When the Chicago Bulls selected Joakim Noah with the ninth pick in 2007 NBA draft after he’d won back-to-back national championships at the University of Florida, I wasn’t a fan. My initial thought was that he’d become another bust in the Bulls post-Jordan era.
There’s a lengthy track record of college stars who fell flat once they left campus. Many of Noah’s fellow 2007 draftees ended up that way.
After all, the Chicago faithful sadly recall the Eddy Curry/Tyson Chandler-led “Baby Bulls” era, and how it was over before it barely got started. Looking back at that draft, Noah was one of the better players to pan out along with Kevin Durant, Mike Conley and his college teammate Al Horford.
Noah’s start in Chicago was a rocky one. He was busted for marijuana possession. His teammates also voted to suspend him after he cursed out an assistant coach in another memorable misstep.
But he later matured and became a team leader, eventually becoming a significant contributor in one of the Bulls’ most memorable playoff victories:
Along the way, Noah endeared himself to the city in ways that many professional athletes haven’t. He’s often seen around the city, and not simply the parts that tourists come to see, and has long been outspoken about Chicago’s scourge of violence in the African-American community.
The sad part about Noah’s recent injuries and sub-par play, as opposed to what we’ve become accustomed to, is that the Bulls were never completely healthy when the former NBA Defensive Player of the Year was at full strength.
In the past two off-seasons, the Bulls brought in Pau Gasol and drafted Bobby Portis, essentially lessening Joakim’s role. But that has never affected his commitment to the franchise.
“It's going to be good for our team,” Noah told the Chicago Tribune. "I believe that. I've always been a team-first guy. And that's not going to change."
When an established veteran such as Noah, a guy who is two seasons removed from a fourth place finish in league MVP voting, willingly accepts a lesser role, that makes a positive impact on the team.
Away from the court, the moment that sticks out to me during Noah’s career thus far was his role as one of the producers of the Showtime documentary film on the life of ballyhooed phenom turned precautionary tale, Lenny Cooke.
You may remember that in high school, Cooke was actually considered to be better than LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. In the film, Cooke emotionally expressed how Noah had his back after all of these years when other folks had long forgotten about him. That’s the mark of a beloved teammate.
Every team, at least the good ones, has a guy that is a positive influence on the guys that he plays with. In the era of analytics, Noah may not pass the eye test but what he offers a team can’t be statistically analyzed.
In short, cursing out LeBron James, playing through multiple injuries, telling the media to “chill the f--k out,” along with being outspoken about inner city issues, can get you on the right side of Chicagoans quickly.
Noah has to know that this season might be his last in the Windy City. When a big man’s body begins to betray him, things can go downhill quickly
But regardless of how this season ends, and if it is indeed his last in Chicago, he will go down as one of the most beloved athletes we’ve ever had.