Basketball for Joakim Noah long was a dream, the gangly French kid trying to assimilate in a strange society, and become familiar with the United States as well. Basketball was a New York City religion that viewed a kid like Noah as an apostate, for he was. But he played the game the right way on and off the court and he became a star, a celebrity, an iconoclast, and then, as it often happens, his dream became a nightmare of failure, uncertainty, rejection and anguish. The darkness for one of the most famous and infamous players in Bulls history finally seems to have receded after almost four years. It's almost as if Joakim Noah awakened and asked, "Is this heaven?"
No, it turns out it's Memphis.
"I lost my confidence," admits Noah, whose Memphis Grizzlies are in the United Center Wednesday for the final game before All-Star break. "Now I am starting to get my swagger back on the court. Memphis gave me an opportunity; that was the only team that called. I am starting to feel better and better every time I step on the court because I am playing consistently and I am healthy for the first time in a long time, knock on wood."
A successful life requires a lot of luck. And a lot of work. The Spurs' organization has polarized the stonecutter's credo actually made famous in New York by 19th Century social reformer Jacob Riis. Keep hammering until the stone breaks. Joakim Noah's basketball career, indeed, encompassed some knocking on wood and breaking into the seemingly impervious rock of professional basketball.
"Everything with the Bulls, it was so early on, the best times," reminisces Noah about that nine-year run in Chicago in which a 6-11, mop topped, hippie bohemian was perhaps as much everyman as any who have been through the city's sporting landscape. "The Boston (2009 playoff) series was so much fun, Brooklyn (in 2013). Winning and losing is important, but it is also appreciating what you are doing; we were living a dream even though we didn't know it.
"I think if this would have happened to me in Chicago, losing the way we are losing, losing like this, blowing a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter (against Denver in January), losing streaks, the cooler would be destroyed and the heads would be off the showers and those bottles would be all over the place," Noah said with a smile, pointing toward a row of energy drinks as we sat in the Grizzlies locker room after a recent game. "I don't think I could have handled it. I couldn't sleep. I would just be an ass to everyone around me. Like now, I can appreciate just being in the locker room, to experience life playing with some hungry young guys who are fighting for their lives, guys who are working hard, things we all can work on, but keep on improving.
"Losing," Noah acknowledged, "obviously is frustrating. But you have to learn from it, use this time to keep building because with losing comes frustration and frustration can take away what's important. So we've got to keep a mindset on what's important and be ready. I feel pretty good. I haven't played in a while, three years, honestly, since I've gotten consistent minutes. It was tough, injuries and suspension and a lot of factors. So I'm just cherishing my opportunity and just trying to do my best. I'm not about trying to be my old self; it's about being happy on the court and competing and I feel I am starting to get to a level where I am enjoying myself.
"This is my 12th season," Noah noted, and he seemed as surprised as I was. "I've been through a lot of ups and downs. There were times with the Knicks I thought it was over. But right now as much as we are losing, it's like I'm the happiest I've been in my life. I've got my daughter, who is a beautiful daughter, Leia; she's two. My son Emaan. My beautiful girlfriend (Lais Ribeiro) is awesome; I love her to death. I am at peace in my life."
You just have to feel good and smile for Joakim Noah, and not just because of that season high 19 points and 14 rebounds earlier this week in the Grizzlies win over New Orleans. Noah added a typical eight points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals in the Grizzlies Tuesday one-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs. He doesn't play every game, always off the bench and often fewer than 20 minutes with the Grizzles going through their own doubts. But you can still find him at the high post searching out those lob dunk passes and back door cuts, with that high dribble out of the backcourt you're wincing about until it turns into a layup. Bearded with his hair in a bun in that most unconventional of NBA looks and his arms always outstretched ready for the pass, Noah seems to be welcoming the present as a gift. He still isn't looking for the shot much. But he's rolling hard off those screens and dunking with not so peaceful intentions. Noah has two double/doubles in his last four games and is averaging 11 points and 8.7 rebounds in 23 minutes per game this month.
But like Noah says, being back is both not everything about the games, but so much about the game.
The camaraderie of the locker room, the exotic aromas of deodorants, lotions and old socks, the expanding cacophony while running out of the tunnel and onto the court, the feel of the rough leather of the ball, the lights and noise and then the moment tracing the arc of the ball to find position, the ensuing wrestling match, the chance to do something for your guys.
