Joakim Noah was 5 years old the first time his father, Yannick, gave him a tennis lesson. A crowd gathered as Yannick, a French sports icon, analyzed his son’s strokes. After maybe 10 lessons, Joakim quit tennis. He decided at that early age that he didn’t want to be compared to his father, who to this day is the last Frenchman to win a championship at Roland Garros. Joakim would follow his own path and take up a different sport, but his father still shaped the kind of athlete Joakim would become.
“Even though my parents divorced [when I was] young, I got to spend some time with him, see how he trained, and I think that was a big part of who I am,” Noah said. “My work ethic, I think that came from my father.”
New York/New Jersey
Patrick Ewing remembers the first time he watched Yannick Noah play tennis.
“I was like, Oh my God, I see a black guy playing tennis other than Arthur Ashe,” Ewing said. “And [then] I just always rooted for him.”
Ewing and Noah shared the same agent, Donald Dell, and the two athletes’ families became close. Ewing, the once-dominant Knicks center, said he vaguely recalls giving a young Joakim a miniature basketball as a gift. By then, Joakim had already taken up the sport. “I just love basketball,” Noah said recently. “My dad loved basketball, and it’s just something that stuck right away.” Joakim, at 13, moved from France to New York to live with his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, and younger sister, Yelena. “We were on vacation in Hawaii one time when he was 14,” Yelena said. “I remember him just telling me straight up when he’s in the NBA. Talking along those lines. It wasn’t a question of if. It was a matter of when.”
The family stayed in Hell’s Kitchen, a bustling neighborhood west of the theater district in midtown Manhattan. Tyrone Green,1 who ran the local Police Athletic League basketball program, was frustrated with the talent pool in Hell’s Kitchen. Oh God, there ain’t no ballplayers there, he thought. The better players, he believed, were found in Brooklyn and Queens. Then, one day, Green received a phone call. A woman told him her friend had just moved from Europe and she was trying to find a basketball team for her son.
“I didn’t know who the hell Yannick Noah was,” Green said. “I should have known, because there are two black tennis players: Arthur Ashe and Yannick Noah. Cecilia brought [Joakim] down to me and I found out a month or two later it was Yannick Noah’s son.” Back then, Joakim was scrawny, a 13-year-old point guard who unfurled the most awkward, crooked shot. Still, Green saw something in the boy’s work ethic.
“I knew Jo was going to go pro when he was 14 years old,” Green said. “From six to twelve-thirty [at night], he wouldn’t leave the gym. I would say, ‘I’ve got to go home. I’ve got to work.’ He had me miss the bus.”
During summers, Green worked at Sonny Vaccaro’s famed ABCD camp in New Jersey. The event served as a showcase for the country’s top high school talent, and Noah, in his early teens, begged Green and Vaccaro for admission. But Green didn’t think Noah was ready. He worried that Noah might be embarrassed by the elite level of competition at the camp. “I wasn’t pampered by the process,” Noah said. “A lot of these guys from a young age, especially when you’re a top player in your age group, you get a lot of people telling you how great you are. Everyone wants to be your friend. I never had that. I had to deal with that a little bit because of who my father was, but as a basketball player I didn’t have to deal with that.”
Instead of competing at ABCD, Noah mopped and dried the courts and worked the hot dog stand while LeBron James, Sebastian Telfair, and other prep standouts hustled up and down the floor.
“He was the cutest, most lovable, horrible basketball player I ever saw at that age,” Vaccaro said of Noah. “But he had this determination. He cleaned the floor. We called him the tennis guy.”
When Noah began attending Brooklyn’s Poly Prep Country Day School and joined the basketball team, head coach Bill McNally used Noah as an example to teach his players to value defense, hustle, and passing. “Whatever you told him, he bought into,” McNally said. “[It was as if he said,] ‘Hey, I’m supposed to play hard all the time? OK, if that’s what you say, that’s what I’ll do. I’m supposed to screen [and] dive on the floor for loose balls? Perfect. I’m with it.’
“Having a great dunk was just as important as setting a good screen or cutting hard,” McNally said. “He really, in a lot of ways, wears downs his opponents. If you take a second off, he’s not going to.” The coach believed that Noah developed his nonstop approach to the game by watching his father on the tennis court. “He had the effort of an individual athlete,” McNally explained, “but the personality that loved being on a team.”
