It’s not time to write the obituary for Joakim Noah as a Bulls player.
This season likely is over for Noah after he suffered a dislocated shoulder Friday against the Dallas Mavericks. The Bulls disclosed Saturday Noah was evaluated at Midwest Orthopedics at Rush, where it was determined that he will undergo surgery. His recovery time is estimated at four to six months.
The consensus will be that probably was Noah’s last game as a Bulls player because he is a free agent after this season with an expiring contract and coming off a significant injury and a loss of his starting job. It’s a terrible break for Noah in several respects. Obviously, missing the rest of the season and having to face his first major free agency coming off surgery and one of his poorest statistical seasons.
But this also puts the Bulls and Noah in position to work out perhaps a short term extension with less outside competition.
The Joakim Noah story in Chicago hasn’t necessarily reached its final chapter.
Meanwhile it has been one of the great Chicago stories ever told.
No, not the celebrated Michael Jordan/Phil Jackson story of championships and NBA history. Maybe not even the sustained, but short circuited success of the first great Bulls team with Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob, Love, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle.
Though in his way there’s never been anyone in Chicago like Joakim Noah, who arrived with more panache, produced so many highlights and spoke to the community like no one else ever did.
And from the jump on draft night in 2007. Bulls executives were both happy he fell to No. 9 in the NBA draft after winning consecutive titles at the U. of Florida and horrified by his red and white pinstriped seersucker suit, bow tie and hair flowing so long and clown-like it made his souvenir Bulls baseball cap look like one of those team logo hat cups they sell with ice cream at the games.
Everyone was wondering just what the team had in his first season when Noah, though rarely playing and then so poorly, called out his teammates for being too lazy and then was suspended one game for an incident with assistant coach Ron Adams. Noah soon became the only player in NBA history whose teammates extended his suspension, to two games, because they didn’t believe it was severe enough.
But this was a player as the Bulls moved on from coach Scott Skiles and the unsuccessful addition of center Ben Wallace who more than anyone, more than league MVP Derrick Rose or fiery coach Tom Thibodeau, or reliable Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng or relentless Jimmy Butler, came to represent the franchise and the city, make fans and the community proud to say they were Bulls fans.
Noah stood up to LeBron James in his early, most immature days, calling out James for his puerile dancing and celebrating during games. Noah famously—or infamously—irritated Cleveland, or at least it’s chamber of commerce, by questioning its vacation potential.
Noah challenged the cheap shot tactics of Kevin Garnett, who typically went after lesser players. Come after me! Noah demanded.
With all that emotion, heart and commitment, Noah had his embarrassments as well, fined for pushing at a fan whom he claimed spit on him. He was fined for an anti-gay slur said in ignorance and anger. He famously had a woman in the crowd in Miami captured making vulgar signs at him. Few stirred motion like Noah, who playfully linked the show business Heat team to Hollywood actors.
But Noah as a player did back it up.
He made among the most remarkable improvements ever to become the league’s all-NBA first team center in 2014. Yes, Joakim Noah the NBA’s best center.
His amazing Game 7 in Brooklyn in the first round of the 2013 playoffs with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks was one of the most inspiring games in franchise history, Noah barely able to play with foot problems and carrying the underdog Bulls to a victory that if it were in the Finals—like Michael Jordan’s in Salt Lake City—would rank among the most famous games in NBA history.
Noah became a top five in the league’s MVP voting and the Defensive Player of the Year.
There were so many big games when hardly any were expected, so many amazing passes, curious jump shots—even getting a nickname of the tornado for its sideways spin—so many assists on and off the court as his Noah’s Arc Foundation has become one of the great charities established by a Chicago athlete. Plus, Noah has been an active participant in efforts to control gun violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods, a model citizen if not exactly the model player.
“Just knowing how hard he works, how hard he wants to be on the court, how much it means to this team, it’s devastating,” Rose said Friday after the loss to the Mavericks about Noah.
“He’s one of the emotional leaders,” said Taj Gibson. “Hits you in the heart to see him like that on the (training) table. Kind of got a flashback to when Derrick got hurt. You don’t want to see your man go down like that.”
It burned in everyone stomach like that devastating day in 2012 when Rose’s career changed and along with it the Bulls’ future.
“Tough to see it happen to a person like that,” added Jimmy Butler.
And perhaps in some respects Friday as well, at least if Noah does not return or isn’t able to regain the level of play he was working so hard this season to achieve.
It was almost two years ago to the day Friday that Noah poured out his feeling after the trade of Deng, his close friend and part of that family that Noah values so much, his team.
Noah had been shaken by Rose’s injuries, so much so that he asked fans to stop chanting MVP for him. Noah scolded that there was one MVP and it was Rose.
And that day after remaining quiet for several days to compose himself and his thoughts, Noah delivered arguably the greatest tribute to fans and a community that an athlete ever has, articulating in a few sentences what the fan experience means and why fans are so passionate and why they pay so much money and commit so much time and care as much as they do about games. Because there are guys like Noah who care as much and about them as well.
“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.
“This team, we’ve been dealing with a lot of adversity over the years,” said Noah. “But 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. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
There have been times lately it hasn’t felt like that with the changes in coaching, in personnel, in talent, in Noah himself.
But no one likely ever has spoken to a sports community, articulated the way Noah did in his play and in his words. He makes you feel proud to spend all that emotion, the despair, the passion, the love and know it is not wasted because it is reciprocated.
It’s been one wild and wacky and beautiful ride and it just seems like it can’t be over. Not this way.