“It’s not about them,” Joakim Noah said as he dismissed my cliché question about the division he shares with the Kevin Love, and LeBron James-infused Cavaliers. “It’s about us being as solid a team as we’ve ever been. It’s about Derrick [Rose] being back and better than ever. It’s about Paul Gasol being here. It’s about Doug McDermott...”
That kind of answer is about as boilerplate as the two-time NCAA champion, Rastafarian-loving, Defensive Player Of The Year winning anomaly can get. All of the oft-pointed out peculiarities within this self-professed hippy’s personality are readily apparent in person. Affable, opinionated, Bulls-focused, but bullshit averse—Joa is unlike any center we’ve seen. His aggressive, leave-it-all-on-the floor style at the University of Florida was deemed by many to be untranslatable to the grind of an 82-game regular NBA season. Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey famously wrote, upon JK’s first round pick in the 2007 draft, that he would never become a productive NBA player. And if he was wrong? He’d dip his column in salsa and eat it. Two years later, the writer did just that in front of a laughing Noah at the Bulls practice facility.
“It tasted like a crow enchilada,” Morrissey said, as he literally ate his words.
Speaking of eating, Joa’s appetite is heroic. His co-captain, Derrik Rose, once detailed, in wide-eyed wonderment, a single meal Joa put away.
“I saw the man eat chicken breast, three pancakes, eggs, turkey bacon, turkey sausage, chicken sausage, syrup ketchup, mayonnaise, all together on one plate,” he said. “This was not a dare. This was in the morning. This was one meal. Oh, and string beans! He said that when it’s in your mouth it’s going to be all put together just the same.”
He needs that kind of fuel, because Joa gets around. His passport game is maybe better than his passing game. He has French (thanks to his Cameroon-born, former tennis champion dad, Yannick Noah), Swedish (tip of the tiara to his mom/former Miss Sweden, Cecilia Rhode), and US citizenship (his formative years were spent on the asphalt courts of NYC).
But he also has the collective love of Chicago, along with the ire of every other city his road games take him to. Here’s why:
You once said of your two championships at the University of Florida, “the more we won, the less classes I went to”: How hard did you party there?
I’ll tell you this: the quality of life there is great. There’s a reason I went back there for a second try at a championship rather than going to the NBA.
You’ve hinted that the school’s brass only thinks they have the net from one of your titles: Did you seriously pull a switcharoo on them?
I honestly don’t remember how I ended up with it, but it’s the real net. I don’t know where the ones they displayed came from, but I have the actual one. The worst part is, I just moved and now I can’t find it! Maybe we shouldn’t print that.
Yeah, but what are they gonna do about it?
What’s worse: Florida hurricanes or Chicago winters?
Chicago winters. I never go outside.
Do you go back much as an alumni?
Some, but I keep getting older and the kids stay the same age. It feels a little creepy after a while. Everyone still shows me love there, but they all look so young now.
Did you see much of Tim Tebow on campus? Did he ever try to baptize you in Newnan’s Lake?
[Laughs] He didn’t baptize me. I’d see him a lot, but he was a good dude. The only thing I didn’t like is he was always into getting extra credit in class. When I was partying, he was getting extra credit.
Tell me about Noah’s Arc, (your charity, not the biblical story)?
It teaches kids to use art as a way to express themselves.
How inappropriate does the art get? When I was a kid, all I’d draw were animals having sex.
The kids have never expressed themselves by drawing animals having sex. I can safely say that.
Hypothetical alert! You’re forced to have dinner with one of three foils: LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, or the Wizards security team—who’s the lucky date?
[Laughs] Shit, I can’t answer that. I’m not eating with any of them. I mean, it’d definitely be with a player, not security. Nah, I don’t know. I can’t answer. No dinner!
Booooo. What is your least favorite road city these days?
Cleveland is tough. It was less so when LeBron left, but now that he’s back, they’ll be talking a lot of shit again. Maybe Milwaukee. There’s some nastiness there. Minnesota’s not much fun.
What makes Noah happy?
A glass of wine, my fire pit, a nice party and a win. You could be driving home in the middle of terrible traffic, but a win makes it all fine.
What makes Noah sad?
[Pointing to his publicist] Shannon. Seeing some of the things kids go through in our charity. Stuff no kid should have to go through.
