The Noble One Speaks
The two sides of Joakim Noah: the pedigreed Frenchman and the scrappy Bulls rookie
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In 2007, the Bulls plucked him from Florida with the ninth pick in the NBA draft, an event that he attended resplendent in a seersucker suit, clip-on bow tie, and hair so untamed that a small animal might have burrowed within—that joie de vivre on full display and ready for passage to Chicago. "That suit was funky," he says. "When I came out of the shower and put it on, I was like, 'I'm going to kill it tonight!'"
On the basketball court, his game veers more toward New York City grit than Parisian elegance. The standard commentary accompanying a Noah highlight goes like this—from Comcast SportsNet Chicago studio analyst (and former Bull) Kendall Gill: "He does all the intangible things that you want a player who isn't very skilled offensively to do." Noah is best in a scrum—when a gaggle of airborne giants flail for possession of the ball. Appropriately, his first professional basket originated in such a throng. Entangled with a Denver Nugget defender, Noah leaped for a missed shot, tipping it first with his right hand and then with his left, the ball rolling along the side of the rim before gently touching the backboard with enough force to propel it into the basket. About this, he says, "I played pretty well that game, but we got smashed. I'd rather play three minutes and win the game."
And although new to Chicago, the Bulls, and the hazing in professional basketball (veteran teammates dispatch Noah and other fresh arrivals to fetch doughnuts from inconvenient locations and expect them to remain silent), Noah's personality bubbles forth undaunted. At the team's Fan Appreciation Scrimmage in October, his pitch-perfect karaoke version of "Sweet Home Chicago" (another blithe bit of rookie hazing) scored rollicking applause from the thousands in attendance for its puckish winking, bobbing, swaying, and bursting showmanship. It was Noah gleefully unrestrained, ready for citywide embrace.
The fact that it was displayed via JumboTron made it bigger still.
Besides, I ask, how exactly does a rookie earn respect?
The French photographers stir. Click, click, click. Noah responds immediately: "Be who you are, and I think people will respect that."
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp