by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker
A few years ago, I spent a summer afternoon with Joakim Noah at his father’s apartment in New York City. Joakim had the day off, and since his father was away, Joakim had slept in. I arrived, and he eventually woke up, picked through some sushi that was in the fridge, then sat and had a frank and interesting conversation with me for SLAMonline. Then he got dressed and went out for the afternoon to enjoy New York City.
The interesting thing here is that because Joakim Noah is Joakim Noah, everything was on a different level than if he had been just a regular New York citizen. His father is a legendary tennis player turned Grammy-winning singer, his grandfather a professional Cameroonian soccer player, his grandmother a former French national basketball team captain, his mother a Swedish supermodel turned sculptor. So the apartment, for instance, was an airy loft on Central Park South, with huge windows that exposed huge green expanses of Central Park. Because his father, Yannick Noah, is one of the greatest tennis players of all time, the apartment featured photos of his dad hanging out with people like Nelson Mandela. And because he is Joakim Noah, someone who has lived openly and honestly on an international stage for most of his life, when I interviewed him, he spoke freely and thoughtfully answered every question I threw at him.
Noah mostly grew up a few blocks—and a world—away from his dad’s place, with his mom over in Hell’s Kitchen. He saw the world, spending time in Europe, but New York was home; he even shouted out Hell’s Kitchen—“Hell’s Kitchen, stand up!”—after winning one of two National Championships at the University of Florida. Noah was drafted 9th overall by the Bulls in ’07, after bigs like Greg Oden, Brandan Wright and Yi Jianlian. After a few seasons of spinning their wheels, Derrick Rose and then Tom Thibodeau joined Jo in Chicago, and the Bulls have been near world-beaters since.
At press time, 64 games into this lockout-shortened season, the Chicago Bulls were sitting at an exemplary 48-16, the best record in the NBA. Since bringing in Thibs as coach two summers back, the Bulls have found their definition with defense. Thibs ran the defense for the title-winning team in Boston back in ’08, and he’s replicated the same help principles and laser focus on defending in Chicago. At press time, this season the Bulls were first in the NBA at points allowed per game, at 88.4, and second in lowest opponent’s field-goal percentage at 42.3.
Noah, all arms and angles, is emblematic of the Bulls’ shared acceptance of Thibodeau’s defensive mania. As Dennis Rodman told ESPN: “I love Noah. He runs around with his head cut off sometimes, but I love him. He’s more like me, but a little taller…He plays for the game.” And when Dennis Rodman says you run around like a chicken with your head cut off, you really must be hustling.
There’s something to be said for continuity in sports, particularly during this truncated season. Without the chance to get together and practice or install new wrinkles during the lockout, the best NBA teams this year have been teams that were, at the least, together a season ago—Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Miami, Chicago—who have been able to build on the themes they established in the past. Thibodeau preaches defense until he’s hoarse in the throat, and when it works, it’s terrific. That’s what the Bulls are constantly striving for, some vague perfection where they hedge correctly on a screen-roll and cause the ballhandler to pause long enough to allow the defense to catch up and then force a 24-second violation. As Noah told David Aldridge of NBA.com, “It’s very hard. That’s why winning is so sweet, because it’s hard. And it is repetitive and you’re always tired, and it’s always the next one, move on to the next one…it’s emotional.”
As far as mindset goes, Joakim’s was under review, at least for a while. It didn’t help that he wore a beige seersucker suit to the Draft and let his hair fly under his Draft hat while tossing up a peace sign, and he occasionally pops up on the Web vacationing in impossibly perfect locales. Noah comes armed with a goofiness that plays broad, which he seems to rely on in front of crowds or strangers. Sit him down, and that insouciance is tempered by a worldliness that has obviously informed him.
By now, we’ve accepted that Noah is polarizing and unifying, both of which work to the advantage of the Bulls. He’s not afraid to stand up to the Garnetts and Gasols of the NBA world or call out opponents. This might be annoying to opposing fans, but it connects Noah to Bulls fans, and also gives the Bulls an edge.
As Chicago chases another set of rings, Noah has solidly slipped into that man in the middle role for the Bulls. He’s never been an All-Star. He’s solid around the rim, but has yet to develop that killer mid-range jumper (he’s shooting 24 percent from 10-15 feet this season, and 42 percent from 16-23 feet), which will force defenders to come out on him and open up the floor for him. Still, Noah is on pace to average a double-double (or very close to one) for his third consecutive season. Noah is good enough to fight for boards with and contest shots against the best centers in the L, and when he’s on the floor, the Bulls have their best chance at winning.
Derrick Rose is the best player on the Chicago Bulls, but Joakim Noah is one of the most important. Is he more important than Luol Deng or Carlos Boozer or Rip Hamilton or any other player? No, but that’s because this is the way the Bulls have been structured. Every player is exactly as important and unimportant as any other player. Nobody on the Bulls plays harder, yet several Bulls play just as hard. In that way, Thibs, Noah and the Bulls have carved out this blue-collar identity that has endeared them to their fans and made them nearly invisible to casual fans. Playing impenetrable help defense may not make SportsCenter, but it sure helps the wins stack up.
The Bulls have found success by playing team basketball. Yes, they have an MVP running the point, but instead of a clear-cut No. 2 behind Derrick Rose, there is a collective, a community. In the same way that he is a participatory member of the community of the world, Joakim Noah is an essential member of his team in Chicago. And his team has grabbed the League by the horns.