Noah’s energy, along with his averages of 24 points and 12 rebounds per game, helped Poly Prep to two league titles. “He wasn’t this smooth, suave, sophisticated, fast, natural-born basketball player,” said Bud Cox, director of Poly Prep’s upper school. “He was the guy that every day, his elbow and his knees would be bruised and bleeding.”
Noah played AAU ball for the Long Island Panthers and anchored their front line in games all over New York City. “I think New York made me tougher,” he said. “There’s so many different people, you just have a survival-of-the-fittest type [of] mind-set. It’s a very competitive atmosphere. Basketball is like a religion out there.”
In the summer of 2003, when Noah was 18 years old, he was finally ready for ABCD camp, and this time he made a very different impression on Vaccaro.
“It was almost to me like a revelation when I saw the great players — LeBron and Tracy [McGrady] and all them,” Vaccaro said. “When I first saw them, it was easy to make an opinion. Well, when you see Joakim wiping the sweat off the floors for three years and coming to camp and making the hamburgers, you look at him differently.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan watched Noah play for one day and came away mildly impressed. Gators assistant Tom Ostrom, however, remained to watch the rest of the camp, and after watching Noah several times, he began to believe in Noah’s potential to become a special player.
Ostrom phoned Donovan: “Hey, you remember Joakim Noah? That guy? He’s playing every single game [in the same way] as the game you saw. You have to watch him over time and just appreciate his personality on the court and how hard he plays.”
Noah’s performance at ABCD put him on the radar for a Division I scholarship, but many coaches were still hesitant. “People had a hard time seeing what position he’d be,” McNally said. “He wasn’t a 3. He wasn’t a 4. He wasn’t a 5. He’s just a really good player. Some people had a hard time getting their mind around that.” Noah took recruiting visits to only Florida and Virginia. “And Duke was calling,” McNally said, “but he didn’t really see himself as a Dukie.”
After Poly Prep, Noah did a postgrad year at Lawrenceville, a New Jersey boarding school just outside Princeton. Again, Noah stunned coaches with his work ethic. “I’ve been coaching for 26 years and just about every team, you think of a guard, if not the point guard, as the guy who brought out the best in everybody else,” Lawrenceville coach Ron Kane said. “In Joakim’s case, it’s fascinating that it’s a 6-11 guy.”
Ostrom continued recruiting Noah as the young big man led Lawrenceville to a state championship. “Most recruits, they want to know about the college and how you’re going to use them and style of play and things like that,” Ostrom said. “Even during the recruiting process, Jo wanted to get to know you. He wanted to get to know Billy. He wanted to get to know our staff. He wanted to know what made us tick.”
Noah eventually decided on Florida after a daylong visit with the Donovans. Joakim and his mother stayed for hours with Billy Donovan, his wife Christine, and their children. “You weren’t impressing them with a steak-and-lobster dinner,” Christine Donovan said. “They wanted to know who you were as people.” Florida felt right. Noah was ready for the SEC.
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The sideways glances finally prompted Al Horford to walk a couple strides behind Joakim Noah. A boom box accompanied Noah everywhere he went on the University of Florida campus. “No headphones, no nothing, [just] blasting music,” said teammate Chris Richard.
“It was an embarrassment to all of us,” recalled Horford, who was part of a freshman recruiting class with Noah, Corey Brewer, and Taurean Green. “It wasn’t so bad when we walked around with the boom box. The bad part was when he would start dancing. Everybody would look at [us] like we were aliens, and he would have his shirt off with his African necklace and his shirt tied to his head. So when he started dancing, that’s when we walked a few steps behind him.” Noah was never shy about being something of a free spirit at Florida. His teammates remember him occasionally sporting an outfit that they described as a muumuu. “Like a big dress,” Richard said.
“It got to the point where Coach Donovan had to have a conversation with [Noah],” said then–team manager Matt McCall, “because I think he was becoming somewhat of a distraction to the professors and other students on campus.”
