Joakim Noah stands out in the crowd
Noah’s willingness to sacrifice personal achievements for the good of the team has won him legions of fans.
(Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)
From the swamps of Florida, where he was as a ferocious shot-blocking Gator, to the asphalt streets of Chicago, where today he’s a stampeding Bull, Joakim Noah is seven feet and 230-plus pounds of power and passion. These days he’s not only the main man in the middle, standing at center court inside the United Center, he also casts an imposing shadow on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden, as well as the Hollywood hardwood of L.A.’s Staples Center, along with every other NBA arena. Underneath his celebrated flowing locks of love is a fiery basketball lifer loaded with the promise of a budding All-Star, possessing unrelenting power. Over the past several months, he and his game have grown more than even he could have ever imagined. He has clearly come into his own as a professional athlete. But, more importantly, having secured the spotlight of the big stage, Joakim Noah willfully taps into his boundless energy to give something special back to the world. Whether he’s ripping down a rebound or hustling down the floor to lead a fastbreak, Noah brings it, shows it and, without a doubt, never takes anything for granted.
"I know I’m privileged to be able to play at the highest level and doing what I love to do. A lot of folks don’t get the chance to live their dreams like me."
Born in the Big Apple, Chicago’s 25-year-old starting center moved to Paris when he was three, and, although his parents divorced a year later, the members of the family harmoniously lived near one another in France until Joakim, his younger sister Yelena and his mother moved back to New York after he turned 13.
Beyond his success as an NBA player, Noah keeps life simple and unselfish, which stems from his being raised as part of a close-knit family. His mother, Cecilia Rodhe, is a New York-based sculptor and art therapist who speaks with a captivating Swedish accent. She embodies poise and dignity and glows whenever she talks of her son.
"Joakim’s a warrior. When he’s focused on something he won’t stop until he gets there,” Rodhe says with a twinkle in her eye. “He was born into a passionate environment and has always been taught that if you want to be the best, you have to work hard."
Being a third generation professional athlete, Joakim has learned a great deal from his grandfather, Zacharie, a one-time pro soccer player in Cameroon, and his father, Yannick, an international tennis superstar and winner of the 1983 French Open.
"My father is probably the most famous person in France," Joakim says without hesitation. "He has a lot of love over there. He’s always been approachable. He’s a people person. When I was growing up, sometimes I didn’t want to share my Dad. But I look back now and understand people respected how he always gave them attention. He wasn’t just a tennis champion; he was the people’s champion."
“I come from a very colorful family, and because of that I always feel at home wherever I go. I think I’m extremely fortunate and I consider my Dad to be my best friend,” says Joakim. “I’m lucky that I have a father who I’m incredibly close to and also someone who can relate to what I’m going through.”
As a youngster in France, Noah began to fall in love with sports and in particular basketball. “[Joakim] was my first child, and of course I’m going to share my passion for sport, for exercising, for sweating and trying hard,” Yannick said in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune. “We’d play soccer, basketball, tennis, and I hated to lose. I’m cured of that disease, but to be a professional athlete you have to be a bad loser, you have to hurt.
“And Joakim has that. That’s what I’m really proud of. He doesn’t make excuses. He’s passionate about the game, loves the teamwork and most of all wants to win. I know [athletes] see it as a job after turning professional. He doesn’t. He sacrifices whatever it takes to improve and to win.”
As Noah is quick to note, he comes from a somewhat unique background, in which both sports and the fine arts are equals. Not long ago, mother and son created a new charitable organization, “The Noah’s Ark Foundation,” which unites the two passions of this extraordinary family: sports and art.
After talking at length with Cecilia Rodhe, a competitor and winner in her own right—she is a former Miss Sweden—it’s obvious where her son gets a great deal of his passion and drive. Cecilia dedicates much of her time to helping others—in particular, children—around the world. She recently returned from a long trip overseas, where she worked with children in refugee camps. “It’s always a fantastic and very moving experience,” she asserts.
Following closely in his mother’s path and teachings, Joakim also dedicates time and energy in giving back to the world community. Each year, he quietly makes a number of generous financial donations to worthy charitable causes, including most recently an endowment to the NBA Cares program, which benefits Habitat for Humanity.
In the case of his newly established foundation, “Noah’s Ark” is aimed directly at helping children in need. And in keeping with his mantra of simplicity, Noah says, “It’s important to be there for people. Making an impact and putting a smile on someone’s face is what’s it’s all about.”
As part of this program, the Noah family plans on conducting basketball, tennis and art clinics around the world. “Our dream for this foundation is to bring sports and art together while raising consciousness and awareness about what it means to be human and helping children understand who we are as people and thereby helping them better understand themselves,” Cecilia gracefully states.
