Joakim Noah’s Turnaround

NOAH’S ARC: From a shoot-from-the-lip goofball who floundered on court and aggravated his teammates to a fiery star anchoring the Bulls and drawing covetous looks from another team, Joakim Noah has accomplished one of the most dramatic turnarounds in pro sports

Noah: “It’s my journey, and I’m not going to let what someone else says dictate what I’m supposed to do with my life.”   Photo: BRIAN KUHLMANN; PHOTO ASSISTANT: COLIN BECKETT WARDROBE STYLIST: AMY LAUHOFF O’BRIEN HAIR AND MAKEUP: RACHAEL PERRIN INTERNS: MARY FIX, NATHANAEL FILBERT

There was little suspense that night when David Stern, the diminutive commissioner of the NBA, strode out of a stage-left doorway, glanced down at an oversize index card, and stepped up to a lectern to announce the Chicago Bulls’ first-round pick in the 2007 draft. Up to that point, the selections had unfolded the way many had anticipated—the Portland Trail Blazers grabbing center Greg Oden from Ohio State; the Seattle SuperSonics snapping up Texas forward Kevin Durant.

The Bulls could have gone several ways with the team’s pick, but Stern—standing before a hooting crowd of backward-capped fist-pumpers in Madison Square Garden—confirmed what many had guessed: “The Chicago Bulls draft Joakim Noah, from the University of Florida!”

The seven-foot-tall Noah buried his head in his hands for a moment, then unfolded himself from his chair and dived into a sea of hugs and high-fives, grinning broadly as he waded to the stage for the requisite grip-and-grin.

With him, Noah carried a shining pedigree. Of French, Swedish, and Cameroonian descent, he’d been the foundation of a two-time national championship team at Florida. He’d been voted the most outstanding player in the 2006 Final Four tournament and made the all-SEC first team—and he is the son of a tennis great, Yannick Noah, as well as the grandson of Zacharie Noah, a professional soccer player from Cameroon whose team won the 1961 Coupe de France.

But Noah also carried baggage. His antics—including dancing a herky-jerky funky chicken after Florida’s 2007 SEC title—bordered on the cringe inducing. His chest-thumping, primal-screaming style on court inspired passions ranging from adulation to ugly, deeply personal con­tempt. (Among the titles of the milder blogs and Facebook pages: “Joakim Noah Is Garbage,” “I Hate Joakim Noah,” and “The Official Joakim Noah Hater Group.”)

Sportswriters, meanwhile, had raised other concerns, namely whether a guy who was so skinny he’d been dubbed Stick Man by his friends—a guy who shot-putted his free throws “like a fourth-grader,” according to one columnist—could really help restore the Bulls to post–Michael Jordan greatness.

His appearance that night not only failed to quell the concerns and perceptions, it inflamed them. Noah’s getup—famous in the thick annals of lottery-night fashion blunders—included a blinding cream-colored seersucker suit with seventies-vintage peaked lapels trimmed in tan satin piping. His hair, stuffed under a Bulls cap, sprang from either side of his head like the boughs of a parking lot Christmas tree recently liberated from twine. There were many pictures taken that night, but one in particular would come to haunt the Bulls and Noah. In it, he leans slightly to his right, his long fingers stretched in a peace sign, his mouth a cheek-straining grimace-grin that suggests a character instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with The Simpsons: Krusty the Clown.

“With that slick seersucker look, a handshake for the commish!” the ESPN commentator Mike Tirico ventured gamely as Noah gave Stern’s hand a pump (see video below). But for Bulls fans watching at home, hoping for a return to the glory years, the sight was ominous. Who was this goofball, and what had the team gotten itself into?

Three years later, under the high sun of a late-August afternoon, there were no hooting crowds, no spotlights, no breathless ESPN commentators amid the undulating green hills of the White Pines Golf Club in Bensenville. Just the clatter of clubs, the whir of golf carts, the occasional cheer or jeer interrupting at intervals the arboreal stillness.

The Bulls’ annual charity golf outing is a worthy, if predictable, affair, a day for duffers with the $250 entry fee to rub shoulders with Bulls players and personalities: Scottie Pippen, John Paxson, and the like. Noah doesn’t play golf, but he agreed to come, and from the moment he stepped onto the course, the extent to which things have remained the same—and the degree to which they’ve changed—was as striking as the height advantage he held over those around him.

The fashion sensibility persevered. Noah, who lives in the north suburbs, arrived wearing a fire-red Mets cap. Perched backward on his mop of hair, it resembled an expanding foil of fresh-off-the-stovetop Jiffy Pop. His plaid pajama cutoffs expired midcalf over white argyle socks.