Along with his eccentric wardrobe and retro boom box, Noah brought his ungainly jump shot to Florida. “Unfortunately, I always got stuck rebounding for him and Brewer, so it was a workout,” recalled Larry Shyatt, an assistant coach. In high school, it didn’t matter that Noah’s offensive skills lacked polish. He had always relied on grit and effort to win. In college, however, he found that he couldn’t simply will his team to victory. “Jo thought the answer to everything was, I’m going to play harder than you,” Donovan said. “He struggled understanding the importance of preparation in terms of scouting and guarding a player’s tendencies and weaknesses and strengths. He always relied on his motor. In a lot of ways, he got exposed. He was physically weak [and] he wasn’t committed to the little things that were going to separate him.”
Noah sat, watched, and waited as the other freshmen contributed. He averaged just nine minutes per game his freshman season. The Gators lost to Villanova in the second round of that year’s NCAA tournament, and Noah, looking forward to his sophomore year, knew that he would be counted on to develop his game and play a larger role. Before summer break, Donovan met with Noah. “Next year is going to be here very quickly and you are going to need to get better,” he told Noah. Noah needed to be stronger and more durable, Donovan said. Outhustling his opponents would not be enough.
Donovan watched how Noah responded to this challenge over the next several months, and the coach saw that he had something in common with his player: No matter what obstacles faced them on a basketball court, they would refuse to back down. Donovan was once a scrawny guard who fought his way to play under Rick Pitino at Providence before becoming Pitino’s protégé as an assistant coach at Kentucky in the early-to-mid-’90s. “They don’t do anything halfway,” Christine Donovan said of her husband and Noah. “It’s either balls-to-the-wall or they don’t do it at all. If my husband is going to give my kids a bath, they’re going to be so clean. My husband washes the car, he’ll be out there for three hours.”
When Donovan recognized this trait in Noah, he understood that he could coach the player hard — that Noah’s desire and toughness wouldn’t falter if Donovan pushed him. Early in Noah’s sophomore season, Donovan noticed that his big man lacked his normal energy. Besides his class and practice schedule, Noah had been accepting invitations to talk at elementary schools and do volunteer work at hospitals, acts of generosity that were tiring him out. “You’re in awful shape because you won’t take care of yourself,” Donovan told Noah in front of the team. “You’re not in the condition you were to start the season. All you’re doing is running yourself down, and now you’re not even in shape to play like you need to play.”
“He took that to heart,” Donovan said recently. “So I get a phone call at like eleven o’clock at night from our manager, and the guy’s like, ‘Coach, Joakim is on the track right now running sprints.’”
The Gators flew out of the gates to start the season, winning its first 17 games. Then they stumbled. Late in the conference season, Florida lost three consecutive games — to Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama. Then, in the next game, Noah responded with 37 points in a win over Georgia. The individual scoring outburst was uncommon for a Florida team known for its balanced lineup: Over the season, all five of the Gators starters averaged double figures, with Noah leading the team at 14.2 points per game.
Richard, a backup big man on the squad, remembered how Florida’s multitude of threats forced opposing defenses to pick their poison. “You either wanted to stop the perimeter play or stop the post,” he said. “You couldn’t do both, because we were so talented. Everyone was unselfish. One game, one person might have a 20-point game. The next night, it’s somebody else.”
Beginning with Noah’s 37-point eruption, the Gators captured the last 11 games of the season, winning the SEC tournament and not stopping until they’d won the NCAA championship in a 73-57 victory over UCLA. Noah dominated the title game with 16 points, nine rebounds, and six blocked shots, and was voted the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
After his breakout performance in the tournament, Noah was projected as a possible top overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft. Many close to Noah advised him to forego his remaining two years of college eligibility and turn pro. Horford and Brewer were also pegged as top draft selections. “We sat down with each other and it was, ‘We can go to the league, but man, we’re having too much fun,” Brewer said. “We’re at a time in our lives when we can only go to college one time. I guess we felt like, ‘The NBA is going to be there. Why not do something nobody’s did in a long time?’” Noah also sought counsel from Horford. “I felt like he was starting to figure that we all had a shot to go to the NBA,” Horford said. “I told him, ‘I’m coming back. I’m having a lot of fun. I want to keep getting better here.’ He just nodded. He didn’t say anything, but I felt like we both knew what we were going to do — that we were going to come back.”
