There was no bed for the ball boy.
So Joakim Noah slept on the floor. Happily. After all, it was adidas ABCD Camp, the ultimate proving ground for high school ballers. Noah’s youth coach and mentor Tyrone Green worked security at the annual camp, arranging for Noah to attend as a ball boy.
At that time in his life, there wasn’t a soul around forecasting Noah to be a future NBA star. He was small and skinny. His nickname, “Sticks,” was authentic. Green may have been the only one with a vision for Noah. It wasn’t athletic ability that caught Green’s interest. There was something different at play here. Green saw an eagerness to learn and follow instruction, a near methodical repetition. He had been around youth long enough to understand that he was in the presence of a radiant child.
Joakim watched a young Tracy McGrady do work by day and slept on the floor by night. “That was a time when kids were going straight from high school to the NBA if they were good enough,” Noah says. “It was unbelievable and I was able to witness it firsthand.”
“Yo, that shirt is a bit aggressive, isn’t it?”
Joakim is a bit concerned with the black t-shirt I’ve chosen to wear when I visit him in L.A., on set at adidas’ annual summer photo shoot. The shirt has the word DESTROY on the front. “You know I’m a peace and love guy,” Noah proclaims with concern. I turn to show him the other side of the shirt—THE FUTURE—and he nods in approval. “Destroy the Future—dope shirt,” Joakim says.
He enjoys his time on the left coast. Despite never having lived here, Joakim has the Cali laid back vibe on lock. You might catch him strolling the streets of Venice’s Abbot Kinney searching for quality Italian, or posted up amid the chill vibes of Cafe Habana in Malibu. “I’m a hippie, beach kind of guy,” he says proudly.
Joakim’s hair is laced up in his classic bun, and he’s rocking a crispy pair of official Chicago Bulls shorts, the classic panel lining up nicely with the Crazylight Boost on his feet. “There’s nothing like Boost,” he proclaims. Joakim’s partnership with the three stripes commenced last October and now he’s on this massive set, integrating smoothly as one of the new lead faces of adidas Basketball.
“I feel so blessed,” Noah says, beaming. “It’s a privilege to be with one of the biggest brands in the world. To be playing with Derrick Rose, who is one of the faces of the brand, and getting a chance to be a part of that family means the world to me.”
As he relaxes in a director’s chair, Joakim emits a level of consciousness and intelligence that has quite often been his trademark. There really may not be another player in the NBA more comfortable in his own skin.
“You have to be comfortable with who you are and your identity,” Noah says. “I come from a lot of different places, a lot of different cultures. I was born in NYC, but I’m African, I’m Swedish—I lived in France for 10 years. And I’m proud of all those places; they make me who I am. I’m able to relate to a lot of different people and I have a better understanding and appreciation for difference.”
Noah’s game is different, too. He’s a true throwback, hungry for the grind of it all—proud to smudge coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive lectures onto 94 feet of wood canvas. He understands exactly who he is as a player and person. Joakim is coming off his best season as a professional: second straight All-Star appearance, First-Team All-NBA, Defensive Player of the Year. Per-game averages of 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals. A little run of triple doubles and consistent numbers like few in the L can produce.
“I’m happy, but I’m never satisfied,” he explains. “I know what my goal is. I had a chance to win at the high school level, at the college level and there’s only one thing that I want and that’s to win a Championship. I know a lot of players say it, but it’s an obsession for me. I train for that—I don’t train for awards.”
At the NBA press conference announcing Noah’s selection as the DPOY, he stood at the podium in a dark grey button-up shirt, humbly thanking all who made his selection possible. He mentioned how he was most proud of his teammates for fighting through adversity—a reference to the team’s loss of its leader and best player, Rose.
“The year Derrick was hurt the first time we were going into the Playoffs as the No. 1 team in the League and we were ready,” Noah says. “In my mind, it was our time. Our time. We were built from one through 15, we were ready, operation was on point.
“To lose the little homie and see him go down when he was just so dominant…For our leader to be who he was—I feel like he represented everything that I loved about basketball. He was just so raw, so real. He wasn’t about that Hollywood shit. That’s why people gravitated toward him. He was the hometown kid that put his city on his back and I was just so proud to be a part of that. I’m just happy that his time is coming and it’s going to make it that much sweeter when we get it.”
