Joakim Noah: Forever a Bull

Joakim Noah is going back to New York. He was born there. He went to school there, learned to play ball there, ride the subways, avoid the shadows. He’ll play for the New York Knicks starting next season with a new four-year contract

But Joakim Noah is never going to be New York as much as he was Chicago.

Noah never was “the Man” for the Bulls, sort of a basketball version of a second city, refusing to accept everyone else’s place for him and trying so much harder to show they were mistaken. Noah never was the best player on his team. Derrick Rose meant so much more to success. He wasn’t the most physical, though he closed his Bulls career after nine seasons as the franchise leader in offensive rebounds and sixth overall in rebounds. He inched into the franchise’s top 10 in seasons and games played, and perhaps made a greater case than many ahead of him to have his jersey number retired.

He didn’t lead the team to any titles; not even a Finals. He won’t be in the Basketball Hall of Fame, usually the dividing line for determining the ultimate honors for a player.

Noah never helped deliver the Bulls a trophy, but he did deserve a water bottle. Maybe even a statue.

Bulls vice president Irwin Mandel, the longest serving team employee who recently retired after 43 years with the team, kept replicas of the six championship trophies in his United Center office. On the same shelf was a seventh significant sort of trophy, a water bottle. It came from Game 7, another Noah game, in the 2013 playoffs when Noah’s incredible leadership and effort, as well as 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks when he wasn’t even expected to play with severe foot problems, produced an unlikely series closing victory. But without the injured Rose and then Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich also out the Bulls would lose in the next round. It was perhaps symbolic of Noah’s tenure with the Bulls, fabulous efforts and events without the appropriate rewards.

But that’s been Chicago in a sense, the city that tries as hard, cares as much, puts its head down and works for great results, if not accompanying fame. New York likes the glitz and glamour. Chicago likes the floor burns and skinned knees and elbows.

“I added that seventh memento, my water bottle from the game, to show when the Bulls won Game 7 in Brooklyn,” Mandel said. “Before the game I thought on paper that was a team that would have lost by 20 points with so many of our best players out. It was an unbelievable victory, one of my favorites. I was so proud of those Bulls. I absolutely wanted to save that water bottle.”

So drink in the Decade of Noah.

It’s been a thrilling ride, sort of the basketball version of his draft night outfit and haircut. It’s been wild, amazing, fun, mostly fun, and you couldn’t take your eyes off it.

The curious part was that when Noah arrived he wasn’t ready even with a pair of NCAA titles at the U. of Florida as the undisputed leader and the fashion show award of draft night. He’d fallen to No. 9 in the 2007 draft even with his second NCAA title but declining statistics. The fear was with his sideways spinning shot and lean frame he would not be able to put up with the physical, inside NBA game or find an offense with his awkward shot.

It seemed to be proving so in a brutal rookie season in which he became what was believed to be the only player ever suspended by his teammates. He had a dispute with assistant coach Ron Adams that turned colorfully vocal in the sort of way he would later bother LeBron James to everyone’s delight. Adams was the tough, old school, demanding assistant type challenging Noah, who was badly out of shape, anyway. Interim coach Jim Boylan suspended Noah one game. The players demanded he made it two. He did.

I remember a game in Orlando, another bad loss for a bad team that didn’t seem to be trying most of the time. It was the close of the Ben Wallace period with indifferent characters like Tyrus Thomas, Drew Gooden and Aaron Gray. Noah spoke up after the game, saying how appalled he was at the lack of effort. Not that he was wrong, but who was this rookie who was being pushed around by them in practice? It degenerated into another ugly shouting session.

Noah was asked to apologize to the team and later explain to media. He was angry and hurt, confused about this uncompetitive professional atmosphere after the camaraderie of college. The ebullient Noah became remote and distant, avoiding media, occasionally exchanging a glare or sneer with reporters. He seemed to be one of the most appealing people to ever come to the team.

But it was about competition and effort and commitment. That was Joakim Noah. With the return of joy to the game came the insouciance and appeal of Noah, who went on to be one of the most fan and media friendly athletes in Chicago annals.

His Joie de vivre returned after that brutal season with the drafting of Derrick Rose and addition of coach Vinny Del Negro. The Bulls began a climb, eventually unavailing and at its end this summer with the departures of Rose and Noah to follow Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich in recent years. It’ll be a new Bulls group going into the 2016-17 NBA season. But no matter what they do or accomplish, and even if it’s more on the court than Noah and his group, it likely won’t rival the melding of player and community as Noah was with and for Chicago.