By deciding to return to Florida, however, Noah, Horford, and Brewer were also electing to play their junior season with the weight of expectation on their shoulders and a giant target on their backs. “Everything changed,” Donovan said. “They got a hard dose of reality of what it’s like at the top.”
Noah, perhaps because of his wild hair or his energetic style of play or his effusive on-court celebrations, found that while he was beloved in Gainesville, he was despised everywhere outside of the University of Florida. “[Joakim] was like a lightning rod,” Donovan said. “He went from this darling kid to then all of a sudden totally scrutinized and almost looked at as a villain. I think for him as a young kid, it was really confusing. And it was really, in a lot of ways, stuff that I think bothered him, and he struggled with [it] internally and personally. I think he even got to a place where [he thought], Did I make the right decision to come back here? Because I’m not having any fun.”
On top of the pressure of attempting to repeat as national champions, Noah felt the need to prove, game after game, that he deserved his draft status. In November of his junior year, Noah confided in Donovan: “I feel like I’m under a microscope. I was supposed to be the first person taken in the draft, and I come back, and I gotta score 25 points and grab 15 rebounds every game. I feel like all eyes are on me.”
“You’re allowing everyone else to rob you of your happiness,” Donovan told him. “The thing about it is, you’re going to play in the NBA, [so] you’re never going to escape competition. If you just go back to being who you are, you’ll have a lot more fun playing. You’re trying to be something you’re not, or something you feel like you need to live up to, or what you think the no. 1 pick in the draft should look like.”
Talking with Donovan helped Noah get through the season and focus on playing his game rather than obsessing over what outsiders expected of him. And while Noah’s game stabilized, Horford and Brewer played well enough to improve their likely draft positions. By the time the Gators won their second straight SEC tournament, Noah was back to his carefree, mildly unhinged ways, and he showed it by celebrating with an extended dance during a postgame interview with Bill Raftery and Verne Lundquist.
Florida became the first team in 15 years to repeat as Division I basketball champions when it defeated Ohio State, 84-75, in the national title game of that year’s NCAA tournament. Noah’s minutes were cut short by foul trouble, but Horford and Brewer took over and led the Gators to victory despite a career game from the Buckeyes’ Greg Oden. Within a week, Noah, Brewer and Horford all declared for the NBA draft.
“There was incredible excitement [after] the first one and some relief [after] the second one,” said assistant coach Shyatt. “There were some of us thinking maybe they would go for a third, but it was too much money at that point.”
Even though the Bulls finished the 2006-07 season with the eighth-best record in the NBA, Chicago executive (he’s now the team’s general manager) Gar Forman knew he’d have a lottery pick in the following summer’s draft. That’s because the Bulls had the right to swap draft picks with the Knicks — a leftover provision of the 2005 Eddy Curry trade — and New York missed the playoffs with a 33-49 record. During the season, Forman had traveled to Gainesville to watch Noah practice for three days. “Everybody’s going to pick it up a notch when you’re playing on national TV,” Forman said. “But he was that way in practice. They are running some type of drill and it was so competitive that if there was a manager or somebody refereeing, Jo would start arguing over calls because he wanted to win the drill.”
Before his pre-draft interview with Noah, Forman expected to have a typical, somewhat mundane back-and-forth. Most potential draft picks are coached by their agents to respond to questions with cliché-filled, boilerplate answers. But Noah was different. “He was brutally honest,” Forman said. “We would ask him tough questions about his background. He wasn’t holding anything back.” Noah was so honest and unfiltered that during his pre-draft workout, he told Bulls officials that he grew up a Knicks fan who hated Michael Jordan.
A year earlier, Noah probably would have been the first of his lottery-bound Gator teammates to be selected. Instead, he ended up going last among Florida’s big three. Horford was taken third overall by the Atlanta Hawks and Brewer went seventh to Minnesota. The Bulls plucked Noah with the ninth pick, and he walked to the stage to greet then-commissioner David Stern in one of the most memorable outfits in NBA draft history. Noah wore a cream-colored suit and a giant bow tie, with his unruly, overflowing hair crammed into a Bulls hat, and he flashed a huge grin along with the peace sign while meeting Stern. Rick Morrissey, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, was not impressed. He called Noah “half TV creation and half marshmallow soft.” Morrissey promised to dress his article in salsa and eat it on the off chance Noah managed to become a quality player in three years.