But unlike on draft night, the vibe thrown off by the giddy golfers who flocked to him wasn’t “Who is this bozo?” Instead, they seemed to delight in both Noah’s look and his presence. They invited him to take a swing, asked him to pose for pictures, thrust caps and scorecards at him to autograph—in short, lavished on him that special adulation Chicago reserves for its favorite sports sons.

Noah, in turn, flashed the charisma, the charm, the combination of innocence and goofy likability that was in little evidence in his first difficult year and a half with the Bulls. When asked to take a swing, for example, he hunched over a too-short club, butt in the air, soaking in the laughs and cheers when he took a wild hack and missed.

For someone who was being ridiculed as a flop, a fool, and a head case just two years ago, it has been quite a turnaround. “Noah’s rookie year was a humbling season, not just for Joakim, but everyone associated with the Bulls,” recalls K. C. Johnson, who covers the team for the Chicago Tribune. Noah wasn’t just a disappointment. “There was a ton of talk about him being a bust.”

The list of particulars against Noah included problems such as poor play, showing up late to practices, and alienating his own teammates. His off-the-court troubles included a May 2008 arrest for marijuana possession. “He was crashing and burning on a large scale,” says Johnson.

It started that first night in New York. “When they picked him and how he showed up looking like he did, I thought, This is a joke,” recalls the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey. “He looked like a big goof.” Beyond that, Morrissey says, “I thought he was soft, I thought he shoots like a little kid. My impression was that all this passion everyone talked about was a lot of energy signifying nothing.” Morrissey and many others thought the Bulls had made a horrible mistake.

Today? “I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong on something as a columnist, and that’s probably saying a lot,” says Morrissey. “Derrick Rose is the best player on that team, but Noah is the heart and soul.”

Johnson agrees. “As a beat writer, I’m supposed to be objective,” he says. “But he’s exactly now what we were told he was going to be, and it really is a joy to be around the guy. He keeps my job a lot of fun.”

Any remaining doubt about Noah’s value to the team—and to other NBA franchises—vanished in late August when rumors surfaced that the Denver Nuggets were trying to pry Noah away in exchange for the best player on their team and one of the best in the league: perennial all-star Carmelo Anthony. Two years ago, such an offer would have seemed unthinkably lopsided in the Bulls’ favor. In late September, with a few exceptions, both national and local pundits were saying that letting Noah go would be a blunder. (At presstime, Bulls management had not commented.)

From hindsight’s vantage, the ascendancy seems fated. How could a player with such obvious physical gifts, such a passion for the game, so much charisma, and so much success in college, turn out to be a total dud?

Fresh off an early-September workout at the Bulls’ practice facility in Deerfield, his seven-foot frame overmatching a folding chair courtside, Noah, 25, admits things didn’t go well early on. “There were doubts,” he says. “Of course. We were losing all these games at the beginning [of the rookie year]. Our coach got fired. I was only playing, like, five minutes a game. I was saying things as a rookie that maybe I shouldn’t have said. It was intense.”

In person, Noah is funny, charming, vulnerable, sincere, thoughtful, and silly. He knows people make fun of him and seems happy to laugh along, even at the draft-night photo fiasco. “I remember a couple of minutes before they called my name my agent telling me, ‘The Bulls said don’t do anything stupid when you go up there,’” he recalls, snickering. “And then there’s that picture with the peace sign, the hair was all out. . . . That was the first perception that the people of Chicago got. I know they were like, ‘Who is this clown?’ I understand.”

Even so, coming from a college campus where he was almost deified, he worried about the disdain heaped on him. “But then I always remember something Michael Jordan said,” explains Noah. “If you can deal with the good times, you have to be able to deal with the bad as well.”

* * *

 

Growing up the son of celebrity parents, Noah didn’t experience a lot of bad—at least not early on. Though he was born in New York City, his parents moved to Paris when he was three, a year before their divorce. His father, Yannick Noah, rose to international stardom in 1983 after becoming the first Frenchman to win the French Open in 37 years (two years before Joakim was born). He’s now reaping huge success as a pop singer. Joakim’s mother, Cecilia Rodhe, won the Miss Sweden title in 1978 before becoming a model (and later a successful sculptor and therapist).

Joakim enjoyed a life of privilege, but his famous lineage brought challenges. Expectations that he would follow in his father’s tennis footsteps pressed on him, as did the petty jealousies and fawning treatment that come with being the son of celebrity royalty.

