On Sunday evening, during a timeout near the end of the Chicago Bulls' 103-94 victory over the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, the United Center crowd began chanting, "No-chee-O-nee!" The object of their affections was Chicago's hardworking rookie forward, Andrés Nocioni, who had just pulled down his 17th rebound of the game and would finish with an astounding 25 points, 18 rebounds and four assists. A surprising hero in a season full of them for the youthful, scrappy Bulls (fellow rookie Ben Gordon again provided a spark off the bench, as he has since the all-star break, with 30 points), Nocioni was being feted by fans who had waited seven years for their team to return to the playoffs.
The chant was rousing. It was contagious. It was also incorrect. "It is No-cee-O-nee," the 25-year-old from Santa Fé, Argentina, said after the game, "but it's O.K. Everybody calls me Noach.
However you say it, Nocioni set the tone on Sunday. Logging time at small forward and power forward, the 6'7", 225-pounder tore up and down the court as if running from a large beast, ripped rebounds out of the air, scowled as if every Wizards basket gave him heartburn--there may be no player in the league with a wider array of grimaces--and maintained a rugby-scrum intensity while playing the entire 48 minutes. Says Chicago center Antonio Davis, "He practices like that. He's like that in walk-throughs. Preseason, off-season, you name it, he's going full speed."
Nocioni is an NBA rookie, but he played two years of pro ball in Spain's ACB League before joining the Bulls and was a key member of the Argentine national team that won Olympic gold last summer. (Lest anyone forget that, he brought his medal to training camp.) From the beginning, his Tasmanian devil style made him a fan favorite in Chicago--he received a standing ovation at his first preseason game--but though he understands English well enough, it took Nocioni awhile to comprehend what coach Scott Skiles wanted from him. "One of his biggest problems was figuring out what was a good shot and what was a bad shot," says veteran swingman Eric Piatkowski. "I think he was driving the coaches crazy early on."
On Sunday, Nocioni was laudably selective; each of the four three-pointers he took was wide open. (He hit two.) And, as Skiles said afterward, "when we were limping a little offensively, he put his head down and went to the hole and busted up the rhythm."
If Nocioni keeps playing like that, everyone will know how to pronounce his name. --Chris Ballard