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Vinny Del Negro was the Bulls' coach then, and he had two troubled lottery picks languishing on his bench. He asked assistant Bernie Bickerstaff to tutor Tyrus Thomas and assistant Del Harris to take Noah. "You would hear that he wasn't focused on the program," Harris says, "that he ran up and down the court without purpose." Harris disagreed. A former Lakers head coach, he saw a rare dervish who blended Kobe Bryant's sense of purpose with Shaquille O'Neal's sense of fun.
On Jan. 15, the Bulls were still five games under .500, with the Cavaliers coming to town. "We had already lost to them three times," says Bob Ociepka, another former Bulls assistant, now with the Blazers. "We had used Jo off the ball and helping. We said, 'Let's switch all these pick-and-rolls with LeBron and stick Jo on him.' He was a different guy after that." The Bulls beat the Cavs and changed the way they defended pick-and-rolls for the rest of the season.
The Bulls made the 2009 playoffs, and in their epic seven-game series against the Celtics, Noah chased Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen off screens, then scrambled back to body up Kendrick Perkins and Garnett. He averaged 10.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and provided the video clip that signifies his turnaround: the steal, breakaway and dunk (plus a free throw) over Paul Pierce to clinch Game 6 in triple overtime. But after the Bulls lost Game 7, Noah remembered only what went wrong. "Perkins bullied me," he says. "He pushed me around pretty bad, and I didn't like that feeling." Perris viewed it another way. "If this is what we could accomplish without really doing anything," he said, "then let's see what happens if we get to work."
When the series ended, Noah and Perris cleared out the basement of the house and turned it into a weight room with 10 stations. They kept the exposed pipes and dry wall to remind Noah of the boxing gyms where his father used to train in Paris. They tacked up photos of family members, teammates, opponents—anyone who might keep Noah as motivated to lift as he is to play. They even hung a letter from a boy named Tyler, who wrote, "You rock. I like when you dunked on the guy. That is awesome win [sic] you dunked on him." Noah can't read it without shouting.
On Nov. 9, 2009, less than two weeks into the regular season and only two days after Noah dropped 21 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks on the Bobcats, Rick Morrissey came to the Bulls' practice facility, dipped his column in salsa and, with Noah jumping around and cheering him on, chewed and swallowed.
Carmelo Anthony scored 28.2 points per game last season. Noah scored 10.7. But there is a reason the Bulls would not include Noah in any deal for Anthony this summer. It has to do with rebounds and blocks, of course, but also with the way Noah gets his fingernails into passing lanes and literally pushes teammates to close out on shots and hops around the key hollering as if a burglar were about to break in. "He never, ever stops talking," says point guard Derrick Rose, and the Bulls are not the only ones who can hear him. Late last season, when Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau was interviewing for coaching vacancies, Scalabrine told him, "You know why you have to take the Chicago job? Joakim Noah." Thibodeau's defense demands a big man athletic enough to smother point guards on the pick-and-roll and vocal enough to call out reads and coverages from the baseline. All coaches emphasize communication, but Thibodeau will stop practice if he doesn't hear chatter. After Thibodeau joined the Bulls, Noah warned him that he was not a quick learner, so in August they worked one-on-one almost every day. With Noah still getting acclimated and power forward Carlos Boozer out until December because of a broken right hand, the Bulls could start slowly. "But mark my words," Scalabrine says, "Joakim is going to eventually be the four man in this system, and it's going to be sick."
On Thibodeau's staff is Ron Adams, who returned to Chicago after two seasons in Oklahoma City eager to reunite with Noah. When Noah was a rookie, Adams told him he would have to develop an outside shot to make big money in the NBA, but Adams admits that Noah proved him wrong. Energy is a commodity, just like leaping ability, and perhaps more precious. Noah signed a five-year, $60 million contract before this season, and after the press conference he went right to Adams and started hoisting more shots. Noah's sidespin remains, and he still positions both hands on the outer third of the ball, but Adams has developed an affection for the shot he calls the Tornado. He bets that Noah will shoot 50% on midrange jumpers this season.
"He is so much more focused than he was," Adams says. "He has really grown up a lot." In addition to the live-in trainer, Noah has an assistant, a massage therapist and a typed calendar that hangs from a wall in his kitchen, near the HIPPIE POWER sticker. The calendar is quite a departure from his childhood, when he was allowed to draw on his bedroom walls. "I'm learning about routine," Noah says, as if he's never used the word and is not sure he likes it.
Noah's multicultural background was well-chronicled in college. In addition to his famous father, who is French and Cameroonian, his mother is Cecilia Rodhe, a New York artist who was the 1978 Miss Sweden and has family living in the jungles of Hawaii. Noah decorates his home with Native American paintings, Cecilia's sculptures and mosaics by her mentor, Nell Louzir, whose abstract depictions of energy he inspired. By the front door Noah keeps a suit of armor "to protect me," and in the living room he has a Buddha statue wearing a net from Florida's second national title. "They think they have the real one down there," Noah says with a mischievous smile. He is starting a foundation with his mother called Noah's Arc, in which children are invited to workshops where they can play basketball with him and shape clay with her. "The physical discipline of sports combined with the emotion of art," Cecilia says. "It's what Joakim is made from."
Cecilia taught her son that it was O.K. to be different, as long as he was himself, but that approach is not always appreciated in American sports. Noah became a convenient target at Florida, whether it was for his wild celebrations, his political opinions or simply his long hair. He has been just as polarizing in the NBA, where last season he scolded James for dancing during a blowout, called Garnett a dirty player and said that "Cleveland sucks" because the city has "nothing going on." "I flip out a lot," Noah says. "I'll flip out at referees or get distracted by fans or get caught up talking trash. I know energy is my game, but it's about channeling it in the right places."