Noah's heart heavy with loss of Mr. Green

Bulls center Joakim Noah left the team Friday to return to New York for the memory of Tyrone Green, the New York City youth program director who took in Noah when he was 13 and trying to embrace basketball as a gangly, spoiled kid from France.

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Joakim Noah has talked for the last week with excitement, a veritable rhythmic lilt in his voice about this time of the year, playoff time, spring, renewal; it’s the best time of year. The birds are out singing, the sun is reappearing with a warming embrace. It’s Game 1 of the NBA playoffs Sunday at the United Center.

But the Bulls’ emotional leader must lift his heavy heart up solemnly in his grief for his second father and mentor, Tyrone Green, who died this past week.

Noah left the team Friday to return to New York for the memory of the man he always called Mr. Green, the New York City youth program director who took in Noah when he was 13 and trying to embrace basketball as a gangly, spoiled kid from France. Noah grew close to Green and his family, Green becoming what Noah always described as a second father and his principal mentor and supporter. When Noah made the All-Star team the last two years, he often said the best part was being able to bring Mr. Green and his friends from his youth to the games. Noah last saw Green, as he always does, when the team was playing in New York last week.

Green apparently and unexpectedly had a heart attack. Noah learned about his death Thursday after the season concluded Wednesday in Charlotte, when Noah was buoyant with the anticipation of the playoffs and the conclusion of the long, draining season after the injury to Derrick Rose and trade of Luol Deng.

But the team persevered and now it was a new day, a brighter time, an occasion to embrace the best to come.

Life, however, can deal some heavy blows.

And so it was for Noah, who went to New York to join family and friends for the sad occasion. Noah missed practice Friday and returned to the team Saturday. He did not meet with media.

It’s not unreasonable to think Noah never would have become an NBA player if not for Green.

Noah understands that best of everyone because there is little looking at Noah now that screams star. Imagine when he was a gangly adolescent, the son of French tennis star Yannick Noah and Miss Sweden, Cecilia Rodhe. Though his parents were divorced, Rodhe lived in France so Joakim and his sister could be closer to their father.

Rodhe moved the kids to New York when Joakim was 13 and they settled in the West Side “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood, which was bad, though not quite as much as the name suggests.

Joakim was entranced with basketball, like most city kids. But as a scrawny point guard shooting sideways spinning three pointers, barely six foot and 150 pounds, he couldn’t get on the top amateur teams even with his father’s connections. He walked in one day to the local Police Athletic League center to play and learn. Noah’s best day was that Green was there and who he was.

Green saw something in the kid’s dedication and desire to learn. Jo wasn’t trying to dunk or dribble behind his back or pass without looking. He wanted to master the fundamentals and practice, practice, practice.

Noah’s English wasn’t good with his French accent; his basketball was like English with a New York accent. It was difficult to understand or appreciate.

“He liked the way I competed, always working hard,” Noah in an interview at All-Star break. “Harder than everyone else.”

It wasn’t that Noah was only about basketball. We know Jo likes to enjoy life. Noah had gotten himself invited to leave some high schools. But he truly loved basketball. And even if it wouldn’t love him back as much, Green was there to encourage and help him along the way. After all, Green felt, if the kid cared that much why not. Men like Green are gifts to so many neighborhoods where there are unprivileged kids or kids looking for direction. They are the men who become fathers, mentors, advisors and life savers.

These men like Mr. Green give of themselves to help kids have a chance at their dreams.

It was Green who gave Noah his nickname, which has stuck with friends, sticks or variations today like sticks-stickity, stickman. Just the skinny kid.

Basketball was a fantasy for Joakim Noah. But life also is about belief and dreams and working, and who knows. You only lose when you don’t try. Green told that to Noah. If you cared enough, he’d be there for you.

He was to the day he died.

Noah’s mom and sister would return to France in the summers. But Green told Noah that if he was serious about basketball he had to stay in New York, play in all the parks, play against the best.

There was no way this kid projected as a pro player, but Green saw something in him no one else did.

“You want to be something in basketball, you’ve got to spend the summers in New York going to the big tournaments,” Noah recalled Green telling him.

So Noah went to Queens and Harlem and slept on the Greens’ couch. They traveled the city, where nothing was promised but competition. They’d end up walking long hours back from games. They don’t drive you home when you are on the B team. They talked about life and commitment and dreams.

“I played in every tournament, worked on my game,” recalls Noah. “The message I got from him was if you want to get better you can't leave and go on vacation. It was tough to leave my family behind and stay with Mr. Green and just work on my game. But if it wasn't for those summers, I don't think I would be in the NBA. I think it made me the player that I am today. I feel like I got my heart and my toughness playing out in the streets."

And the tough love of Mr. Green.

Green worked security at the big summer ABCD camp, so Jo got in. Not to play, but basically as a ball boy. He never talked about it, in part, because it seemed so outlandish. He believed he could be an NBA player. Most kids have the dream until they can’t. Jo grew, which helped a lot.

“It was my dream,” Noah said in an interview at the All-Star game. “People tell you they have a Plan B. Don’t believe it. No one does. Everything I did was so I could play basketball.”

It really was ludicrous to consider given the circumstances. Noah was handing out the towels to the big star players like Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony.

If they were a second family to him, he was their child, the wild kid with the big heart to nurture and help achieve his dreams.

Noah got to live his dreams, and he shared so many of them with Mr. Green. It was a gift, which makes these days melancholy for Noah and his family.