"After that first year in New York, I had just got my drug suspension, I had my shoulder surgery and a knee surgery at the same time; I was just emotionally drained," Noah admitted about his bitter free agency. "I didn't even want to play anymore. The injuries were piling up so much I didn't feel I could physically do it anymore. But I was blessed to be around some good people. I got in a real healthy environment and I'm starting to feel…. It's taken a long time to get that feeling back. I haven't felt this good in four years."
Never much the classic athlete with those long strides and almost military style arm movements running, Noah was hardly the recruiting poster for NBA achievement. Which perhaps is one reason why he related so well. His famous soliloquy about why he plays, for the guy freezing outside selling newspapers, the guy at the top of the arena cheering like crazy, the people whom the game means so much and to whom he wants to take pride in their team. It may have been the most genuine and revealing explanation of the game and what drives fans' passions.
Noah had that funky, sideways spinning shot and looked the least like a world class athlete. He was bursting with the intangibles most so cherish but cannot scout. He led his U. of Florida team to a pair of NCAA championships, wasn't a top five draft pick, arrived at the NBA draft in an outfit better suited for Ringling Brothers and a body looking like the recipient of beach sand.
But before he was done in Chicago he became all-NBA first team, a Defensive Player of the Year, probably the greatest center in franchise history and the star of two of the greatest games in franchise history. Neither won a title, so they aren't quite as celebrated. But there was Noah with the winning play against Paul Pierce to wrap up the triple overtime win over the defending champion Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2009 first round series. The Bulls would lose Game 7. Then there was a double/double in Nate Robinson's crazy triple overtime win in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, though the highlight really was Noah's seventh game domination without injured Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich to defeat the Nets in Brooklyn even on foot injuries so bad he wasn't supposed to play.
Joakim Noah gave his body for the game and the fans and it eventually couldn't couldn't sustain.
The Bulls understood it was going bad in the 2015-16 season, and so was the team as it would be the last for Rose and Noah in Chicago. That great group, so beloved and so close, was at its end.
"Even coming off the bench (behind Pau Gasol), so many things I look back on my time in Chicago and I don't want to think of the bad things because the great times outweigh that so much," Noah said. "I'm not afraid to talk about the good and bad. I just saw Luol, Taj (Gibson) at dinner. You don't even have to say anything being with those guys now. It's just about the vibe of being around, how much respect there is there because of what we went through. Now that I've been around I realize and found out that it's rare. But you don't know it then.
"Because it's genuine what we went through, some wars and we wanted to win so bad and we fought so hard every night," Noah recalled. "I'm so (darned) proud of that to this day. That's what will be the highlight of my career.
"That Boston series, but I also look back on so many little things like being in the locker room with Derrick. With Lu and Taj, we were talking about this the other day. A little thing," Noah says. "We are playing Phoenix with Vinny (Del Negro) as coach. Kirk was our best pick and roll defender and so Vinny goes, ‘Kirk, you got Steve Nash.' And D-Rose is a rookie and goes, "Nah, I got Steve Nash. I'm not running from no matchup.' And Vinny goes, ‘But Kirk is our best pick and roll defender, you got Barbosa.' He goes, ‘Nah, I got Steve Nash.' And so we're like. ‘Oh crap, the rookie's talking like that?' Then in the game you see D-Rose standing next to Steve Nash. ‘I got him! I got him!' Things like that, stuff we'd laugh at being on the plane, rolling dice with Drew Gooden; it was always more than just the basketball.
"We didn't win it," Noah notes. "But the energy and the hope of having the chance, and we had a chance. And that's almost just as big. You realize after. Do you have a chance to win it? Maybe one, two times in your career if you are lucky. The year D-Rose got hurt and the year before there was a chance. That was special."
When it's going good it's normal and natural not only to believe it will continue, but get even better. So it seemed for Noah, a big, four-year contract to play back home in New York and for Phil Jackson, whom Noah long idolized, in front of his old crowd who laughed at the clumsy and spindly kid who got to the good basketball camps by agreeing to help pick up towels. In the world's greatest arena for his team growing up, introduced from his Hell's Kitchen neighborhood just west of the arena. How great was this going to be?
