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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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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.”

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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.

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