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The Fire Inside
November 08, 2010
Bulls center Joakim Noah doesn't have the incandescent talent of his NBA brethren. But he brings to the game an equally powerful gift
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November 08, 2010

The Fire Inside

Bulls center Joakim Noah doesn't have the incandescent talent of his NBA brethren. But he brings to the game an equally powerful gift

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The house is set against a forest preserve, and through the trees you can hear the MetraRail north line chugging back and forth from Fox Lake. But all you can see out here, in the darkness of a Sunday night in the Chicago suburbs, is Joakim Noah's face illuminated by flames. He bought the house in part because of the fire pit in the back, the deep thoughts and long conversations it foretold. This may seem like buying a Bentley for the floor mats, only Noah uses the fire pit as he imagined, arranging the kindling in a pyramid at sundown, cracking open a light beer, folding his 6'11" frame into a chair under a tall birch. He can tell the regular season is coming because he has to slip a parka over his sweats and hike his socks up to his knees. His hair is pulled into a bun, and his beard is finally gaining momentum.

Noah has just returned from a preseason game in Orlando, where his Bulls lost by 38 points, though he keeps referring to the margin as 50. His father, former French Open tennis champion turned reggae star Yannick Noah, sent him a text message from an island off the coast of Africa that read, "Better to lose by 50 one time than lose by one 50 times." This is the role Yannick plays for his son, always showing him the brighter side, offering him a pleasant alternative. When Noah was in high school, spending summers living on his coach's couch in Queens, then tagging along with that coach and sleeping on his floor at the ABCD basketball camp in Teaneck, N.J., Yannick would call and tell him, "You can meet me on the beach in the Bahamas. You can join me on my catamaran in Greece." Noah, shagging balls for the likes of LeBron James and Sebastian Telfair at the camp because he wasn't good enough to be invited to play, would set his jaw and say, "I've got to stay here and play in the projects."

He sticks an iron poker into the fire pit and prods the embers until they spark. "I still feel like that guy," Noah says. "I'm not a very skilled player. I'm not that talented. For me, it's about wanting to win more than the other person. That's what makes me a little different." The NBA's regular season can be a mundane exercise, 82 games during which the best teams bide their time until the playoffs and the best players admit they are pacing themselves. "I don't see it that way," Noah says. "I can't." In the locker room before games, while teammates visualize themselves making every shot they take, Noah conjures a much different image: He is playing the worst game of his life, getting backed down and pushed aside, dunked on and laughed at. He lets the anxiety build before releasing it on the floor in a torrent of churning limbs and primal screams. The way he runs the floor, it looks like his ponytail might snap off. "Jo has the kind of drive that I don't think many people have ever seen before," says Tyrone Green, Noah's former Police Athletic League coach, the one who offered up his couch in Queens.

The NBA is full of players who were crowned when they were 12. Noah has always been a better trailer. When he finally made the ABCD camp, in 11th grade, he arrived with only two scholarship offers and left with more than 200. When he went to Florida, he did not start a game as a freshman, yet he led the Gators to national championships as a sophomore and a junior. And when he was a year and a half into his pro career, looking as though he would go down as a college legend and nothing more, he metamorphosed into what Bulls forward Brian Scalabrine calls "a carbon copy of Kevin Garnett" and Bulls general manager Gar Forman terms "the heart and soul of who we are."

Noah can explain how he underwent this latest transformation, in some ways the most stunning of them all, but first he has to throw another log on the fire.

Shortly after Noah declared for the 2007 draft, he was walking through the streets of New York City with a friend, the clothing designer Jared M. "We need to talk about your suit," Jared M said. Noah had already been thinking about it. "I want something superfunky," he said, "with style and class." Noah arrived at Madison Square Garden on June 28 in an unforgettable ensemble, even by NBA draft standards: a beige seersucker tuxedo with an oversized gold bow tie. His frizzed-out hair fell down to his shoulders, and when he posed in his Bulls cap next to commissioner David Stern, he threw up a peace sign and flashed a grin as big as the bow tie. The headline in the next day's Chicago Tribune read YOU MUST BE JOAKIM, and columnist Rick Morrissey promised to eat the newsprint with salsa if Noah ever became a serious player.

Morrissey was safe. Noah arrived at training camp with a side-spinning jump shot that assistant coach Ron Adams diagnosed as "the worst I've ever seen." Having already alienated Bulls fans by admitting that he hated Michael Jordan as a kid, Noah struggled to remember plays and hold his position against opposing centers. He frequented McDonalds, bypassed weight rooms and always seemed to be late. He remembers driving on the shoulder of Chicago freeways to make it to the United Center on time. "The tickets," Noah said, "weren't as bad as the fines." Noah was shushed by head coach Scott Skiles when he chided the team for lack of effort and suspended by interim coach Jim Boylan when he erupted at Adams in a practice. The suspension was for only one game, but a locker room vote extended it to two. "I'm the only guy in the NBA who's been suspended by his teammates," Noah says. "I was a little arrogant, and I understand now that they try to humble you."

In his first game back from the suspension, Noah challenged Ben Wallace for snickering during a loss, which came off as yet another act of insubordination. But in the Bulls' front office, it was viewed differently. If a rookie who was averaging only 4.2 points and 3.1 rebounds at the time had the moxie to call out an elder like Wallace, perhaps a leader lurked inside. "He had a lot of maturing to do," says Boylan, who likened Noah to a bad puppy. "He'd have moments where he would act out and you'd have to put the hammer down on him. But I knew he'd be O.K. because he had one key skill: He played hard every night."

The same, however, was true in his first off-season. "I partied too much that summer," Noah says. "It's your first time with money and free time. There were a lot of trips to Miami, trips to New York." There was also a trip to Gainesville, Fla., where he was busted for possession of marijuana and an open container of alcohol. Noah reported out of shape to a big man camp in Las Vegas, sprained his ankle late in the summer and fell behind Aaron Gray in the Bulls' rotation. Yannick called at one point and said, "You can always come over here and play in France." Noah declined, as if he were back on the floor at ABCD. He never blamed coaches or injuries, just searched for solutions, and he eventually discovered that he could not make the transition to the NBA without the person who helped him make the transition to the United States.

Noah was born in New York City, moved to Paris when he was three and back again when he was 13. He enrolled in eighth grade at the United Nations International School, where he was assigned a 10th-grade mentor named Alex Perris. They became close friends, and in the fall of 2008, while Noah was floundering with the Bulls, Perris was training to be a competitive bodybuilder. Noah watched Perris work out in New York and recognized that his own hyperkinetic playing style required that he be in better shape. He asked Perris to move to Chicago, and soon after, grilled chicken breasts replaced McDonalds.

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