What makes Noah mildly ambivalent, yet cautiously optimistic?
First of all, you’re going to have to explain to me what you just said. I guess our team this year? I’m optimistic about that.
What was the hardest thing moving from Paris to Hell’s Kitchen when you were an adolescent?
Guys making fun of my accent and New York playground slang. For a while I thought everyone was speaking a different language.
Considering your multiethnic upbringing, what are some ways in which you look at this country differently than other players?
Coming from different backgrounds, I never got patriotism. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I loved the World Cup, and seeing everybody from different countries get excited, but I just don’t have that kind of pride.
I’m going to mention the countries you’ve called home, OK? France: The French part is I enjoy life, eat well and drink well. I love my wine. And I love my cheese.
Sweden: I like the simplicity there. No drama. They’re very strong, tough people.
Africa: The Cameroon side of me? People there are very outgoing and funny. I think I have that positive vibe.
And America: A 7-foot weirdo, with long hair, can walk around anonymously in New York. You can’t do that in Sweden or France. You can feel everybody looking at you all the time. Even in Africa nobody looks like me.
Coach Thibodeau always looks like he’s on the verge of an aneurism. What, if anything, could you do to calm him down?
He looks like that whether he’s happy or sad. But I’d have him do yoga with me. He could use that.
What’s the most pissed off he’s ever been at you?
He gets pissed off a LOT. But he never makes any clash we have public, and he calms me down a lot as well. He knows when to let me vent.
I’d pay good money to see a sitcom starring you two as comically mismatched roommates.
I don’t know if could watch that.
What kind of groupie FYIs does the NBA provide during rookie orientation?
I think it doesn’t matter what they tell you, you still have to live it. Everybody has stories; I have stories. But I also think there’s a reason why the most together guys in the league had fathers in the league. They were able to learn by watching them.
If a player tests positive for marijuana, the first penalty is an automatic four game suspension and mandatory counseling. Yet, the league now has TWO franchises in states where pot is legal: do players discuss this ridiculousness?
Everybody sees the hypocrisy.
To paraphrase Peter Tosh, if Illinois were to legalize it, would you advertise it?
[Smiles] To quote Bob Marley: Time will tell.
Tell me about meeting the First Bulls fan.
A couple of years ago I was honored to be invited to the White House to play pickup with President Obama, in front of soldiers, for his birthday. I remember the invite got sent to my Hotmail account. My mom was there and I immediately yelled out, “Check this out!” before I could even get down to the part where it said I was allowed a plus one. Of course, she immediately said I had to take her. So, everyone else is there with girlfriends and wives… And I brought my mom.
I bet that got you brownie points with the White House staff, though.
I thought I’d get brownie points, and look cool, by telling Obama that next time I’m in Africa I’d get him a Fela Kuti album. He’s a Nigerian singer/songwriter, and my favorite musician. But of course [the President] responded with, “You think I don’t know who Fela Kuti is?” Yeah, he knew everything about him.
I was always astonished that Bulls and White Sox owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, didn’t make more of a thing about the most powerful man in the world being his teams’ number one fan.
[Nods slowly] Well, I’ll say this: a wise man once said control what you can control. I can’t get upset, or worry about that, because there’s nothing I can do about it.
In your acceptance speech for Defensive Player Of The Year, you mentioned that the trophy was odd looking, and had a bad stance to boot: can you elaborate?
It’s a weird trophy. He’s got this butch looking haircut—it just doesn’t look very good.
As the only other Bull that’s won such an award, did Michael Jordan reach out to you?
No. Not one word.
What’s your weirdest fan interaction?
There was one guy who had a tattoo of me on his inner thigh. It was very strange. And [teammate] Ronnie Brewer thought it’d be funny to bring him into the locker room before the game. Thankfully, I was already dressed. Everyone was dying laughing, except me. And Thibs came in, was wondering what he was doing there, and just went crazy. The guy said his two favorite people in the world were me and Michael Jackson.
Are you a big Thanksgiving fan, or do you have too many passports to care all that much?
I love Thanksgiving! Long live the Indians!
The Cleveland Indians?
No, not the Cleveland kind.
Any final thoughts?
You did a lot of research.
Weeell … I really like you.
Instead of being a selfish SOB, become a charitable MVP by donating to Joakim’s #StandUpChicago campaign at NoahsArcFoundation.org