Friday, July 18th, 2008 at 4:12 pm  |  50 responses

Links: Catching Up With Joakim Noah

“I’m just a small fish in a big-ass pond…”

by Lang Whitaker

I’d made plans yesterday to have lunch with Joel Kimmel, the man who does all those great drawings for The Links each week. Then Joakim Noah called, which, I’m sorry, trumped Joel.

I was in sporadic touch with Joakim last season, trying to keep an eye on him as he wrote our rookie diary, though trying to pin Joakim down was like trying to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. He had a helluva rookie season, from getting suspended by the Bulls to seeing his coach fired on Christmas Eve. And then, just a few weeks ago, Joakim was arrested in Gainesville, FL, on possession of pot and open container charges.

Joakim was born into a family that redefines “diverse.” His dad’s parents were Cameroonian and French, and his Dad, of course, is Yannick Noah, one of the greatest French tennis players of all time who more recently became a popular Grammy-nominated recording artist. Joakim’s mom was a former Miss Sweden and Miss Universe contestant who became a sculptor. Though he lived just outside Paris as a child, Joakim mostly grew up in New York with his Mom, while his Dad had an apartment just a few blocks away.

So, yesterday Joakim invited me by his Dad’s apartment on Central Park South, one of the priciest blocks in Manhattan. Yannick lives in France and Joakim’s mom currently lives in Brooklyn, so Joakim uses his Dad’s place these days as a place to crash when he’s in New York City. The apartment is a duplex, everything painted white, with lots of open spaces and a view of Central Park that people pay tens of millions of dollars (or about half as many Euros) for. Joakim had just gotten up — with his hair down he looked more like Bizzie Bone than Bizzie Bone — and was busy planning his day, including a weight-lifting session and a trip out to visit Moms in BK, when I finally caught up with him.

For more on Joakim, including his new shoe deal with a surprising company, you’ll have to check out the upcoming issue of SLAM presents Kicks, on newsstands in mid-August.

SLAM: You look bigger than you did a year ago. Have you been putting on muscle?

JOAKIM: Yeah, a little bit. I still got a ways to go. We’re two months before it really hits the fan, and I think I’ve had a great off-season, in terms of traveling and visiting family, having a great time. I mean, I’ve been working, but I feel like for the next two months, it’s really going to be getting into a routine, really focused on what I need to do and getting ready for the season. We have a great opportunity to do something pretty good, so it’s important we all come in in the best shape we can.

SLAM: You said, I’ve had a great off-season. Some people might disagree with that. David Stern might disagree with that.

JOAKIM: David Stern would definitely disagree. But…what can I say? I feel like everything happens for a reason. If anything, it was a wake-up call. But, I don’t regret it. I’ve definitely learned from it, but I don’t regret it. If anything I think it’s going to help me in the long run. Learn from your mistakes. Always learn from your experiences. It was humbling. When you play in the NBA, and you hear that “Duh-da-duh, duh-da-duh,” (sings the ESPN jingle) everybody knows about it. So you’ve just got to be careful. But that was a couple of days out of the summer. So right now it’s all about just focusing on basketball and winning some basketball games. That’s all it’s about right now.

SLAM: I was surprised you were busted. Because you grew up in this crazy environment in New York City, which sort of forces maturity, and then you went through a lot at Florida, too. I was just surprised because it seems you like you’re a little more knowledgeable about the world and how everything works than most guys coming into the NBA.

JOAKIM: I don’t want to say that people are out to get you, but you’re kind of a target. And especially when you’re in a small town like Gainesville. My love for Gainesville is ridiculous. People have been asking me, Are going to go back to Gainesville? People, especially people from there or Gator fans, of course I’m going to go back. I love that place. You think just because of one little incident I don’t want to go back to Gainesville? Do I think I was picked on or something like that? Probably. But who cares? At the same time I made a mistake. I don’t feel like complaining about it or making any excuses. It happened and if anything it hurt me in the long run because I want to do events with the kids and I wasn’t able to do it just because, that whole image thing is so important to the NBA. And that’s understandable — there’s a lot of money involved and their image means a lot to them, and you’ve got to respect that. I’m just a small fish in a big-ass pond.

SLAM: And David Stern is like Poseidon.

JOAKIM: Definitely. If anything, I just couldn’t believe how — media-wise — how fast it spread. Like, a small written arrest for open container and half a joint of marijuana, how fast that spread around the world. I had people call me from everywhere, like, You’re in my prayers…I was like, Wow, this is crazy. And it’s all because of one thing: Duh-da-duh, duh-da-duh. It was everywhere! Two weeks later I went to France and it was crazy in France.

