bows” a little bit. But Bulls guard Ben Gordon is quick to defend his teammate.
“Noch isn’t a dirty player. He’s just aggressive. A lot of guys don’t like that.”
Nocioni will not apologize or offer any excuses for the way he plays. “That’s my opponents’ problem,” he says nonchalantly. “If I play hard, it’s not with bad intentions. I’ve never been that way. So it makes no difference to me what people say.”
Perhaps most important, his teammates love his style of play. “Clearly Noch gives us a presence out there with how assertively he plays,” team captain Kirk Hinrich says. “His emotion and passion for the game rub off on other people.”
And, in return, Nocioni is happy his running mates offer him a green light to contribute even more.
“The guys give me confidence to take my shot, so I feel really good,” he says with a nod. “Early on I had been missing a lot of open shots. But I hadn’t played a lot in the summer. Right now I’m on my game and playing better. And I feel it’s going to be better, day by day. I hope it helps my team win.”
Although Nocioni became a free-agent at the end of last season, the only concern Paxson had was not whether to re-sign him but simply to make sure he would get healthy and return to the team at full strength.
“Andres epitomizes what the Chicago Bulls represent through his dedication to the game and to his team,” says Paxson. “His positive attitude, relentless effort, passion and hard work are great examples for everyone in our locker room. I just can’t say enough good things about Noch. I admire and love his effort.”
Yes, Nocioni is very proud of what he’s been able to accomplish thus far, but, as stated earlier, individual awards mean nothing. All that matters is the ultimate team prize.
“When I was in Spain, I gave everything for my team, like I did for the Argentina national team,” Nocioni says firmly. “In Chicago it’s the same. I want something big in Chicago—a title, a conference championship.”
When asked what word comes to mind first when the name Andrés Nocioni is spoken, almost unanimously, teammates and foes alike remark, “Intense.”
“I know people were talking, but my dream was to always play for the Chicago Bulls,” explains Nocioni. “My agent and everybody knew that. I love this team. I want to leave everything on the court for Chicago.”
Nocioni decided to take a couple of months off the make sure his foot properly healed. Eventually doctors granted permission to finally remove the protective boot and he could once again start playing the game he loves so much. Nocioni admits at first he constantly thought about his injury, especially during the first few days of his attempted comeback. But, after a while, the stress of wondering went away.
It was time to let loose and play again. Day after day, he worked back up to speed, doing several drills over and over again and concentrating only on his workouts while his agent took care of contract negotiations.
Paxson backed his words of having team continuity by signing Nocioni to a five-year deal. “We’re very happy to have Andres remain a member of our organization,” Paxson announced immediately after the signing. “During his three seasons with us, he’s played a key role in helping to change the culture of our team. His passion and energy are second to none, and he has been a key member of the Bulls because of that.”
Months after the ink dried on his new contract, it has been business as usual for Nocioni. He will tell you that his all-around game is a continuing work in progress. Although he’s only 6’7”, he’s making a special effort to improve his rebounding this season because that’s an area he feels the Bulls need help with. And while his shooting percentage has steadily improved as the season progresses, the reason isn’t clear.
“It doesn’t really have anything to do with my technique, but more with my head,” notes Nocioni. “Now I don’t think too much when I shoot. I take the shot and that’s it.”
It’s amazing what can happen in just three short years. Back in 2004, a scraggly-bearded, first-time visitor from below the equator first arrived in Chicago with very few belongings and even less by way of English vocabulary. Interviews, as brief and futile as they were, resembled more of a game of charades, with fruitless hand gestures substituting for witty repartee. But, as with his game, the Argentine marvel worked relentlessly on language skills. Little by little, as jump shots and North American prose started to flow, Andrés Nocioni could not only walk the walk on the court, but learned to eloquently talk about it in the locker room. And he has had plenty to say.
“I believe we can win the Eastern Conference very soon,” states the 28-year old, who is now in his fourth season in the NBA. Some may think that statement is a bit bold, while others will simply categorize it as crazy talk. But nobody will question that Nocioni always speaks from the heart.