At first, it seemed Morrissey would be right. Noah entered the NBA like a wild horse that needed to be broken. His rah-rah attitude irked veterans and seemed impossible to keep up over an 82-game NBA season. “I think there’s a tendency for some guys to pace themselves, and some guys are good at that,” Forman said. “With Joakim, there’s no pacing yourself. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it 110 percent, and that may have rubbed some people wrong.” The Bulls regressed in Noah’s rookie season, and midway through the year they fired coach Scott Skiles en route to a 33-49 finish.
Missing the playoffs ended up being a coup for the franchise’s long-term prospects. With a 1.7 percent chance at securing the top spot in the 2008 NBA draft, the Bulls struck gold and won the no. 1 pick. That summer, the Bulls selected Derrick Rose and hired Vinny Del Negro, a coach who saw the value in Noah’s approach to the game. “He gives you everything he has at all times and he wears his emotions on his sleeve,” Del Negro said. “He brings out the best of his teammates because of the presence that he has.” Noah played a pivotal role in Chicago’s classic 2009 first-round playoff series against the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics. Four of the games were decided in overtime. Game 6 alone featured three extra sessions. Rose and Rajon Rondo thrilled, while Ray Allen poured in 51 points for the Celtics and John Salmons had 35 for Chicago. And Noah secured the play of the series by outsprinting Paul Pierce, covering the length of the court with his hair flying in all directions as he dunked to seal Game 6 in triple overtime. Noah had become a quality player, and Morrissey had to literally eat his words.
“I’ve been with the Bulls 16 years, and that’s one of my favorite plays,” Forman said. “It was just incredible, and you remember the energy in the building when he did it. It was amazing.”
The next season, plantar fasciitis in Noah’s left foot limited him to 64 games, and the Bulls were quickly dismissed in the first round of the playoffs by the LeBron James–led Cleveland Cavaliers. But even in the loss, Noah had a splendid series, averaging 14.8 points and 13 rebounds over five games. He also slipped into his familiar role as the player opposing teams’ fans loved to hate, earning Cleveland’s scorn by saying the city “sucked.” “You think Cleveland’s cool?” he asked reporters. “I never heard anybody say ‘I’m going to Cleveland on vacation.’ What’s so good about Cleveland?”
Tom Thibodeau replaced Del Negro as the Bulls’ head coach for the 2010-11 season. Noah inked a five-year contract extension worth $60 million, but once again he missed several games, this time with a hand injury. Even so, the Bulls rallied to a league-best 62-20 record behind Thibodeau’s stifling defensive schemes and an MVP performance from Rose. “I’ve always had a philosophy [that] if you can’t coach your best player hard, you really can’t coach your team,” Forman said. “You’ve got to have guys that will respond, and Joakim, that’s who he is. Tom can coach him as hard as anybody on the team and he’s going to respond. And so [will] Derrick and some of the guys we have.”
But those Bulls peaked just as the Miami Heat superteam featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh began to jell. The Heat defeated Chicago in five games in the Eastern Conference finals behind an immaculate shooting performance from James, whose defense also played a major role in containing Rose. The series seemed like the first encounter in a budding Eastern Conference rivalry between Chicago and Miami, but it ended up being the first and only time Rose’s Bulls went toe-to-toe with James’s Heat in the playoffs. The following season, after the Bulls again seized the top seed in the East, Rose tore his ACL in the opening game of their first-round series against the 76ers. The former MVP has missed much of the last two seasons with knee injuries and hasn’t played a full playoff game since Chicago’s Game 5 loss to the Heat in 2011.
