Bulls center Joakim Noah doesn't have the incandescent talent of his NBA brethren. But he brings to the game an equally powerful gift
This is an article from the Nov. 8, 2010 issue
The house is set against a forest preserve, and through the trees you can hear the MetraRail north line chugging back and forth from Fox Lake. But all you can see out here, in the darkness of a Sunday night in the Chicago suburbs, is Joakim Noah's face illuminated by flames. He bought the house in part because of the fire pit in the back, the deep thoughts and long conversations it foretold. This may seem like buying a Bentley for the floor mats, only Noah uses the fire pit as he imagined, arranging the kindling in a pyramid at sundown, cracking open a light beer, folding his 6'11" frame into a chair under a tall birch. He can tell the regular season is coming because he has to slip a parka over his sweats and hike his socks up to his knees. His hair is pulled into a bun, and his beard is finally gaining momentum.
Noah has just returned from a preseason game in Orlando, where his Bulls lost by 38 points, though he keeps referring to the margin as 50. His father, former French Open tennis champion turned reggae star Yannick Noah, sent him a text message from an island off the coast of Africa that read, "Better to lose by 50 one time than lose by one 50 times." This is the role Yannick plays for his son, always showing him the brighter side, offering him a pleasant alternative. When Noah was in high school, spending summers living on his coach's couch in Queens, then tagging along with that coach and sleeping on his floor at the ABCD basketball camp in Teaneck, N.J., Yannick would call and tell him, "You can meet me on the beach in the Bahamas. You can join me on my catamaran in Greece." Noah, shagging balls for the likes of LeBron James and Sebastian Telfair at the camp because he wasn't good enough to be invited to play, would set his jaw and say, "I've got to stay here and play in the projects."
He sticks an iron poker into the fire pit and prods the embers until they spark. "I still feel like that guy," Noah says. "I'm not a very skilled player. I'm not that talented. For me, it's about wanting to win more than the other person. That's what makes me a little different." The NBA's regular season can be a mundane exercise, 82 games during which the best teams bide their time until the playoffs and the best players admit they are pacing themselves. "I don't see it that way," Noah says. "I can't." In the locker room before games, while teammates visualize themselves making every shot they take, Noah conjures a much different image: He is playing the worst game of his life, getting backed down and pushed aside, dunked on and laughed at. He lets the anxiety build before releasing it on the floor in a torrent of churning limbs and primal screams. The way he runs the floor, it looks like his ponytail might snap off. "Jo has the kind of drive that I don't think many people have ever seen before," says Tyrone Green, Noah's former Police Athletic League coach, the one who offered up his couch in Queens.
The NBA is full of players who were crowned when they were 12. Noah has always been a better trailer. When he finally made the ABCD camp, in 11th grade, he arrived with only two scholarship offers and left with more than 200. When he went to Florida, he did not start a game as a freshman, yet he led the Gators to national championships as a sophomore and a junior. And when he was a year and a half into his pro career, looking as though he would go down as a college legend and nothing more, he metamorphosed into what Bulls forward Brian Scalabrine calls "a carbon copy of Kevin Garnett" and Bulls general manager Gar Forman terms "the heart and soul of who we are."
Noah can explain how he underwent this latest transformation, in some ways the most stunning of them all, but first he has to throw another log on the fire.
Shortly after Noah declared for the 2007 draft, he was walking through the streets of New York City with a friend, the clothing designer Jared M. "We need to talk about your suit," Jared M said. Noah had already been thinking about it. "I want something superfunky," he said, "with style and class." Noah arrived at Madison Square Garden on June 28 in an unforgettable ensemble, even by NBA draft standards: a beige seersucker tuxedo with an oversized gold bow tie. His frizzed-out hair fell down to his shoulders, and when he posed in his Bulls cap next to commissioner David Stern, he threw up a peace sign and flashed a grin as big as the bow tie. The headline in the next day's Chicago Tribune read YOU MUST BE JOAKIM, and columnist Rick Morrissey promised to eat the newsprint with salsa if Noah ever became a serious player.
