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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

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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.”

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