Joakim spent the beginning of his life in Paris—a love affair with basketball was nurtured on French soil. “Mr. Henderson, the gym teacher at the American school I went to, told me that if I came to school an hour early he’d teach me the game a little bit,” Noah recalls of his introduction to hoops. “I came every day. Nobody pushed me to do it—I did it because I loved the game.”
His joy for basketball was uncontrollable at times, leading him to trouble. Early on, he was a sore loser. “I hated to lose,” Joakim admits. “I would throw basketballs, have a bad attitude—I would cry. My father would not say anything. He would just take the basketballs away so I couldn’t play anymore. And that hurt me the most—to not be able to play. My dad didn’t need to kick my ass—he knew that wouldn’t do anything. I would have much rather taken a whipping than had those balls taken away from me.”
Joakim’s passion for the game found a whole new level of understanding and commitment when he moved to New York City with his mother prior to middle school. It was there that he linked with Green. The coach eventually convinced Joakim to pass on spending his summers in France. Joakim would stay with Mr. Green in Bed-Stuy instead, continuing his growth on the summer hard courts of NYC.
“Playing streetball in New York made me who I am,” Noah says. “It gave me that toughness—I don’t know if I would have had it if I didn’t move to New York. In New York basketball, everybody has a handle, everybody wants to cross a person, everybody is talking a lot of shit on the court. I’m proud to come from that. Because people think I’m French—I am French—but I’m not just French. I’m from New York.”
Joakim’s NY state of mind is a natural fit for adidas’ introduction of its coveted Boost technology to basketball. His reverence for Boost performance is genuine—he’s stoked about wearing the Crazylight Boost next season.
“I’m all about comfort in everything I wear—comfort over everything,” Noah says. “The Boost basketball shoe is a guard shoe—I feel like I’m a guard when I’m out there. For adidas to say, you’re a big man and we’re going to put you in a guard shoe, that’s me, that’s who I am. And it makes sense. When I’m playing, this is what I feel comfortable in. To be with such a big company and for them to let me be me, I appreciate that.”
Robbie Fuller, Design Director for Advanced Concepts at adidas, says Noah brings a universally respected style of play to the brand. “As we’re trying to bring quickness, fast and energy to the kids, he’s the perfect example of energy basketball,” Fuller says. “Any ball near the edge of the court, he’s diving to go get it. That makes the crowd happy and I think that makes high school coaches everywhere happy. They can point to him and say, Go give that extra effort and good things will happen.”
The growth spurt came during his junior year of high school. Mr. Green parlayed Noah’s extra inches into an official entry at the ABCD Camp. Joakim didn’t have any scholarship offers at the time. “The schools that were recruiting me were schools like Marist,” Noah remembers. “No disrespect to Marist, but those were the kind of schools recruiting me then—with no scholarship offers.”
Joakim changed the landscape by balling out at ABCD. Florida coach Billy Donovan noticed. “That’s how I got my ride,” Noah says. “Coach Donavan is smaller than me, but we have the same fight—the same dog, the same mentality when we play.”
Mr. Green passed away in April at the age of 63; the loss is still fresh and painful for Joakim. “It’s still difficult to talk about, Mr. Green was the best,” Noah says. “He opened up his home to me and I wouldn’t be in this position today if it weren’t for him. He had a tattoo that read, NOTHING PERSONAL, JUST BUSINESS. But that’s not at all who he was. He had the biggest heart and he would never turn his back on anyone.
“And that’s what I respect. When we had our team in the summertime—Team Noah—I would always tell him that it’s not about having the best kids. It’s not about winning or losing. I just want my kids to have a good time. I like to see the kids smiling—that’s what Mr. Green was all about. It’s bigger than basketball with Mr. Green.”
The example set by Mr. Green will live with Joakim for decades to come. He is committed to giving back to the community through his Noah’s Arc Foundation and by using the global platform provided by adidas to reach youth.
“I am very proud to be a part of adidas because the brand is a big part of my heritage. The brand means a lot to me. I’m very comfortable here,” Noah says. “It all brings me back to Mr. Green and those special days—sleeping on the floor at ABCD Camp as a ball boy. Those were the best days of my life, man.”