Morrissey was safe. Noah arrived at training camp with a side-spinning jump shot that assistant coach Ron Adams diagnosed as "the worst I've ever seen." Having already alienated Bulls fans by admitting that he hated Michael Jordan as a kid, Noah struggled to remember plays and hold his position against opposing centers. He frequented McDonalds, bypassed weight rooms and always seemed to be late. He remembers driving on the shoulder of Chicago freeways to make it to the United Center on time. "The tickets," Noah said, "weren't as bad as the fines." Noah was shushed by head coach Scott Skiles when he chided the team for lack of effort and suspended by interim coach Jim Boylan when he erupted at Adams in a practice. The suspension was for only one game, but a locker room vote extended it to two. "I'm the only guy in the NBA who's been suspended by his teammates," Noah says. "I was a little arrogant, and I understand now that they try to humble you."
In his first game back from the suspension, Noah challenged Ben Wallace for snickering during a loss, which came off as yet another act of insubordination. But in the Bulls' front office, it was viewed differently. If a rookie who was averaging only 4.2 points and 3.1 rebounds at the time had the moxie to call out an elder like Wallace, perhaps a leader lurked inside. "He had a lot of maturing to do," says Boylan, who likened Noah to a bad puppy. "He'd have moments where he would act out and you'd have to put the hammer down on him. But I knew he'd be O.K. because he had one key skill: He played hard every night."
The same, however, was true in his first off-season. "I partied too much that summer," Noah says. "It's your first time with money and free time. There were a lot of trips to Miami, trips to New York." There was also a trip to Gainesville, Fla., where he was busted for possession of marijuana and an open container of alcohol. Noah reported out of shape to a big man camp in Las Vegas, sprained his ankle late in the summer and fell behind Aaron Gray in the Bulls' rotation. Yannick called at one point and said, "You can always come over here and play in France." Noah declined, as if he were back on the floor at ABCD. He never blamed coaches or injuries, just searched for solutions, and he eventually discovered that he could not make the transition to the NBA without the person who helped him make the transition to the United States.
Noah was born in New York City, moved to Paris when he was three and back again when he was 13. He enrolled in eighth grade at the United Nations International School, where he was assigned a 10th-grade mentor named Alex Perris. They became close friends, and in the fall of 2008, while Noah was floundering with the Bulls, Perris was training to be a competitive bodybuilder. Noah watched Perris work out in New York and recognized that his own hyperkinetic playing style required that he be in better shape. He asked Perris to move to Chicago, and soon after, grilled chicken breasts replaced McDonalds.
Vinny Del Negro was the Bulls' coach then, and he had two troubled lottery picks languishing on his bench. He asked assistant Bernie Bickerstaff to tutor Tyrus Thomas and assistant Del Harris to take Noah. "You would hear that he wasn't focused on the program," Harris says, "that he ran up and down the court without purpose." Harris disagreed. A former Lakers head coach, he saw a rare dervish who blended Kobe Bryant's sense of purpose with Shaquille O'Neal's sense of fun.
On Jan. 15, the Bulls were still five games under .500, with the Cavaliers coming to town. "We had already lost to them three times," says Bob Ociepka, another former Bulls assistant, now with the Blazers. "We had used Jo off the ball and helping. We said, 'Let's switch all these pick-and-rolls with LeBron and stick Jo on him.' He was a different guy after that." The Bulls beat the Cavs and changed the way they defended pick-and-rolls for the rest of the season.
The Bulls made the 2009 playoffs, and in their epic seven-game series against the Celtics, Noah chased Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen off screens, then scrambled back to body up Kendrick Perkins and Garnett. He averaged 10.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and provided the video clip that signifies his turnaround: the steal, breakaway and dunk (plus a free throw) over Paul Pierce to clinch Game 6 in triple overtime. But after the Bulls lost Game 7, Noah remembered only what went wrong. "Perkins bullied me," he says. "He pushed me around pretty bad, and I didn't like that feeling." Perris viewed it another way. "If this is what we could accomplish without really doing anything," he said, "then let's see what happens if we get to work."
When the series ended, Noah and Perris cleared out the basement of the house and turned it into a weight room with 10 stations. They kept the exposed pipes and dry wall to remind Noah of the boxing gyms where his father used to train in Paris. They tacked up photos of family members, teammates, opponents—anyone who might keep Noah as motivated to lift as he is to play. They even hung a letter from a boy named Tyler, who wrote, "You rock. I like when you dunked on the guy. That is awesome win [sic] you dunked on him." Noah can't read it without shouting.