SLAM: But you guys are on such a huge stage that…

JOAKIM: Well, it’s all part of the learning experience for me. You’ve just got to be careful. I don’t know a lot of people who’ve been arrested. It’s not like I was walking down the middle of the street with a blunt in my hand and a 40 out and I was screaming and talking loud. But I put my guard down for a minute and what happened, happened. So, I learned you just have to be careful and I feel like it could have been much worse. I basically just got a smack on the wrist and everybody found out about it. Now it’s on me to learn from my mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. I’m sure you’ve done worse things.

SLAM: Well, no one cares if I make a mistake. The thing is, a lot of people care if you make a mistake. Some people would care about me, but millions care about you.

JOAKIM: The NBA is such a great thing, but at the same time you have an image to uphold. I remember when I was kid, looking up to NBA players, so it’s kind of the same thing. Even though it’s not fair that everything you do is publicized, that you might go out to a club and people will write, He was seen here doing this or doing that — that’s not fun for anybody. But at the same time that’s just the way it is. The pros and cons. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

SLAM: Who did you look up to when you were a kid, which basketball players?

JOAKIM: I was a Knicks fan. Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing, Greg Anthony — that whole crew. Anthony Mason, Derek Harper, John Starks — that whole team was grimy, tough, no easy lay-ups. That was the Riley era. But even after that, the Larry Johnsons…I was just a big Knicks fan.

SLAM: Did you look up to your Dad as an athlete, or did you kind of just see him as your Dad?

JOAKIM: I feel like I was always very influenced by my father, but it was more like subconscious. He was always my Dad, but at the same time when I was growing up I’d see him going running or whatever. Even if he went out or something, he was always very strict on his workouts. He taught me to go running sometimes before school. I mean, who goes jogging in high school? Nobody. I remember I’d stay here sometimes and he’d wake me up early and we’d go run like three miles in Central Park and do push-ups before school. I knew that nobody else at school had done that. I wonder how many kids in the city did that? I know Sebastian Telfair used to do it and he’s in the NBA. But how many kids really do that, get a workout in before they go to school. I definitely learned that from my father. And look how I used to live as a kid.

SLAM: It’s almost like Silver Spoons.

JOAKIM: It definitely is. My Mom’s place isn’t like this, though, and I really grew up living with her over on 51st and 10th, in Hell’s Kitchen. My parents divorced when I was very young. It was a nice place, but there was always a difference in our lifestyle when me and my sister were with my Dad compared to when we were with my Mother. It was good because it put things in perspective, even at a young age. I definitely knew there was a difference between living with my Mom and my Dad, and I think that helped me out. In the summers I lived with Mr. Green, who was kind of like my coach. He took me to the projects, and it was the first time I’d seen anything like that, seen poverty in New York and stuff like that. And I hadn’t really been around the basketball culture — I mean, I was a French kid. I take pride that now I’m 23 and I came from the bougiest neighborhood in France and grew up in a place like this (motions around) but at the same time I can go to Dyckman uptown and get mad love. Not a lot of kids can say that, you know?

SLAM: How did you end up living with Mr. Green?

JOAKIM: He worked at the PAL a couple of blocks from where I lived in Hell’s Kitchen. I used to go there every day and play ball and work out. And my Mom and my sister would always leave to go to France, and he said, You can’t travel like this. Summertime is when basketball players get better. He told me I had to make a sacrifice, so I stayed with him and got stronger, got tougher, worked.

SLAM: When did you decide basketball was going to be your sport?

JOAKIM: I always loved basketball.

SLAM: Was it big in France when you were a kid?

JOAKIM: It was big enough. I went to an American school, and my grandmother on my Father’s side, she played on the Cameroon National Basketball Team. She was the only white lady on the Cameroon team. I started playing basketball at like 8, 9 years old. School started at 9 but I would get there at 8 and play basketball with the gym teacher. And then I joined a club over there and started playing all the time.

SLAM: What part of Paris did you grow up in?

JOAKIM: It was a little town just outside of Paris. And it was just, I mean, people talk about bougie here, but people don’t understand bougie. Bougie comes from “bourgeois,” which is a French word, and I lived it, I lived that. My mom was an artist and was very open-minded, and my sister and I used to walk around naked all the time when we were kids, 2, 3 years old. And in the tennis world we were just like little out of control animals. But they wouldn’t say anything when my Dad was around because it wouldn’t look right. He was already the only black guy there and he had dreads and stuff, plus everybody loved him. Everybody knew who he was.

SLAM: He still gets mad love over there, right?

JOAKIM: His love is probably even crazier now. There’s been no French player to win the French Open since he won it. He’s black/white with dreads, and he’s the only French guy to win it in like 80 years, and now he’s made it in his music thing — he’s the number one selling artist in France. Then you put the tennis thing on top of that, then you win two Davis Cups as coach, then you’re killing it in the music? His love is like…that’s why he’s moving back here; it’s just too much there.

SLAM: It’s a good problem to have.