“Everybody’s a product of their environment,” he says, “and where I come from is a little bit different—just because of who my father was and who my mother was. Living in France, I was very quickly judged—even at a young age.” Noah felt the pressures, he recalls, the first time he tried tennis. “I was six or seven years old, and the first reaction was, ‘You know, that’s the son of Yannick Noah.’ I just felt all these expectations, and I didn’t like the reaction from people. I didn’t feel comfortable playing the game because of that, just because I’m somebody’s son.”

His father understood. By telephone from Paris, Yannick Noah recalls his son’s reaction after that first outing on the tennis court. “He said, ‘Dad, this is the last time I’m coming here. I hate these people. I want to be with real people.’ I thought it was the smartest thing he could have done. I said, ‘Fair enough.’ The next day, we took him to the basketball club in the suburbs here. He loved it immediately.”

Though Noah’s father didn’t push tennis, he did push his son. “We were both competitors,” Yannick recalls. “When we played basketball, I would push him and box him and beat him. He used to cry every time. I knew that one day he would be able to destroy me, but I wanted to push as long as I could, whether we were going for a jog, playing basketball, or going to a gym.”

Joakim says he cherished every moment. “Just being around him, I was able to learn a strong work ethic, because he was somebody who took training very seriously. He never took it easy on me, he was always really physical. It taught me how to compete.”

The games also gave him precious time with a father often absent. “My parents divorced [when I was young], so I didn’t really get a chance to spend a lot of time with him,” Joakim says. “I remember my father playing tennis tournaments and wanting him to lose because I just wanted to spend time with him.”

Still, as Joakim stood on the cusp of adolescence—and as basketball evolved from a childhood recreation into a consuming passion—he jumped at the chance to move with his mother and younger sister to New York City. “It was hard at first because I was leaving most of my family behind,” he says. “But basketball was my dream, so I was all for it.”

His father gave his blessing. “It was a great decision. It was when he became his own person,” says Yannick. “He left a nice, comfortable life, a nice, comfortable apartment, to go to the street and live with real kids.”

Joakim agrees. “I think it gave me my own identity. People no longer wanted to be around me just because of who my father was. I was me for the first time in my life.”

After settling Joakim and his younger sister, Yelena, in an apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan, Cecilia Rodhe set about finding a place where her son could play basketball. “I found Tyrone in the Yellow Pages,” she says.

Tyrone is Tyrone Green, a neighborhood force in Astoria, Queens, who at the time was director of a Police Athletic Center—a job he handled between probation work and gang and drug prevention. “This lady calls and says, ‘My son wants to play basketball,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Bring him down.’ I didn’t know who he was—it didn’t dawn on me that he was Yannick Noah’s son until three months later.”

The trip was a leap of faith for a mother unfamiliar with the rough-and-tumble world of New York street ball. “It was kind of scary when we went to see Tyrone—railway tracks, it was in the winter. It was a little bit spooky,” she says.

Noah was apprehensive, too, but he knew he was in the right place. “I was a little kid from France hanging out in the boozheeist [most bourgeois] neighborhood in the world, and after two weeks of living in New York, I was able to be around the best players in the city.”

Green, who had worked with future NBA players such as Ron Artest and Lenny Cooke, became a mentor, counselor, coach, and big brother. “Tyrone opened up everything for me,” says Noah. “He treated me like the son he never had.”

* * *

Among the eye-opening experiences for Noah were trips to the pregentrified Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, one of New York’s toughest neighborhoods. Green remembers Noah being at once naive and earnest. “He would say, ‘Mr. Green, why is this guy homeless?’” Green recalls. “He promised if he ever made it in the NBA, he would come back and help, and he has.” (Noah has given both time and money to Green’s community, including an August visit to the Variety Boys and Girls Club. Working with his mother, he created the Noah’s Arc Foundation, whose mission is “to empower youth through sports and arts.”)

When Noah’s mother visited family in Europe, the teenager stayed with Green and his wife. At first, all Green saw was raw potential—a six-foot, baby-faced, coltish kid who was so skinny (Noah guesses he weighed about 140 pounds at the time) that Green began calling him Stick Man.

In time, however, Green saw flashes of the commitment and toughness Noah had developed in those pickup games against his father. “Of all the kids I had, Jo was the hardest worker,” Green says. “I remember we used to go to that gym at four o’clock in the afternoon and wouldn’t leave until midnight. It was a crazy thing.”

