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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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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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