Links: Catching Up With Joakim Noah

by July 18, 2008

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.