Playing for United Nations International School in New York and later Brooklyn Poly Prep, Noah blossomed on the court. Off it, he struggled. “I put my mom through a lot, being a single mom, having two kids growing up in New York City,” he says. He hung out with older kids, cut class. He was left back his sophomore year—an embarrassment, but one that proved a blessing. “I wasn’t happy, but it changed everything,” he says. “If I wouldn’t have been left back, I probably never would have gone to Florida. I wasn’t strong enough. I was a late bloomer growing up.”

Despite Noah’s steady progress, Green would not start his young project on any of his teams. Neither would he let him play in the annual Adidas ABCD Camp, an invitation-only four-day basketball fest that attracts some of the best high-school players in the country. While players such as LeBron James and Carlos Boozer (Noah’s new Bulls teammate) made names for themselves on a national stage, Noah was relegated to ball boy. “My wife, Cookie, loved Jo, and she would always say, ‘Why don’t you let him play?’” Green recalls. “I told her, ‘I’m not going to put him in and let him embarrass himself and embarrass me.’”

Noah used the disappointment as motivation: “It made me work so hard,” he says. “All I wanted to do was be at camp.”

He later transferred to the elite Lawrenceville School near Princeton, New Jersey, and in his senior year he led the Big Red to a state title. Finally, Green relented.

Noah recalls the initial response at ABCD: “They’re going to let the ball boy play?” But after a couple of strong games, perceptions changed. Suddenly coaches such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Florida’s Billy Donovan were watching him. “I just felt like, as the games went on, I just had so much confidence,” Noah says. “I thought, Man, I’m playing against Dwight Howard and playing against all these guys. Everything was going my way.”

Green couldn’t have been prouder. “Jo was the number one player in camp that year.”

When he entered camp, Noah had a single scholarship offer—from tiny Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Afterward, he had more than 300. “I kicked some serious ass,” he says.

* * *

 

He chose Florida, but played sparingly his freshman year, mostly because he was backing up a far more accomplished player, David Lee (who would go on to play for the Knicks and Warriors). But he takes part of the blame as well. “I got [mononucleosis] my first year. That was probably from partying too much. But who doesn’t party their freshman year in college?”

In a pattern that would become a theme in his basketball life, Noah used early disappointment as a motivator. He returned for his sophomore season a vastly improved player. His rise paralleled the team’s: Unranked when the 2005–6 season began, the Gators reeled off 17 straight wins, finishing 24–6 and winning the SEC championship. Then, during that season’s NCAA tournament, Noah exploded into national prominence. He dominated, chest-beating and lion-roaring his team to the championship—the first in the history of Florida men’s basketball.

Noah was named most outstanding player. He also became a marked man. Torrents of verbal abuse rained down on him. “You name it, he heard it,” recalls Franz Beard, who covered Noah throughout his Florida career for Gator Country.com. “It started in a game against Tennessee. There were 20,000 screaming people there, and everybody was getting on Florida. Jo was trying to get his team going, and the more he got fired up and pumped up, the more the crowd got on him.”

Eventually, the Noah hate fest became a phenomenon. It began with the hair, says Beard. “It almost became a hate symbol. Jo’s hair is a living, breathing animal, and it’s like people would see it, and they would see the guy pumping his fists and pounding his chest, and he’s screaming up at the sky every time something really good happened, and they just couldn’t stand it.”

What Noah’s detractors didn’t understand, says Beard, was how much Noah fed off the boos and heckles. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive energy or negative energy, he will make it flow in a direction that helps him.”

On Florida’s home court, the vibe was exactly the opposite. “It was a love affair,” Beard says. “You hate to use the word ‘magical,’ but that’s what it was with him.”

Noah’s life off the court wasn’t quite as transcendent. Florida’s coach, Billy Donovan, once suspended Noah for the beginning of a preseason game when he failed to show up for classes. In 2006, Noah caused a minor stir after a visit to the White House, walking out with his shirt untucked. (Deeply opposed to the war in Iraq, he said he was staging a personal protest.)

After the first NCAA championship, Noah announced that he would return for his junior year—confounding many who followed basketball. “People were like, ‘You could be the number one pick. What are you doing?’” he recalls.

Noah’s Florida teammate Al Horford wasn’t surprised. “To me, it shows the kind of person and player that he is,” says Horford, who also returned for his junior year (he is now a star with the Atlanta Hawks). “He was worried about winning and doing something special. He wasn’t caught up in the money.”