Noah perhaps expressed it best a week or so after the Deng trade in 2014, arguably Noah’s greatest individual season when he was named Defensive Player of the Year, voted to his second straight All-Star team, was all-NBA first team center, recorded the most assists by a center in 35 years, was second in the league in triple doubles and set all time records for versatile big man play. Noah was devastated after the trade, taking time to compose himself and his thoughts and then addressing media with perhaps the greatest soliloquy about the relationship between player and fan that maybe any athlete ever has offered.

“We just want to represent,” Noah explained. “We know this is a city that even when I come to the game I see the guy selling the newspapers on the streets. It’s cold outside. When he sees me driving by he’s excited. He’s like, ‘All right, Let’s go Bulls! Get it done tonight!’ I feel like I play for that guy. Like when I look at the top of the arena and I see teams call timeout and I see the guy who looks this big and he’s cheering, jumping up and down; that’s the guy I play for. To me, that’s what this city represents. There’s a lot of hardship in here, a lot of adversity in this city, and I feel like when I play basketball I want people to be proud of their team.”

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. 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. And then the country’s most famous singer. Jo wanted no part of it. His mother then moved back to New York when he was 13.

“I actually was pretty small,” Noah told me a few years back. “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.”

But he also learned from watching his dad, a pro athlete, but not necessarily the most gifted.

“I saw how my father worked as a professional athlete,” Noah once told me. “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. 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.”

But it was a road of hot coals for Noah in basketball. He was, even as we see today, hardly naturally skilled. His skill still is his hustle, his mind, his attitude. His success was his determination never to quit or give in no matter how many were better, just like going after an unlikely loose ball or squaring up on LeBron on a switch. It was desire transcending fashion.

And like with his Bulls rookie year, not quite right away.

Jo also likes to have fun. He went to the best schools and got kicked out of them. He got thrown out of the United Nations high school as a sophomore.

“Hanging out with the wrong people,” he told me. “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.” Then to Poly Prep in Brooklyn and the Police Athletic League recreation program in New York.

“It’s when things changed for me,” said Noah.

“I felt like I got a second chance,” Noah 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 in addition to his Noah’s Arc Foundation in Chicago, one of the city’s top 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. Jo couldn’t get on the big AAU team, the Jaguars, so he was with the Panthers. “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.”

His PAL mentor, Tyrone Green, was a security guard at the famed Adidas ABCD camp. Dwight Howard was the star then. Noah handed out towels to him and helped clean the rest room to attend. Noah slept on the floor in Green’s 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.

Noah finally 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.

Then came a championship as a sophomore and everyone saying Noah 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. I love it’s never, ever been easy.

“What I’m most proud of is I never was a top recruit,” Noah told me. “I feel like a lot of these kids are pampered by 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. 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. No shortcuts.”

We remember the moments: The mad dash for the three-point play to win the famous Game 6 in triple overtime over Boston in the 2009 playoffs, the first challenge of LeBron James in a 2009 Cavs blowout win when James was dancing around after a score ahead by 20. Noah called him out for his foolishness and later in the 2010 playoffs famously noted the depressing nature of life in Cleveland. “You think Cleveland's cool?” he asked a reporter challenging him. “I never heard anybody say I'm going to Cleveland on vacation. What's so good about Cleveland?" Classic stuff.

There was his “Hollywood as Hell” observation of the Miami Heat when James when there and then again face to face with James in the 2015 playoffs, the last run for his Bulls group.

Noah’s shoulder popped out for good early last season, and that was it for his Bulls career. The Bulls were 23-15 before that game and went 19-25 the rest of the way without Noah, failing to make the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season.

He was always passion and pride and made Chicago proud.

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.

“It was my dream to play in the NBA,” Noah admitted to me years back. “People tell you they have a Plan B. Don’t believe it. No one does. Everything I did was so I could play basketball. People can’t put me in category. I love the fact my image as a person is the way I feel about things.”

He loved Chicago. And Chicago loved him back.

“People know when you talk about the Chicago Bulls, there’s nobody going out there and giving more than us,” Noah said often. “Whether win or lose. I’m proud to be a part of that. Going through adversity reveals true character. We think we’re the hardest working team in the NBA. On the court, off the court the way we practice, how we carry ourselves. I’m proud we have an identity. When you play the Chicago Bulls, it’s going to be tough.

“People know when they come and play Chicago, no matter if there's four guys on the court, we're going to go out there and we're going to go hard. We're going to give it everything we have. And I think that's something that people are proud of when you say 'Chicago Bulls.' Whatever it is, you know you're in for a fight. When people in Chicago say 'Chicago Bulls,' I want people in Chicago to be proud of that.”

They were. Thanks, Jo.