Joakim Noah : : Gator Aid
No Ordinary Jo
Posted October 4, 2007 | By Anne Stein
From the first day 12-year-old Joakim Noah walked into a funky little gym in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, his future mentor, Tyrone Green, knew that the kid would make it to the NBA.
He didn’t think, however, that Joakim would sprout to nearly 7 feet tall. Sure, he was tall for his age (5’7”), but he was so skinny that Green nicknamed him ‘Stickman’ and joked that if Joakim ever took his shirt off, he’d be arrested.
NBA fans might remember Green from June’s NBA Draft night, when Joakim (pronounced “Joe-a-KEEM”) interrupted a national interview to thank his longtime mentor. “I love you to death, Mr. Green,” said Noah, 22, who after all these years still won’t call Tyrone Green by his first name.
A lot of people deserve credit for the development of Joakim Noah, the Bulls first-round pick and 9th overall in the 2007 NBA Draft. First, of course, is the 6’11”, 232-pound Joakim. The junior forward/center out of the University of Florida is a natural athlete who always does whatever is asked of him. According to every coach, from Tyrone Green to Florida’s Billy Donovan, Noah gives his all; and his infectious passion for the game motivates teammates and fans alike. Off the court, he’ll happily hang out with kids and adults, will sign autographs for hours, enjoys music and art and instantly transforms strangers into new-found friends.
“He was always the leader and the protector,” says his mom, Cecilia Rodhe, a New York-based sculptor. “At the playground, he was always the one who made sure no one got hurt. If there was an injustice he’d always step in.”
One example: When he returned to New York City at age 12, Joakim was struck by the number of homeless people on the streets. “He asked me why people in this country are homeless,” remembers Green, “and I didn’t have an answer. He told me that if he were in charge, he’d never let that happen.”
Noah’s always quick to credit the unconditional love and support he receives from his mother, Cecilia, and father, Yannick, as a key to the success he has enjoyed throughout his life.
(Chris Graythen and Travis Lindquist/Getty Images)
The competitive kid with the big heart was born in New York City on February 2, 1985, the son of Cecilia Rodhe and French tennis great Yannick Noah. At age 16, Rodhe was crowned Miss Sweden and invited by the Ford Modeling Agency to come to New York and model full-time. In her early 20s, she met and married Yannick, who won the French Open in 1983 (and has since gone on to a spectacular singing career in France). The two also have a daughter, Yelena, who models.
The family moved to France two years after Joakim was born and, a year later, divorced, though the kids spent weekends and vacations with their dad, who was always a phone call away. For 10 years they lived in the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly. Dad was a huge star, mom was raising the children and going to art school, and Joakim and his sister grew up in a home frequented by artists and musicians. They also attended an American school, where Joakim fell in love with basketball.
“Whoever taught him in France was very knowledgeable,” says Green. “We used to joke that when Joakim was sitting on the bench, we had three coaches there. He’ll be really good down the line some day as a coach.”
But the stylish Paris life wasn’t quite what his parents wanted for Joakim, and each time they visited New York Cecilia saw her son flourish playing hoops on the playground. When Joakim was 12, Cecilia and her children moved across the Atlantic and settled in Hell’s Kitchen, a Manhattan neighborhood where they had a number of close friends.
“I had the feeling that spending their teenage years in New York was the ultimate gift to my children,” says Cecilia. “I was just 16 when I first moved there, and it gave me so much strength. The whole multiethnic and cultural intensity is so rare. Everyone can live next to each other, and it’s quite a beautiful phenomenon. I wanted my kids exposed to that.”
Joakim got to know everyone in his neighborhood, from the homeless hanging out on stoops to the other kids and their families. “He got a much bigger understanding of people and how he could help them,” says Cecilia.
An extremely long (6’11”) and agile athlete, Noah’s smarts and overall feel for the game is quite impressive.
