He is a fan favorite in Chicago, yet never came close to averaging 20 points per game.
The Bulls finished Joakim Noah’s rookie season with a 33-49 record, a giant step back for a team that was supposed to finally be headed in the right direction after six miserable seasons following Michael Jordan’s retirement, the Scottie Pippen trade, and Phil Jackson not being retained as coach. They had made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, and had a nice core with guards Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon, and forward Luol Deng.
They peaked in 2007, when the Bulls swept the defending champion Miami Heat, winning their first playoff series without Jordan since 1981. A month after their six-game loss in the semifinals to the Detroit Pistons, the Bulls exercised a pick swap they had with the New York Knicks and drafted the face of the last men’s college basketball repeat champions, Noah, from Florida, at the ninth overall pick.
Noah was consensus All-American as a junior. A college basketball veteran with real pro talent has been a rarity in the last 25 years of the NBA, so ideally he would be ready to be a professional immediately. By January of Noah’s rookie season, though, he was unanimously voted by his teammates… to be suspended after berating assistant coach Ron Adams. He also clashed with veteran center Ben Wallace on a team that had zero chemistry — but that last part has happened before to teams that have coached by Scott Skiles for too long, so let’s not put that on Noah.
On Thursday night, the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year (who finished fourth that season in MVP voting), will be honored by the Bulls when they play the New York Knicks on “Joakim Noah Night.” The Bulls never did win a championship with Noah. We’ll never know what would’ve happened if Derrick Rose’s knees held up, or if former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt had been issued a technical foul for pulling a Chris Webber in Game 4 of their 2015 semifinal series, but Noah is still a favorite among a fan base that saw six championships in eight seasons.
The love affair started in Noah’s second season with the Bulls. They were a .500 team but caught the defending champion Celtics in the first round with an injured Kevin Garnett. It was a thrilling series with four overtime games, but Noah’s moment was with about 40 seconds remaining in the third overtime of the sixth game at the United Center. The score was tied at 123 when Noah stole the ball from Paul Pierce, took the ball the length of the floor, dunked on Pierce and fouled him out of the game. The building erupted.
He sank his free throw, and TNT went to commercial with Rock and Roll, Pt. 2 (Disclaimer: Gary Glitter is a despicable, wretched person) blaring in the United Center — and it felt like 1996 all over again.
The Bulls would lose in seven games to the Celtics, but this team finally had a real post-Jordan identity, and Noah would become a major part of it.
Like Dennis Rodman before him, scoring was not his priority on the floor. Noah was out there to play outstanding pick-and-roll defense, swarm loose balls, and be another willing and capable passer on offense. Fans always have a spot for the all heart players, but Noah wasn’t just that, he was a defensive anchor and one of the main cogs on a team with a .750-plus winning percentage for two consecutive seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
However, it was more than the accolades and floor burns that endeared Noah to Chicago. He developed a true heart for the city. Noah came to the Bulls as crime in Chicago began to tick upwards and the city would be used as a racist red herring for those unwilling to accept that America still has a long way to go with civil rights.
With his Noah’s Arc foundation, his goal is to use art and sports to help kids in under-resourced communities. He zeroed his attention in with that organization at home, spending time at Major Adams Community Center, two blocks from the Bulls home stadium on the West Side of Chicago. He also organized the One City Basketball tournament with players from the South and West side of town matched up at the center, and helped lead a peace march in 2018 for anti-violence awareness while he played for the Knicks.
Fans love a winning team and a great player, but the relationship sticks a bit more when they get to watch a player make mistakes, learn from them, try to do better, and eventually become a full-fledged, and involved, adult. Chicago was able to experience that growth with Noah as he used that long wingspan to not only win Defensive Player of the Year, but to also embrace the city.
Retiring a number might be too far for Noah — he made All-NBA first team only once, and his career was never the same after that 2013-14 season — but that really isn’t necessary. What is being done tonight feels right. The Knicks are in town for the biggest game these two former rivals have had in a long time, bringing his former professional coach, Tom Thibodeau, and teammates Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson to the event, and his college coach, Billy Donovan, who is currently leading the Bulls. The night will give Chicago a chance to give Noah the standing ovation he deserves, for growing from young malcontent to an ambassador for the game.