Joakim Noah: The Most Fitting Chicago Bull of all-time

Photo courtesy Scott Ableman (Flickr)

The release is a violent, two handed push. It twists in the air. Like a tornado from afar. As it clackles into the rim, the roar is unprecedented. As two points are put onto the board, Joakim Noah celebrates by shooting his metaphorical bullets into the air. For me as a 13-year-old NBA fanatic, Noah’s passion and intensity made him one of Chicago’s most charismatic athletes and someone I became attached to quickly. 

In early December 2020, Joakim Noah was waived by the Los Angeles Clippers. At 35 and his role as a rotation player over, Noah’s time in the NBA is likely over. His Clippers tenure largely resembles much of the latter half of his career. We watched a former gladiator suffer too many wounds from too many battles. To young people just starting to pay attention to the NBA, it is important to not view Noah as just another veteran center who had an odd jump shot. Noah was a pillar. He was a pillar to a city that grieved from the injury that the hometown golden boy suffered. It was Noah that duct taped all the pieces together and made sure his team was always fighting. Even though many Noah-led teams were outmanned, Noah kept the Bulls in it. While Noah will never have the sheen that MJ, Pippen or even Rose have, in my mind Noah will be the title holder for Chicago’s most fitting basketball player. 

The Windy City gets some Weather

After winning two national championships as a Gator under coach Billy Donovan and with teammates Al Horford and Corey Brewer, “Jo” declared for the 2007 NBA draft. With the draft being rich with big men like Greg Oden, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, Yi Jianlian, Brandan Wright and his Florida teammate Al Horford, Noah was projected to go in the eight to ten range of the draft. 

With Oden, Horford, Jianlian already off the board, and the then Charlotte Bobcats selecting Brandan Wright with the eighth pick, it was Chicago’s turn to scrummage through the big man pool. It was apparent that a big man was going at number nine. With the aging Ben Wallace’s short tenure with the team already turning sour, the Baby Bull core of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, needed a fourth young bull. There was debate on whether Chicago should take Noah or Spencer Hawes. While Noah had the edge over Hawes in terms of winning and motor, Hawes’ offensive ceiling was viewed as much higher. 

Ultimately, Chicago made the right pick. After he walked up to the stage with his flowing mane and throwing up a peace sign to make an iconic draft day photo with David Stern, Noah was officially on his way to Chicago. 

In an article by the Chicago Tribune, new GM John Paxson explained that the decision to pick Noah over Hawes was not too hard: 

“Joakim is a proven winner. We felt he fits what we’re trying to do. He gets up and down the floor. He can rebound. He can score around the basket. He’s an active, energy player. In our minds, he was the readiest of the guys to come in and play. We’re a team trying to win right now. That was one of the factors.”

Noah’s first iconic moment on the floor came during his rookie year in late February. In the midst of a sub .500 season, just before the trade deadline clock struck midnight, the Bulls sent their former free agent jewel, Ben Wallace, to Cleveland. The reigns were officially handed off to Noah. That night, on Feb. 22, the Bulls were set to face the Carmelo Anthony-led Nuggets. With the keys to the starting job, Noah immediately explained why Wallace was shown the door. Noah posted a double-double in a dominant win over Denver. And, as most things Noah did, it was full of energy and fury. Noah overpowered the gritty Denver front court of Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby. Noah’s dunks echoed throughout the arena. Even if you could not hear the rim clatter under his pressure, Noah made you heard as his lion-like roar riled up the building. The most iconic play was his swat of Allen Iverson’s layup attempt. Right then and there, the lion took control of his domain. 

Thunder and Lightning

Chicago finished with a mediocre 33-49 record and was heading for the lottery again. Towards the back of the line in the lottery, the Bulls hoped to get a project that could become a solid player. 

Instead they got the number one pick. 

And the jewel of the draft was the hometown kid. Coming out of Simeon High School and the University of Memphis, Derrick Rose was the top player of the 2008 draft. The notion of Rose returning home to Chicago and suiting up for the Bulls was almost too romantic. Once the number one was in the Bulls’ grasp, the fairy tale began. 

Watching Rose and Noah was like being in the middle of a storm. Rose’s lightning quick first step and crossover along with his powerful dunks paired like poetry with Noah’s thunderous blocks, dunks and roars. 

Much like Noah’s rookie year, Rose gave the Bulls the boost that Chicago had been waiting for over a decade for. After finishing .500 in the regular season, both Noah and Rose got their first taste of the playoffs. Their foes? The defending champion Boston Celtics. Without Kevin Garnett, the Celtics still looked to make quick work of Chicago with their championship core of  Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and other Celtic gladiators. 

That didn’t happen. 

Both Rose and Noah came out swinging in Game 1. Rose led the way scoring 36 points and tacked on 11 assists. Noah dominated the trenches as he grabbed 17 boards and added 11 points. 

The young Bulls pushed the defending champs to the brink as the series went to seven games. Though the defeat was heartbreaking, one thing was clear. The future was bright as long as it was led by the lightning and thunder duo of Rose and Noah. 

While everyone in the arena wore number one with Rose on their back, it was Noah who was the gatekeeper for the United Center. Rose’s play was violent and fearless, his dunks could be considered murder as he left his opponents lifeless under the basket (glad you recovered Goran Dragic), but Rose’s personality never seemed to fit his play. You would think that someone with such a striking game would also have a personality to fit it. But Rose never appeared to be that guy. Even after his thunderous dunks and ankle breaking crossovers, Rose, who was called the Windy City Assassin by the infamous Stacey King, was a hitman that killed silently in the shadows rather than a Spartan that screamed for war.  