On Nov. 9, 2009, less than two weeks into the regular season and only two days after Noah dropped 21 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks on the Bobcats, Rick Morrissey came to the Bulls' practice facility, dipped his column in salsa and, with Noah jumping around and cheering him on, chewed and swallowed.
Carmelo Anthony scored 28.2 points per game last season. Noah scored 10.7. But there is a reason the Bulls would not include Noah in any deal for Anthony this summer. It has to do with rebounds and blocks, of course, but also with the way Noah gets his fingernails into passing lanes and literally pushes teammates to close out on shots and hops around the key hollering as if a burglar were about to break in. "He never, ever stops talking," says point guard Derrick Rose, and the Bulls are not the only ones who can hear him. Late last season, when Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau was interviewing for coaching vacancies, Scalabrine told him, "You know why you have to take the Chicago job? Joakim Noah." Thibodeau's defense demands a big man athletic enough to smother point guards on the pick-and-roll and vocal enough to call out reads and coverages from the baseline. All coaches emphasize communication, but Thibodeau will stop practice if he doesn't hear chatter. After Thibodeau joined the Bulls, Noah warned him that he was not a quick learner, so in August they worked one-on-one almost every day. With Noah still getting acclimated and power forward Carlos Boozer out until December because of a broken right hand, the Bulls could start slowly. "But mark my words," Scalabrine says, "Joakim is going to eventually be the four man in this system, and it's going to be sick."
On Thibodeau's staff is Ron Adams, who returned to Chicago after two seasons in Oklahoma City eager to reunite with Noah. When Noah was a rookie, Adams told him he would have to develop an outside shot to make big money in the NBA, but Adams admits that Noah proved him wrong. Energy is a commodity, just like leaping ability, and perhaps more precious. Noah signed a five-year, $60 million contract before this season, and after the press conference he went right to Adams and started hoisting more shots. Noah's sidespin remains, and he still positions both hands on the outer third of the ball, but Adams has developed an affection for the shot he calls the Tornado. He bets that Noah will shoot 50% on midrange jumpers this season.
"He is so much more focused than he was," Adams says. "He has really grown up a lot." In addition to the live-in trainer, Noah has an assistant, a massage therapist and a typed calendar that hangs from a wall in his kitchen, near the HIPPIE POWER sticker. The calendar is quite a departure from his childhood, when he was allowed to draw on his bedroom walls. "I'm learning about routine," Noah says, as if he's never used the word and is not sure he likes it.
Noah's multicultural background was well-chronicled in college. In addition to his famous father, who is French and Cameroonian, his mother is Cecilia Rodhe, a New York artist who was the 1978 Miss Sweden and has family living in the jungles of Hawaii. Noah decorates his home with Native American paintings, Cecilia's sculptures and mosaics by her mentor, Nell Louzir, whose abstract depictions of energy he inspired. By the front door Noah keeps a suit of armor "to protect me," and in the living room he has a Buddha statue wearing a net from Florida's second national title. "They think they have the real one down there," Noah says with a mischievous smile. He is starting a foundation with his mother called Noah's Arc, in which children are invited to workshops where they can play basketball with him and shape clay with her. "The physical discipline of sports combined with the emotion of art," Cecilia says. "It's what Joakim is made from."
Cecilia taught her son that it was O.K. to be different, as long as he was himself, but that approach is not always appreciated in American sports. Noah became a convenient target at Florida, whether it was for his wild celebrations, his political opinions or simply his long hair. He has been just as polarizing in the NBA, where last season he scolded James for dancing during a blowout, called Garnett a dirty player and said that "Cleveland sucks" because the city has "nothing going on." "I flip out a lot," Noah says. "I'll flip out at referees or get distracted by fans or get caught up talking trash. I know energy is my game, but it's about channeling it in the right places."
In the off-season Noah read the book Sacred Hoops, by fellow free-spirit Phil Jackson. Then he watched a replay of Game 7 of the NBA Finals and kept his eyes fixed on Ron Artest. "You have to look at his face in that game, his demeanor," Noah says. "There were a couple of times early on when he went to the basket and clearly got fouled and it wasn't called. He didn't even look at the ref. This is Ron Artest, and he didn't look at the ref. He was so caught up in the game and so focused on winning. I believe Phil Jackson took that man to the next level that night. And then after the game, Ron Artest became Ron Artest again."