“This is what Joakim is about,” agrees Yannick Noah. “He could have had millions right away, but he called me and told me, ‘I promised the guys I was going to come back.’ I was so proud of him.”

Florida won the NCAA championship again in 2007. “I’m really happy I stayed,” Noah says. “My father was able to provide for me. . . . It’s my journey, and I’m not going to let what somebody else says dictate what I’m supposed to do with my life. I didn’t feel like I was ready to go to the NBA, so I didn’t go.”

* * *

Not everyone scoffed when Noah took his seersucker-and-bow-tie show to the Madison Square Garden stage that infamous night in 2007. “I was actually one of the people who thought it was incredibly hilarious,” says the Tribune’s K. C. Johnson. “It was excitement, exuberance, and individualism wrapped up into one tidy bow tie. I thought it was a great pick.”

The Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, John Paxson, also felt confident that the team had picked well. “What we saw was a kid who was changing ends of the floor like crazy, but not as skilled as he would become,” Paxson says. Still, picking players is an inexact science, and Paxson knew a lot would rest on his new player’s heart. “Even when you watch these guys in college, there’s an unknown of what they’re going to be,” Paxson says.

Then came Noah’s rookie year. Big things were predicted for the Bulls that 2007–8 season. But after the team started 2–8 and had climbed to only a 9–16 record by late December, Paxson fired the coach, Scott Skiles.

Noah did not distinguish himself. Having missed the first three games with a sprained ankle, he scored two points and collected four rebounds in his debut. He played sparingly in the weeks that followed, averaging about four points and three rebounds in 12 or so minutes a game. “It was bad, it was really bad,” he recalls. “It was a really, really tough time because I know I’m at my happiest when I’m playing good basketball and we’re winning, and we weren’t doing that.”

His discomfort showed. “Noah hasn’t been the gregarious, happy-go-lucky flake he was advertised as being,” the Tribune columnist Sam Smith wrote at the time. “He can be difficult to deal with, at times remote and deliberately offering cliché answers to reporters. . . . He has been more standoffish than welcoming.”

Mix in his poor play, his late arrival at several practices, and a few ill-advised criticisms of his team’s performance, and the narrative cement was fast hardening on Noah’s reputation: immature, irresponsible, me-first.

The low point—and the turning point, Noah says—came in January 2008 when the interim coach, Jim Boylan, suspended him for a game for going on a profanity-laced tirade against an assistant coach, Ron Adams, during a practice. Sitting a player for one game because of a practice outburst was hardly news. But Noah’s teammates, led by Ben Wallace and Adrian Griffin, voted to extend the suspension by a second game. “Across the board, people’s jaws just hit the floor,” says Johnson.

Sports columnists lick their chops for moments like that: a cocky rookie player getting his comeuppance. And, indeed, some pundits pounced. “There is a thin line between a free spirit and a jackass,” the Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi wrote. “Joakim Noah has crossed that line quicker than any college superstar in history.”

But Noah’s response—contrite, sincere, filled with genuine hurt—blunted much potential criticism. “I’ll never forget interviewing Joakim in Atlanta that day,” recalls Johnson. “There were these long pauses between questions from me and the Sun-Times beat guy. It was just that wonderful mix between innocence and wounded pride.”

“It did kind of hurt my feelings,” Noah admits now. “Because I felt like, as a team, you should always be behind each other. Regardless of how bad it is, [you] should always have your teammate’s back.”

But he is grateful that the incident made him take a hard look at himself. “With Joakim, things started turning quickly because he did have a little bit of an air of—I guess the right word is ‘arrogance’—to him, just another high-profile college player who thought he had the NBA figured out,” says Johnson. “But he toned down his personality the year after that. You’ve got to give him credit for saying, ‘It’s me. I’ve got to change.’”

Noah acknowledges as much. “I think my ego was a little bit out of control,” he says. “Just coming from where I had won, where I was very vocal and a leader. It was humbling. But do I regret it? No. Everything that’s happened to me in my life so far is all a learning experience, good and bad. It’s going to make me a better man in the long run.”

* * *

Fans know the rest of the story. Noah continued to struggle through his rookie year and, due to injuries that summer, the first part of his second year. But from the midpoint of his sophomore season until the 2009 playoffs, he showed steady improvement.

Then came the first-round series with the Boston Celtics. It was an epic battle: “Seven games, seven overtime periods. Just one blowout. There were stitches, bloody towels, pain-killing injections, shoves, flagrants, technicals. More ice was used in this series than at a 3-for-1 Happy Hour,” wrote ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski.