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A friend of the family found Coach Green, a Police Athletic League coach, in the Manhattan Yellow Pages. Joakim needed a place to learn to play the game he loved to play, so mom called Coach Green, who invited them over to the gym a few blocks from their new home. Joakim spent the next four months learning skills and drills and weightlifting.
Eventually, he started spending every Saturday in Queens, where Green coached top New York City players such as Lenny Cooke, Curtis Sumpter, Mike Claxton and Bobby Potts. (Green, who’s currently sports coordinator for Goodwill Industries in Queens, has also worked with NBA players Speedy Claxton, Lamar Odom, and WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw, among many others.) Joakim was always the youngest kid on the court—at age 13 he’d play 16-year-olds. “He got his butt kicked a lot but he didn’t care,” says Green. “They used to knock him to the ground, but he’d just get back up.”
His first year in New York, Joakim, who speaks fluent French, attended the United Nations high school. At age 15, he transferred to Poly Prep, a private Brooklyn high school with tough academics and a strong basketball team coached by Billy McNally.
Ask McNally what he thinks of Joakim Noah, and the coach can’t help but sing his praises for 20 straight minutes. “Joakim was so coachable and into everything we were doing, right from the first day,” gushes McNally.
Besides being the most popular kid in school, Joakim was loved by teachers, fun to be around, got along well with just about everybody and always made the little kids he coached in summer basketball camp feel like the most important people in the world.
And talk about growth spurt: Noah was 6’6” at age 15 when he got to Poly Prep, where he spent his sophomore and junior years. “When he came to us he was thin and a guard and he loved to shoot threes,” laughs McNally, refuting the notion that Joakim’s only a defensive force. The team won their league championship both years Noah played. He played his senior year at The Lawrenceville School, in New Jersey, leading the team to a state title over a St. Benedict’s team that included future Denver Nugget J.R. Smith.
“Chicago fans should know that he’s a guy who really wants to be there,” says McNally. “I was with him the day of the Draft, and he told me: ‘Say a prayer; I really want to go to Chicago.’ He’s really excited about going to the Bulls because he wants to win.”
In fact, says Joakim, being selected by Chicago is a dream come true. “There’s a lot of tradition here. Everything about this situation is unbelievable.”
Being from New York, Noah freely admits he grew up a Knicks fan and was especially inspired by Knicks great Patrick Ewing, who often hung out at his father’s French restaurant in New York and, according to legend, gave the newborn Joakim a tiny basketball as a baby gift.
“Growing up, I really hated the Bulls,” Joakim admits. “But I also had great respect for them. Chicago was the dynasty, and now I’m part of it. It’s unbelievable!”
“He won’t take a second off,” assures McNally. “People will feel they’re getting their money’s worth. He’s got flash but he’s not afraid to be a blue-collar player and will do anything to win—he’ll always be the first guy to dive onto a loose ball.
“And he’s incredibly unselfish—he takes a great deal of pleasure in people around him having success. When he was with me and college coaches visited to watch other kids on our team, Joakim would say, ‘Let’s make sure so-and-so has a good game today.’ He’s always been a team-first kind of person,” adds McNally.
Noah’s boundless energy and enthusiasm will definitely be a hit with Bulls fans.
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Clearly some of Noah’s skills and attributes come from mom and dad, as well as his grandfather Zacharie, a former pro soccer player and French Cup Champion from Cameroon. “He’s a real cool guy—he’s 75 but acts like he’s 25,” says Joakim of his grandfather. (Zacharie was the older gentleman sporting dreadlocks sitting with Joakim and his mom on Draft night.) “When I go back to Africa, he wants to take me out each night, and its like, ‘come on Grandpa, chill out!’ He’s a champion and an icon back there. People really respect him for what he did.”
From his dad, whom Joakim calls his best friend, he learned about having an incredible work ethic (as well as receiving some pretty terrific genes). “My father told me about his serve, and how people said he had God-given talent. But what they didn’t realize was he was up at 6 a.m. every morning practicing his serve from age 14 to age 18. It’s not rocket science; the people who work the hardest are always the ones who make it.”