During the offseason when he isn’t lending a hand in the community or refining a new-found baby hook shot on the basketball court, Joakim can usually be found roaming an airport, as one of his other passions is traveling and visiting new places. “I’m so fortunate to play basketball for a living, and a real reward of doing that is getting the opportunity to travel and experience new cultures,” says Noah. “I feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world to be living this life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Besides being a rich and famous athlete with the capacity to tour the globe on a whim, not to mention having the propensity and willingness to spread joy to others, Noah has also experienced feats that only a select few can claim. One such triumph was being a part of two NCAA National Championship teams at the University of Florida. When asked about his time spent in college, he quickly lights up but also pauses in thinking of a response: “My years at Florida were the best of my life,” he eventually says with a smile. When asked to explain how it felt to win two National Championships, he surprisingly has trouble finding the right words. But one thing he says he’ll never forget from those days is the advice he and his Florida teammates received from their coach, Billy Donovan, who preached: “Always live in the moment; never worry about the past or what could happen in the future. True happiness is when you’re able to enjoy the moment.”
And that is just what Joakim Noah is attempting to do today. He gives it his all every day while forever staying positive. Bulls General Manager Gar Forman says that’s one of many admirable qualities Noah brings to the Chicago organization.
“Besides being a terrific player out on the court, Joakim always brings a high level of positive energy to the locker room. That’s the first thing that attracted us.”
According to Forman, one of Noah’s biggest strengths is his motor. Not his mouth, but his energy. Forman also says that it’s no coincidence that Noah played a major role on two National Championship teams. “Simply put, Joakim’s a winner, and that will serve us well as we move forward.”
Even though this is Noah’s third year in the NBA, he admits he still gets nervous before every game. “I think being nervous is a good thing,” Joakim insists. “When you lose that nervousness, you lose your edge. If I wasn’t nervous, I’d think something was wrong.”
In talking with teammates, three traits of Noah’s consistently come up in conversation: energetic, passionate and hard working. Over the past two seasons, veteran Lindsey Hunter has watched Noah grow as both a person and a player.
“Night after night, Joakim brings incredible effort and intensity,” says Hunter. “Even though he’s a little goofy [laughs], he cares about the right things about this game and that really can’t be taught. You either care or you don’t. He cares a lot!”
Noah has also learned a few things during his brief time in the league, especially from the experience he gained during last year’s playoffs. After Boston eliminated the Bulls in seven games, Noah decided to buckle down and got serious about taking the next step. He maintained a strict offseason workout schedule, even when he traveled. Head Coach Vinny Del Negro says that when you have a player who isn’t afraid to work, like Noah, it often becomes contagious among the rest of the troops.
“The success Joakim enjoyed at the end of last year really lit a fire. This season he came to camp in incredible shape and was really focused,” says Del Negro. “He has great spirit, which the rest of the team feeds off of. I’m sure we’ll see consistent progress in his development from here on out.”
There are many aspects of Noah’s contributions to the Bulls that don’t necessarily show up in the box score, but they are certainly noted by his coaches, teammates and opponents alike.
“Not only this season, but Joakim stepped it up all last year, too” insists Boston Head Coach Doc Rivers. “Some get caught up in the long hair and all that other stuff. But the truth is, this kid can play. He has an unbelievable basketball IQ. It’s easy to overlook a player like him because he doesn’t usually have the ball in his hands. But still he makes his presence felt. [Dennis] Rodman was like that. I think Noah has a lot of those same attributes.”
“I definitely try to bring a lot of energy every night,” Noah says with a nod. “A player has to understand his role with the team. My role is to play hard and affect winning in any way that I can.”
Aside from family, coaches, opponents and teammates, Bulls fans also believe in Joakim. Not only is his lucky number 13 jersey one of the NBA’s top sellers world-wide (it is currently ranked No. 14 overall in Europe) it floods the stands inside the United Center on a nightly basis. Radio play-by-play announcer Chuck Swirsky eagerly admits that he’s become one of Noah’s biggest fans. In his distinctive voice, Swirsky says, “I love Joakim’s heart, his spirit, his competitive fire. I love watching him play. He’s going to be an All-Star, and it really wouldn’t surprise me if one day he ends up leading the league in rebounding. He’s already a team leader, and he’s going to continue to be one for many, many years.”Noah’s late steal and breakaway layup in the final minute of triple-overtime to close out a Bulls victory in Game 6 of last year’s playoff battle against Boston is arguably one of the greatest moments in franchise history.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)