The Bulls scrambled to find a new identity in Rose’s absence. Noah provided that character. “I know a lot of people from here are not even my fans, they’re fans of [Noah]’s and how hard he plays,” said Rose, a native Chicagoan. “They’re just a fan of hard work and what he does.” The Noah-led Bulls epitomized Chicago’s hard-nosed values. “Chicago, if you’re coming in to just show your skills, if you’re coming in to just look good, the city of Chicago is not going to accept you,” said Luol Deng, Noah’s teammate for several seasons. “Chicago is a city that they want to see you work hard night in and night out, and the city will love you for that. I realized I wasn’t the greatest scorer. I wasn’t the greatest rebounder. I wasn’t the greatest defender, but one thing that I did, I gave it everything I can. Jo was the same.”
Without Rose, the Bulls became perhaps the NBA’s ultimate grind-it-out, defensive-minded team, anchored by the rim protection that Noah and Taj Gibson provided. Scoring was often a chore for these teams, but more often than not, thanks to Noah’s playmaking from the high post, Deng’s laborious but effective midrange game, and streaky shooting from guards like Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, and D.J. Augustin, Chicago managed to scrap together enough points to eke by opponents. Chicago limped into the 2013 playoffs as a no. 5 seed with a 45-37 record, and even though the Bulls roster was devastated by injuries, they still managed to gut out a Game 7 victory on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. Noah played through his plantar fasciitis to score 24 points, collect 14 rebounds, and block six shots in the clincher.
Throughout the season, and especially in the playoffs, Noah began to look like the heir apparent to Kevin Garnett, a disruptive force who can survey the court and coordinate a team’s defense. “He’s a big man that plays defense, rebounds, sets screens, and makes plays for anybody,” Deng said. “For any basketball player, that’s the perfect guy to play with.”
The Bulls came into the 2013-14 season with high hopes and the expectation that the return of a healthy Rose to a lineup that had overachieved and grown in his absence would make Chicago a title contender. Those lofty goals were dashed one month into the season, however, when Rose suffered a torn meniscus and the Bulls announced he would sit out the rest of the year. In January, the Bulls dealt Deng to Cleveland at the trade deadline in exchange for three future draft picks and Andrew Bynum’s expiring contract.
The move was widely seen as a tanking maneuver. Chicago’s front office appeared to be giving up on making the playoffs in favor of dropping below the luxury-tax threshold and saving the franchise more than $20 million in tax payments and whatever remained of Deng’s $14.3 million salary that year. And if giving up Deng, the Bulls’ best perimeter player, meant Chicago would fall out of playoff contention, the team could count on a consolation prize of a lottery pick in the talent-laden 2014 draft.
If it seemed as if Chicago’s decision-makers were waving the white flag on last season, then Thibodeau, Noah, and the rest of the Bulls didn’t get the message. “All these other teams, when you’re feeling sorry for yourself, they don’t care,” Noah said. “It’s like a wounded animal. When a team sees that you’re wounded and you’re in low spirits, or if things aren’t going well, they’re going for the kill. We didn’t want to be that wounded animal that teams would just come in here and kill.” Aside from the Bulls’ typically staunch defense, Thibodeau began running the offense through Noah at the high post. “In the last four years, when you look at his overall growth, it’s really a quantum leap,” Thibodeau said. “Each year he’s gotten better and better, and I think he’ll continue to do that throughout his career because of the way he works.” Noah plugged the middle on defense and won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He also served as Chicago’s best offensive player, finishing the season with career highs in points (12.6) and rebounds (11.3) while averaging an eye-popping 5.4 assists. He earned a reputation as the game’s best passing center since Vlade Divac and ranked fourth in the league’s MVP voting.
Noah pushed Chicago to 48 wins and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. From January until the end of the regular season, Chicago won more games than any other Eastern Conference team, despite losing Rose and Deng. Yet even though the Bulls had home-court advantage in their first-round series with the Washington Wizards, the Bulls’ offensive woes made them an easy postseason target, and they fell to Washington in five games.
“Everything that’s happened to us, I feel like it’s happening for a reason,” Noah said, referring to Rose’s injuries, Deng’s trade, the playoff disappointments. “I mean, you can’t relate it, but this city, the people in this city deal with a lot of adversity,” Noah continued. “I think that everything we’re dealing with as a team, it represents this city.”