"I don't even know what happened in Chicago," Noah admits about that awkward final season in 2015-16 with a new coach, on the bench, lots of unpleasantness. "I didn't want to shoot. By the end of the Chicago thing, I wasn't loving it; it was starting to become a job. There were so many things going on I was starting to lose my love for the game. But it's like I wish what I went through in New York earlier I would have realized how good I had it in Chicago. I am not pointing fingers at anyone; it's just what happened. It sucks because I think just not being right mentally and physically at that time, it cost us."
Noah had shoulder surgery following that final Bulls season, but he seemed recovered enough for that contract. His highlight may have been that first game in Chicago early in the season, 16 points and nine rebounds in an easy Knicks win. His last double digit scoring game as a Knick was in January of that season, 12 points and 16 rebounds, and again against the Bulls in a win. But he wasn't producing enough in a dysfunctional New York environment, exacerbated by the demands of being back home. It's much more difficult to go home in the NBA that in life.
"It's tough to play at home," Noah concedes. "Even tougher with success with someone like Derrick. Something people don't realize is being young and that successful and having to deal with home. People can't relate. I remember my first game in New York against Memphis. I played well, the whole Garden was chanting my name, I was in tears and it was crazy. I had like 50 people in my apartment after the game and my father was looking at me shaking his head like, ‘This is a going to be a long year for you.' I was like, ‘I got this.' But I wasn't ready. I thought I was ready and I was not ready."
Noah had a 20-game drug suspension at the end of that season into the 2017-18 season, and his Knicks contract was already being condemned and mocked. He became the face of Jackson's failure. He played briefly, played a game in the G-league, got into a verbal exchange on the bench with coach Jeff Hornacek and basically was banished. He was released before the start of this season owed the last two years of his contract. He played in 53 games over two years in New York and averaged about five points and eight rebounds.
"Failing at home on a real public level was very humbling," Noah admitted. "We had a lot of success in Chicago, but what happened in New York also made me grow as a person and focus on what was important because a lot was thrown at me in New York in a really short time. In Chicago, everything was about winning and losing basketball games, and I realize now that I can compete and also have a life, a balance.
"It was not good, but now I can go back and say I wouldn't trade it because it makes me cherish even more what I have," Noah says. "It's tough because I'll look back and say I wish I played well at home, I wish I didn't let Phil down. It took me a long time to even digest that. I used to think I was playing for people's respect, almost like people looking at me like I was a joke. Even in New York, it was, ‘He's a clown, doesn't take the game serious.' So after my first year in New York, I wanted to come out and prove to everybody I could help the team and be a player and help the team compete and I never really got that opportunity.
"I'm sitting on the side of the bench in Madison Square Garden, not even on the bench, behind the bench, healthy. I had to deal with that for months," Noah lamented about his exile. "That was one of the toughest things I ever had to deal with, getting killed in your home town and not being able to do anything about it. I felt management and the coach at the time, they didn't show me any respect for what I was going through. There were times they could have given me opportunities and didn't.
"At the point I got kicked off the team, I was really angry and pissed off," Noah admitted. "I was partying and getting paid a lot of money and had no direction; that was tough. You don't realize with basketball and the NBA and high school and college, it's your routine and you are so locked in you take it for granted until you don't have it anymore. So it became, ‘If you really want to keep playing basketball, it's not a situation you can wait the way I was living my life.' If I kept doing what I was doing it's over."
The life vest was Noah's surfing friends Laird Hamilton and Gabrielle Reece. They took him into their home and their intense training, the healthy environment and food, the lifestyle. He finally was ready, but the NBA wasn't. Not for the flake. Finally, the Grizzlies called and it became Christmas morning again. Life was great; now it could be even better at 34 later this month.
We talked for a long time after that game in Charlotte. The Bulls were in town waiting to play the Hornets. The Grizzlies were staying over that night, and Noah was going to meet up with some of the old Bulls support staff. That's right, the workers. The Grizzlies' security said the team bus was leaving. Typical of Noah, he said he'd walk back to the hotel. NBA players do not do this anymore. With Noah wrapped up in a hooded sweatshirt, I asked him as we walked if he would consider returning to the Bulls to finish his career, even for a day in one of those one-day contracts players sometimes sign. The Bulls talk a lot about spirit, heart and soul, Joakim Noah's daily companions.
"I'm a live in the moment type person," the 6-11 maverick said with a smile. "So I'm not there. I just want to finish this year off strong and be healthy and grow from there."