Though Noah and Rose had different ways of expression, their partnership could only be compared to cowboys fending off the villains. Even in defeat, Rose and especially Noah made it known that they would be back. They made it known that they bow down to no team or player. 

One of my favorite Noah moments happened in the 2010 playoffs after Game 2 of the first round. The underdog Bulls took on the top seed Cleveland Cavaliers. After a 25 point and 13 rebound performance, Noah could not quite will his team to victory, and the Bulls were down 2-0 in the series. Answering questions about the nightmare, also known as LeBron James, reporters also brought up comments Noah previously made about the city of Cleveland. Comments that would not flatter too many Clevelanders.  

After saying the city “sucks,” Noah had to respond. There are a lot of people that would have backpedaled. A manufactured response on how they actually like Cleveland and it is not so bad would have been the safe way to go. But not Jo. Here is his response: 

“Not at all. You like it? You think Cleveland is cool? I mean, I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I’m going to Cleveland on vacation.’ What’s so good about Cleveland?”

That’s Chicago. Unapologetic. Back down to no one. Even in the face of defeat.

The Day Rose was Plucked

In April 2012, the Chicago Bulls organization and many players’ careers would change forever. With just over a minute left in game one of the first round of the NBA playoffs, Derrick Rose drove to the basket. Instead of embarrassing a Philly Sixer defender with an acrobatic layup or gravity defying dunk, Rose crumbled to the hardwood. Grabbing his knee, the passionate and fiery United Center became silent. With the uncertainty of commentator Kevin Harlan’s voice surrounding Rose, every Bulls fan felt their heart drop. 

As the Bulls’ season ended in six games that series, their offseason of uncertainty and wound-patching began. 

With their star point guard on the shelf for a while, fans, coaches, players and executives looked around to see who would pick up the pieces and keep the team afloat. 

The Answer

As rumors swirled of when the hometown kid may return, the Bulls still had to play the 2012-13 season. 

Patched together with a series of misfit toys that included Marco Bellinelli, Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson, no one knew what the Bulls were. Were they looking to make the playoffs? Were they rebuilding?

Yet again, Jo provided the answer. And did it his way: Loud. 

Chicago did not just barely squeak into the playoffs, they made it and were looking to make a run.

Facing the expensive Brooklyn Nets that had former foes in the now-aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Nets also carried the younger stars of Brooks Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. With a payroll of $102 million, it was clear which team had more talent. The Nets were looking to start their new tenure in Brooklyn with immediate contention. Contention that possibly has them in the Conference Finals or NBA Finals. If you discount Rose’s salary, the Bulls’ payroll was just over half of the Nets’ salary at $54 million. This series would be talent versus heart. 

A long, strenuous series reached the ultimatum Game 7. With the season on the line, out of the several hall of famers and All-Stars lining the other side, it was Noah that answered the bell. With 24 points and 14 rebounds, Noah helped Chicago upset the Nets. 

 

With the Nets casting a starting five of super heroes, Noah, with his misfit jump shot and misfit crew, grinded the Nets out of the playoffs. His screams were louder. His leadership was better. Noah showed how work ethic will always beat talent and money when talent does not have heart. 

And that’s Chicago.

Chicago will never be Los Angeles or New York. The winters are colder. There’s no Hollywood. There is not a Billionaire’s row. No. Chicago is a grind. A grind that sees a city known for Al Capone and its sturdy American architecture rather than its glitz. That’s Chicago and that’s Noah. 

The Ending

For the two brief years that saw the Bulls Rose-less, Noah carried the torch. With a top-4 MVP finish in 2013-14, Noah gave a presumed corpse fight. Not to just barely reach the playoffs. No, Noah made every Bulls fan proud to wear their jersey. 

It is unfortunate that just as the Bulls were coming into form with new addition Pau Gasol, a returning Rose, and Jimmy Butler becoming a budding superstar, Noah’s body started to betray him. Too many wounds as Chicago’s gatekeeper finally caught up to him. A bad bicep here, an uncooperative knee there, Noah was unable to man his post. With Thibs being fired and former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg coming in, Noah slid into the background. 

Once his contract was up, it was clear that the organization was going in a new direction, and Noah, loyal but also seeing the writing on the wall, changed his NBA address for the first time in his career. Moving from Chicago to New York to play for the Knicks, an era was over. 

Post-Bulls Noah was weird to see. As his injury list grew longer, Noah could only provide sparks of his former All-Star self. From the Knicks, he travelled to the Grizzlies and eventually ended his career as a locker room guy with the Clippers. 

The Legacy

As Noah hangs up the laces, his legacy is clear. 

Noah was never the basketball star Chicago wanted. We already had that with Jordan, Pippen and even pre-torn ACL Derrick Rose. No, Noah was never that. With a unique jump shot and flowing hair, he never fit into the perfect star mold. 

Noah was something else. Noah was the star Chicago deserved. A city that is lined with sturdy skyscrapers, known for Al Capone and heavy pizza, and a city that has held the murder capital of the country a couple of times, you need to be tough to be a Chicagoan. You can’t care how your shoes look, or be friends with the opposing players, or wear flip flops everyday. No, you need to have the roar that shifts the air. A work ethic that intimidates neighboring cities. A grittiness that scares away the glamor of the coasts. 

Chicago has always had tough sports figures like Brian Urlacher, the entire ‘85 Bears, MJ, Pippen, Rose, Frank Thomas, Carlos Zambrano, Lou Pinella. All those guys are tough. But Noah. He has the top spot. The way he wore his emotions on his sleeve and trash talked everyone, even LeBron James, Noah will forever define what it means to be an athlete in Chicago.  

And it is why Joakim Noah is the most fitting Chicago Bull of all-time.

 

Photo courtesy Scott Ableman (Flickr)

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