From his mother, Joakim learned to speak up and take a stand and not be afraid of who he is, even though he might open himself up for criticism. “She’s very artsy, very sensitive, very passionate,” says Joakim of his mom.
Cecilia taught her children to always view a situation or a person with an open mind and not react instantly. “The more you come in with an open mind, the more you get out of a situation,” Cecilia explains.
Without a doubt, Joakim is quite comfortable being himself, as evidenced by the flashy seersucker suit and large bow tie that draped his long frame on Draft night. During a photo shoot with fellow Bulls picks Aaron Gray and JamesOn Curry, a couple of days later, Noah hiked up his shorts and gave the camera a huge goofy grin, eliciting howls from his fellow rookies.
He jokes easily with others, and his passion—whether it’s a hug for new Bulls teammate Tyrus Thomas, whom he played against in college, or expressions of joy or dismay that sometimes annoy opponents—clearly comes from the heart. But he’s been questioned about that emotion and accused of being cocky or arrogant. But anyone who truly knows Joakim well understands arrogance has nothing to do with it.
“He doesn’t big-time anybody—he’s definitely not a coddled athlete,” says McNally. “He called me in the middle of the NCAA tournament just to see how the high school team was doing, and he wanted to talk to the players to help motivate them. The last time he was back for a visit, the fifth graders were chasing him down the hall.”
Noah addressed the “attitude” issue as soon as he arrived in Chicago. “I’m going to be me unless coach thinks I’m hurting the team,” he explained on his first day as a Bull. “To me, winning is the most important thing. So if coach thinks I’m hurting the team, I’ll calm down. I promise,” he said with a smile.
It’s that passion—along with two NCAA National Championship titles—that make Noah so appealing to Bulls GM John Paxson and Head Coach Scott Skiles.
“Joakim is a proven winner,” Paxson declares. “The guy plays hard every single night. As a player, he can get up and down the floor, rebound the ball, score around the basket. With his energy and enthusiasm, we think he fits in perfectly. He also adds a dimension to our team that’s very unique—he’s a very demonstrative player out there, and we really don’t have a lot of guys like him. His size is also a major plus.”
This season won’t be Noah’s first experience of playing at the UC. As a prep standout, Noah’s initial taste of Chicago took place at the 2004 EA Sports Roundball Classic.
(Gary Dineen/Getty Images)
While the former Florida Gators star is known primarily for stellar defense and all-around energy, he freely admits he needs to work on his offensive game. He averaged 14.2 points per game as a sophomore, but saw that figure drop to 12.0 points per game last season as a junior.
“I feel like I definitely have to improve—I have to get better,” confesses Noah. “I’m really looking forward to the challenge of coming to Chicago and playing with some great players and a great group of guys. It’s a great situation for me, and I want to help the team win. I hate to lose.”
“You like him right away,” says Skiles. “He’s a winner, and he’s got energy every day on the practice floor.”
And picking Noah follows a trend for the Bulls. “We like guys who played in winning programs and had great coaches,” Skiles says. “It’s appealing. So far we feel that’s working for us.”
His college resume clearly spells winner. Among his accomplishments, Noah was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 NCAA Tournament Final Four, earned consensus Second Team All-America honors as a junior, and was named First Team All-SEC his sophomore and junior seasons. He set the NCAA Tournament record for blocked shots (29) in 2006 and posted 15 career double-doubles. He finished his collegiate career as Florida’s 34th all-time leading scorer, with 1,124 points, and ranks second all-time in career field-goal percentage (.612) and second in blocked shots (186).
“I’m predicting that in two years he’ll be an All-Star,” says his mentor, Tyrone Green. “He’s going to surprise everybody. Defense is going to be his success. Joakim Noah is the best player to come out of Hell’s Kitchen. He’s had to earn his spot, and it’s worked out well for him. He’s worked hard for everything he’s got.”
“I think we added one of the best players in the Draft,” concludes Paxson. “He’s going to bring it every night.”