The Noble One Speaks

The two sides of Joakim Noah: the pedigreed Frenchman and the scrappy Bulls rookie

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Bulls rookie Joakim Noah sits Indian style in the basement of his cavernous Deerfield manse. And even this must be documented! The French media find highly sedentary moments such as this one (i.e., our conversation—me on a chair, Noah on his basement floor) photoworthy. Cameras madly snap throughout; video rolls. A sample exchange: “What are the virtues of wearing the number [click, click] 13?” I ask.

“Number 13 has [click] always been my number,” Noah responds. “I wear it for this lady who is kind of like [click] my other mother. In New York, she took care of me during [click] the summertime when I was living with this guy called [click, click, click] Tyrone Green. She’s a [click] great lady. That was her [click, click, click] number.”

By birthright, Noah, 23, is French cultural nobility, the son of Yannick Noah, international pop star and former tennis god—the lone countryman since 1946 to win the French Open. In part to free him from the burden of his bloodlines, Joakim’s mother, a former Miss Sweden, moved him from Paris to New York City at age 13; he learned American basketball in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem, where his slight build inspired the nickname “Sticks” and his pedigree “The Noble One.”

The coterie of French print and television journalists has been beckoned to Deerfield by Le Coq Sportif (translation—"the sporting rooster"), the French sportswear company with which Noah recently signed a six-year endorsement deal. He pushes product smoothly and sartorially, clad in the company’s basketball shoes, their laces loosely threaded and Velcro straps undone. The media camp out in his house, which is furnished mostly with oversize (even considering his 6-foot 11-inch frame) beanbag chairs and enormous Samsung televisions—one set with an alert for college basketball, a sport whose ethos he infectiously embodied at the University of Florida as recently as last March.

His three years in Gainesville brimmed with joie de vivre (or, in American sportswriter parlance, “flamboyance,” “charisma,” and “brashness"), complete with dizzying victory dances, vitriolic crowd taunts (“You’re ugly!” the preferred—and unfair—insult), exquisite team basketball, and much on-court triumph. “I like winning more than anything else,” he says. “That joy of winning is something that I’ll always cherish.” To prove it, he eschewed pro offers and returned to Gainesville for his junior year—and a second consecutive NCAA basketball championship—despite significant financial risk (millions of dollars lost thanks to a slightly deflated statistical season that weakened his draft position).

 

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp

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