Making Sense of Joakim Noah
Hate him or love him?
by Colin Powers
Jo Noah is the rarest of athletes, the type who only surfaces once in a generation. The guy people love to love or love to hate. Long since we were introduced to the young man down in Gainesville, Noah persists in his inherently polarizing ways, inspiring the cheers and venom of basketball fans in equal doses. The chauvinistic tendencies on both sides of the Noah aisle harking back to Reggie Miller in the 1990s and the notorious Bill Laimbeer in the 1980s. Shit, back in college, even opposing cheerleaders weren’t above directing their hate at this chest-pounding forward rocking a 15-year-old’s whiskery beard. Some people laughed at his jump-shot and clumsiness on of the offensive end in determining he could never hack it at the pro level; some saw a winner, through and through, a great defender, passer, rebounder, and teammate, a guy who understands the game and the ambitions of the team. Either way, apathy was, is, and never will be an option when it comes to Joakim.
On paper, he would seem to be worthy of almost universal praise. He is a selfless player who works extremely hard on the court, all in the pursuit of the collective goal. He is tireless and tormenting on the defensive end, active and focused both on the ball and in help-side. He works and battles as hard as anyone on the glass, taking a good amount of punishment along the way as a result of his less than burly frame. He howls communication on D, cheers his teammates on, takes responsibility for errors, and wears unmistakable angst on his face when the team struggles. In a league where commentators find it so easy to say the players don’t care and don’t play hard, Noah in no way fits that mold. He’s had a hell of a season, elevating himself to one of the truly elite rebounders in the League, and his injury more than anything took the wind out of the Bulls sails just as they were really gaining some momentum.
Offensively, he sprints the floor to open up lanes for the guards in his wake. Watching him last night, he seems to set an endless amount of screens, always in perpetual motion to get the team a free look. He handles the ball capably and has excellent vision, providing the team with an usual playmaker at the 4/5 spot. His shots come only within the offense or off of offensive rebounds.
More to his credit, Noah also displayed exceptional toughness this season, playing through the debilitating plascar fascitis for a long time before it inevitably sidelined him. He has valiantly rushed back in hopes of rescuing what once looked to be a promising season, and has helped the Bulls draw even with the Bosh-less Toronto Raptors as we enter the stretch run. All in all, he seems to be the embodiment of ‘the right way’, living the ethos of another hero/villain, Coach K.
So where does all the animus come from and is it justified? In college, some of the resentment was clearly derived from Florida’s historic success and the unavoidable backlash against those who are on top. Fair enough. But in the pros, Noah has not yet witnessed the peaks of Laimbeer’s Bad Boy Pistons, or even the never-quite-good-enough efforts of Reggie’s Pacers. It cannot just be a consequence of envy. No, what drives many people crazy is the feeling that Noah’s entire persona is phony.
The flamboyance, the incessant yelling, the unbridled exuberance just waiting for even the smallest trigger to explode, the attempts at showmanship…it all adds up. Despite the humble nature of his play, there is nothing humble about his way of expressing himself on the court. Whether he does all this chest pounding out of narcissism or simply to get motivated, the end result is the same. He constantly calls attention to himself, often times without the drama of the particularly moment really deserving such attention (I.e. it is one thing to go bonkers after hitting a game winning jumper, it is another to celebrate similarly after knocking a J in the 2nd quarter of a game in February). Because it is so unremitting and in your face, all this emotion comes off as contrived antics, disingenuous passion.
Of course, the hair doesn’t help matters, as over-simplifying as that seems. To some, it represents just another way Noah needs to stick out. Personally, I don’t think his extroverted ways are inauthentic. That need to reveal outwardly what is he feeling inside is just who he is, and not indicative of any malignant character defect. Indeed, beyond that demonstrativeness on the court, there is no other history of Noah being anything but a good, friendly guy whom fans and his teammates have always thought quite highly of. Thus, all of the flamboyance on the court is so paradoxical because there is absolutely nothing in the way Noah actually plays that is anyway self-glorifying. He doesn’t look for shots or points or individual numbers. He cares desperately only about winning, and is completely team-oriented in the way he plays.
Actions speak louder than words, or in this case, louder than pounding your chest and howling at inopportune times. Noah’s actions on the court speak to him being a far different player than the one so easily criticized or made fun of for all the extra stuff. Cut through all the shit and you’ll see Jo plays ball how it is meant to be played, and that should be recognized. Give him the benefit of the doubt: all his animated behavior might just grow from an underlying and very real competitiveness coursing through his veins, as seen when he got into it with LeBron over the Cavs showing the Bulls up a few months ago.
Sure, I’d prefer if Noah would stop with all the theatrics and just play ball, but there’s a good chance he needs all that to get his motor going. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Noah does a whole lot of right with his game, and we would be remiss to ignore that because of his scowling or struggles in growing facial hair.