With each game, Noah proved his worth to the team. But it wasn’t until the final minute of the third overtime of Game 6 that he truly arrived as a star. With 40 seconds to go and the score tied at 123, Noah lunged in front of the Celtics star Paul Pierce and poked the ball away, shouldering past him and charging down the court. Typically in the NBA, big men in that situation pause, wait for players to clear, then drop the ball into the hands of a guard better suited to run. In this case, with the United Center crowd rising to its feet, Noah thundered past Pierce, took three giant strides, and, lifting the ball high overhead, tomahawked the game-winning basket home.

The crowd exploded. Noah, screaming at the rafters, bumped chests with Bulls guard John Salmons, then stalked the court. “I think the building almost fell in,” recalls Yannick Noah, who had flown in to watch his son. “I screamed so hard. No one could talk to me. It was crazy.”

To this day, Johnson marvels at the dunk: “One of my favorite plays in Bulls history.”

Noah lights up when asked to describe the experience. “It happened so fast,” he says. “You’re just so caught up in the moment. Your heart is racing, like, ten million miles per hour, and you’re like, Should I be doing this? I’m a big guy, should I be dribbling like this? After that series, I remember going into a pancake spot around here, and the whole place got up and started clapping and cheering for me.”

Though hampered by a foot injury throughout much of last season, Noah established himself as one of the top centers in the league, averaging double figures in both points and rebounds and leading the Bulls back to the playoffs, this time against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Bulls’ run was short lived, but Noah endeared himself further to the team’s fans by tweaking Cleveland fans. “I don’t know about Cleveland, man, there is nothing going on,” he said, holed up in a Cleveland hotel room between games. Asked if his disdain for the city would motivate him, he answered, “What, that Cleveland sucks?” For the rest of the series, Cleveland fans let him know what they thought of him.

On the surface, the comments seem yet another confirmation that Noah is a shoot-from-the-lip jerk. But that misses the secret of Noah, says Johnson. Noah made himself a villain, yes—just as he had done at Florida. “But he did it because he thought it was helping,” Johnson explains. “He was starting to do stuff on purpose to goad Cleveland and goad players because he knew it was helping the Bulls. I’ve talked to him about it, and he was saying, ‘You know what? I can handle this. I thrive in this role. So I’m going to keep doing stuff like that.’”

* * *

This past summer, most of the off-season hoopla went to LeBron James and his decision to join two other all-stars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, on the Miami Heat. Though the Bulls unsuccessfully courted James, the team added several promising players, including power forward Carlos Boozer and sharp shooting guard Kyle Korver. With a core including Noah, Derrick Rose, and Luol Deng in place, the Bulls rate fourth in ESPN’s rankings of the Eastern Conference, behind the Heat, the Orlando Magic, and the Boston Celtics.

Both sportswriters and team officials are predicting great things for Noah, who is scheduled to make $3.1 million in the last year of a $10 million rookie contract (his agent, Donald Dell, has been talking to the Bulls about an extension). “He’s had a great summer, just getting bigger and stronger,” says Paxson. “Offensively, I think you’ll see more from him around the basket. I think he’s a better post player than maybe he’s showed his first three years.” Adds Johnson: “If he stays healthy, I think he will be an all-star this year.”

Meanwhile, along with Derrick Rose, Noah has become the face of the franchise. He and Rose were among the all-star players and basketball legends President Obama chose to play with for his 49th birthday in early August. Billboards around the city show Noah in midscream.

When talk of a trade for Carmelo Anthony perked up, the blogosphere immediately erupted with impassioned pleas from fans for the Bulls not to make the deal. (Not everyone was against it. The Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom wrote in late September: “Whatever the truth [of the rumor], here’s the deal: If the Bulls won’t trade Noah to get Anthony, someone needs to be fired. . . . The team that gets the best player wins the trade. Anthony’s the best player. Ballgame.”)

“It’s part of the business,” Noah told reporters in September after a charity event. “My goal is to stay in Chicago, and I think we can do something really special here, and I hope I can be a part of it.”

As at Florida, Noah has accepted his role as hometown favorite and out-of-town foil—the love-him, hate-him lightning rod that lights up the Internet and electrifies both fans and foes. “It’s always been like that,” he says. “Ever since I was a little kid. It’s always been so funny to me, though. I don’t understand how people can be so mad at somebody, can hate somebody because of the way they play a game or the way they talk. I’ve never been affected by someone that way.

“But what am I going to do? Change because of the way people perceive me? I rub some people the wrong way, but then some people really like me. I guess that’s just who I am.”

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