As the Bulls prepare to begin another season, they find themselves in the familiar position of being one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference — on paper. Rose is finally healthy, and he spent the summer getting reacclimated to competitive basketball at the FIBA World Cup. But his play with Team USA was uneven, and his ability to score at the rim appears to remain far behind the standards of his MVP season. The Bulls improved their roster in the offseason, though, and it’s possible that Rose won’t shoulder quite as much of the burden to generate offense as he has in the past. The signing of Pau Gasol to pair with Noah could give Chicago the best passing frontcourt in the NBA, and the Bulls are hoping that highly skilled rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott will be able to help space the floor with their shooting.
The Eastern Conference playoff race appears more wide open than it has in years thanks to the breakup of Miami’s big three, and teams like Cleveland (with LeBron James) and Chicago (with its upgraded lineup) are expected to contend for a Finals berth. But in Chicago, that hope comes with caveats. Can Rose stay healthy? Until he makes it through a season without a major injury, people around the league will continue to wonder if Rose can ever regain his All-Star form. Will Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy Jr. provide the wing shooting Chicago needs? Does Gasol have another All-Star-caliber season left in his 34-year-old legs? And how will Noah recover from the minor arthroscopic surgery he had on his left knee during the offseason?
“His rehab has gone great,” Forman told the Chicago Tribune about Noah. “Everything has been positive. With that said, he hasn’t played basketball since the injury.”
Cameroon, Sweden, Hawaii …
There are other locations spread across the globe. Noah visits Cameroon as often as possible to spend time with his grandfather, a former soccer player and tribal leader. “The piece of land he lives on is handed from generation to generation,” Noah said. “It’s been in my family for four generations now. When you go back to the motherland, you always feel that connection. It just makes me happy that I can trace back my heritage to a piece of land.”
Noah also tries to visit Hawaii every summer. “Hawaii is the only place where I feel like I can recharge my batteries and really let go of everything that happened in a season,” Noah said. And then there’s Sweden, his mother’s homeland. “When I think of Sweden, I think of my grandparents,” Noah said. “I just think of simplicity when I’m there. Farm life, good people. I love it there. Very simple people, but strong as well, [with a] Viking type of mentality.”
All the places — France, New Jersey, New York, Gainesville, Chicago, Cameroon, Sweden, Hawaii, and others — have combined to influence Noah. He may be the only NBA player who will listen to Bob Marley, then talk trash to Kevin Garnett and LeBron James, and then turn around and quote Shakespeare.
And Noah’s shot remains as awkward as ever. “He thinks he has one of the best jumpers in the league,” former teammate Augustin said. Noah still runs like he’s growing into his body. You might be tempted to crack a joke about the gangly 6-foot-11 tangle of limbs motoring up and down the court, until you notice him keeping up with guards nine inches shorter than him and beating opposing big men to the block on both ends. (According to data collected by SportVU cameras, Noah ran 195.1 total miles during games in the 2013-14 regular season, more than any other center.) It’s difficult to name another NBA player quite like him — as a player and a personality.
“In my eyes, he’s probably the most unprecedented success story in basketball in America,” Vaccaro said. “To be mentioned with these great, great players who everyone [knew] was going to be great — Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love. You knew they had a chance to be brilliant; it’s just [a matter of] when they accomplished it. Joakim Noah — you can’t duplicate that. It can’t happen again. I’ve never seen this. I’ve seen the great ones and they all have vanity and ego and all that crap. He was wiping the floor.”
Noah’s past shaped his present and helped turn the son of one of France’s biggest celebrities into a humble, generous grown man who also happens to be among the best players in the NBA. In Chicago, the Bulls staff has grown used to watching Noah train by himself in empty gyms and seeing the big man push himself as hard in the late summer as he would in the deep winter. Noah’s work ethic, the trait he traces back to watching his father rely on no one but himself on the tennis court, has become one of the son’s greatest talents as a basketball player. Another thing Noah picked up from his father was the desire to be a citizen of the globe. Noah holds French, U.S., and Swedish passports, and he thinks of himself as a constant wanderer.
“My grandfather always tells me, ‘I know where I’m from, so I know who I am,’” Noah said. “[I’m] from a lot of different places, [so] I really take that to heart because all these places make me who I am.”
This article was updated to remove an erroneous reference to Kevin Garnett appearing in the 2009 first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Bulls; Garnett was injured and did not play.