JOAKIM: Yeah, that’s what I tell him and that’s what he tells me all the time, too.

SLAM: Now that your rookie year is over and you can look back on it, was it about what you expected?

JOAKIM: It was a crazy experience. I went through so much in just one season. Coaches, trades, people getting fired, me getting suspended by the team. And when you’re in a big market like that, when things aren’t going well…I had never been exposed to media like that.

SLAM: Even when you guys won your titles at Florida?

JOAKIM: I mean yeah but, that’s two, three days. That’s a week of your life. And in college they don’t kill you like that. In the pros, if you’re not doing well…You’re playing for the city, and in Chicago they have a lot of expectations. And that’s good. It’s how it’s supposed to be. Can you imagine, ten years ago they were stacking rings. It’s fine, I feel like I’ve experienced a lot and it’s going to help me out.

SLAM: Do you feel like you got better as the year went along?

JOAKIM: Yeah. It’s about confidence. I mean, I went from not even playing to starting and playing significant minutes — like 30 a game — by the end. What I learned about the NBA is that you can’t take anything for granted. Every night you’re playing against the best players in the world, and it’s all about competing every night. Your body is so tired after the tenth game, it’s about toughness and mental toughness. Dealing with distractions is also key.

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  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    This is a hell of a story for the weekend.

  • http://myspace.com/mrdyalekt d.Y.

    That’s one of the most fun q&a’s ive read on a player.

  • Tom

    Lang you are on FIRE today with the links…….great interview…..Noah seems like a really honest dude…….didn’t all kids run around naked when they were 2 or 3 though?

  • Brian

    I agree, this is a great interview. You’d have to stack up 5-10 other players answers to = 1 Noah.

  • http://www.joelkimmel.com Joel Kimmel

    Great interview with some great responses from Noah. I guess it was worth meeting him over me, and the views were better.

  • ciolkstar

    Man, Lang is holding it down this week. Great work.

  • B. Long

    Any rookie who has balls enough to throw down with Ben Wallace gets at least one stupid mistake pass in my book.

  • http://www.youtube.com/tripledouble tripledouble

    Dude is cool. Great read.

  • http://hibachi20.blogspot.com/ RV

    great stuff, both ways…i didn’t know his dad had it like that, that view looks crazy

  • http://slamonline.com ghost

    Great interview but didn’t Noah play like a pin up barbie doll all his rookie year? To me he sort of looked confused at certain moments

  • Richard Jefferson – Verified Athlete

    still dont like duke.

  • http://thedimemachine.multiply.com/ Chou

    I like this kid for a couple of reasons. Seems like he got the whole competitive fire going on. That and because he’s eccentric.

  • http://slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    Great, great sh*t. Part of me will always see Joakim as the cool, skinny-@ss kid hanging out (but NOT playing) at ABCD camp up until his sophomore year of high school — I always figured he was somebody’s gangly, unathletic little brother — before he finally blossomed. Even then, he was still largely slept on coming out of high school. Then he went and made himself into a player. That, and his honesty, and the fact that I still think he’s a cool kid (though admittedly still a knucklehead sometimes) definitely makes me root for him.

  • http://www.ballerblogger.com Brandon Hoffman

    I like the part where Noah says, “Everybody makes mistakes. I’m sure you’ve done worse things.” And Lang replies, “Well, no one cares if I make a mistake.” The whole exchange was very insightful. I feel like I have a much better understanding of who Joakim Noah is.

  • At The End Of The Day

    Awesome post, GO GATORS!

  • Matt R

    Thanks Lang. Great look. Confused about who is tough to pin down though? Hopefully not me. Thanks again.

  • underdog

    Looking up to Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason explains a lot (kidding). Anyway, Joakim sounds like a great guy. I hope he manage to stick in the L., because he makes more colorful the whole picture. Great q&a Lang!

  • http://www.friendster.com/sesa Sesa

    Lang should really becomes Joakim’s PR manager

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    It be better if Lang could become Joakim’s post move manager.

  • Tyler

    this guy is a retard.

  • Austin

    I am a kid and I am 10. I love Joakim Noah. I read everything I can find about him. He has spent time with me I will never forget. So what if he got caught with a beer and a smoke. He still does a great job on the court and with kids. Lang Whitaker is not so bad either.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    I thought Duncan’s first name was Tim, not Tyler…..
    Thanks, Lang. As a product of the 80s and a diehard tennis junkie, I grew up idolizing the elder Noah. I wish/expect the best for Joakim.

  • http://slamonline.com Lang Whitaker

    @Cub: It was kinda cool being in the apartment and finding a stack of junk mail addressed to “Yannick Noah.”

  • http://www.alllooksame.com Tarzan Cooper

    what about tyrus thomas?

  • http://wherespmac.com Justin Adler

    Great, great read. I now love Joakim.

  • mitch

    cool guy is gonna be great soon.

  • Chukaz

    I’m glad Joakim was able to put down the booze and his blunt long enough to do an interview.

  • Chukaz

    The modaf*cker probably has done the holding a blunt in one hand and a 40 on the other while being loud. He just seems like the kind of person that does that. He should hang out with S-Jax and Jamal Tinsley. Now that would be a big 3.

  • Ohpityme

    Me as a person I like what i know of Joakim Noah.
    But if I was looking at it from a Bulls fan or anyone involved with the organisations perspective hed annoy me.
    Within his first year in the NBA hes been involved in a fair few negative things.

  • zedood

    he is the only NBA guy who can speak openheartedly about everything, like his father used to do too which was the MAIN reason why people love him over here in France. Changes a lot from the pre formated answers we get from most of the US players.

    Background isn’t everything but it helps as it seems…
    GREAT ITV GONGRATS to both of you

  • Bullsfan

    As a life-long Bulls fan and Chicagoan who spends their winter catching games at the United Center, I can say with some authority that Noah has mad love in the Windy City. Even when he had his troubles this year, we got over it quickly because of a few simple facts- he always hustles, he shows heart, and his competitive fire was unmatched. Bulls fans overwhelmingly love this cat. Adding Derrick Rose to the mix will only increase Noah’s productivity and hopefully their similar characteristics will influence their teammates and we’ll rack up some wins this year. If things fall into place, in a few years we should be back to competing for more rings.

    Great interview. Though I would have loved to hear his thoughts on summer league (playing for Del Negro & with Rose & Thomas), and most importantly I would have loved to hear about that god-awful shot of his! That form is HIDEOUS and needs to be completely revamped… He has the worst looking shot in the NBA and is shooting around 50% from the FT line so how did you not get into that?!

  • Noahlover

    love this article,love u jo too GO BULLS and Gators!!

  • David

    It’s kind of funny to imagine Lang doing Joakim’s wild version of the story: “walking down the middle of the street with a blunt in my hand and a 40 out and I was screaming and talking loud.”
    And I also find it amusing that I Ryan’s post contains the mail-to address: skinny-@ss.

  • kelly

    love ya Jo,great post.he will have a much better 2nd year with da’bulls! goo JO!:)

  • kelly

    Duncan’s first name is Tim,whose Tyler anyhow?? lol.

  • lillemomoney

    Im glad he’s not giving in to the pressure over his ‘Bust’. Pot is so harmless and its benefits FAR outweigh the detriments. I was always on the fence with regards to Noah, but his confidence in being different and his non-vanilla answers definitely won me over. So keep smoking Noah, but watch out for those fascist pigs that wanna bring you down…

  • Lynn B

    Joakim is great. In Gainesville he always takes time to talk to everyone especially the kids. We love him her.

  • http://its-mitch.blogspot.com/ Paps

    This was great. Changed my whole perspective on Noah.

  • http://TheChapmanReport Norm Chapman

    Great kid! Winning pedgree. The Bulls have a winner. Thanks Pax.

  • http://TheChapmanReport Norm Chapman

    Great kid! Winning pedigree, The Bulls have a winner. Thanks Pax.

  • http://fjkdlzf.com Jukai

    Haha, that’s exactly what Noah needs, to become the poster boy for High Times Magazine

  • http://birdmonster.blogspot.com tenorca

    I’m late to the game but I’m seconding…or rather forty-seconding the love. It’s great to see a player open up and act like a human being with actual opinions instead of the android “this is just another game to us/ just trying to play my role” type shnur we get from most NBAers. Like Paps said, this changed my whole perspective on Noah.

  • http://www.freewebs.com/betcats BETCATS

    no Joakim, you are an a$$hole in between the 2 cheeks of David Stern’s pooper. Nothin but Bull sh!t. you are from a millionare family, then why do you talk like me? New York my a$$, you are from the Burbs. Keep doing what the church groups tell you not to Joakim, you deserve it for youself living in a different planet then every1 else.

  • http://www.freewebs.com/betcats BETCATS

    Thomas and Noah: Dumb and Dumbererererererer. Also one of the greatest frontlines. ever.

  • kelly

    Yes Jo does take time to talk to ppl where ever he is Gville,Chicago, his hometown( ny) etc.. some person posted on something to do with Jo calling him names and saying he ignores ppl who say “hi” but wrong,he even spoke to me when i met him :) love u jo!

  • kelly

    austin,where you hang with him at/ play bball together/ or are u a female?

  • J-Rod

    Yo killa interview, man. Would love to hook up with Joakim for a few puffs of the sesni and listen to some Peter Tosh. Peace.

  • haris

    great interview one of the best i read so far this week

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  • Aaron Fischman

    Great job! And of course, you had a fascinating subject so that didn’t hurt. No wonder this is one of your favorite interviews.