Joakim Noah and the Bulls secrets


Feb 15

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There is a secret to the Bulls’ success, however limited it still remains, and Joakim Noah gave it away Friday.

His Bulls, and they have become his this season as much as ever–if there is such a thing, anyway, in a team game–with Derrick Rose out and Luol Deng traded as they have continued to surprise and impress going into All-Star break with sights on third place in the Eastern Conference. They’re not in anyone’s championship or serious playoff contender discussions, though Noah says such stuff doesn’t matter much to he and his teammates.

“We’re not worried about what people are saying,” Noah offered Friday addressing reporters in the big pre-All Star press conferences in New Orleans. “It changes day to day after every game, so you cannot get caught up in that. If we concentrate on the process and get better that’s all we can ask for.

“To be able to compete with a lot of these guys is something I can’t take for granted, ever,” said Noah. “I never thought in my wildest dreams I could have a chance (to be an NBA player yet All-Star). So I always keep that underdog mentality because of those times.”

“To be able to compete with a lot of these guys is something I can’t take for granted, ever,” said Noah. “I never thought in my wildest dreams I could have a chance (to be an NBA player yet All-Star). So I always keep that underdog mentality because of those times.”

“That takes away all the pressure,” say Noah. ”I think (we will surprise). I believe it. It’s all positive because I really believe we’re going to play in those big games. And all these experiences are going to give us a shot when that day comes. I believe that in all my heart.”

As Noah spoke, he peered around the room to see Carmelo Anthony talking about his pending free agency and perhaps taking less money in a contract extension to help build a better team in New York. There had been Dwight Howard earlier making faces and funny voices and fellow Frenchman Tony Parker across the way still trying to get past that Game 6 of the Finals.

At one time, Joakim Noah, two-time NBA All-Star, was handing them towels and picking up the dirty ones at the big summer ABCD camp that all the big prospects attended. Noah got to go because his coach was helping out in maintenance. It is a remarkable story about overcoming obstacles and facing adversity, of not giving in and instead putting out more.

It’s not unique as many NBA players have done so in difficult adolescences. Though there are few entire teams that have done as well as the Bulls and who have so many players carrying that “dare you to knock it off” chip on their shoulders.

It’s hardly a recommended recipe for success. And it truly only takes you so far without the highest level of talent. But this kind of personnel stew can become surprisingly appetizing to a hungry community and franchise.

“Taj Gibson, he’s the guy (coming off the bench) who’s been picking up the scoring load,” said Noah, frequently thanking his teammates for getting him to All-Star status. “D.J. Augustin. I wouldn’t be here without him. I’m a guy who scores on opportunity. Without my teammates, I would not be in this position. I’m playing for them.

“D.J., he fits perfectly,” said Noah. “He’s somebody who’s been through a lot the last two, three years, someone who’s had a lot of ups and downs in his career. Someone who was cut and got the opportunity and showed what he can do. To me, I love that. I love the underdog mentality. I try to play with that underdog mentality. That’s where we come from. It makes him a perfect fit for the Chicago Bulls.

“I think we are the team that definitely has gone through the most this season in terms of adversity,” said Noah. “We showed a lot of fight. I’m proud of that. Being able to be with that group of players with their hearts on their sleeves giving everything during a ballgame. That’s honorable. Win or lose to give everything. Nobody does that better than the Chicago Bulls. I’m so happy to be a part of that.”

These guys can’t rest, really, because they’ve all had to work so hard and long to get there and always seem on the verge of having it all taken away so quickly.

Call them the Replaceables.

Noah was not only a skinny, late bloomer with even still questioned skills, but a collegiate champion whose draft stock plummeted by the time he was ready for the NBA and whose teammates famously suspended him.

Kirk Hinrich is with his third team in the last four seasons, plagued by injuries and literally not only given away by the Bulls in 2010 but having to add a No. 1 pick to get the Wizards to take Hinrich.

Augustin is with his third team in two seasons after being released by Toronto this season and rarely playing for Indiana last season who upgraded with C.J. Watson.

Gibson remains a reserve in his fifth season and turning 29 in four months.

Mike Dunleavy is with his fourth team and rumored to be traded.

Carlos Boozer is the subject of constant amnesty speculation that the team would pay him not to play.

Jimmy Butler was the last pick in the first round, a shooting guard who shoots poorly.

“To be able to compete with a lot of these guys is something I can’t take for granted, ever,” said Noah. “I never thought in my wildest dreams I could have a chance (to be an NBA player yet All-Star). So I always keep that underdog mentality because of those times.”

There is something to not knowing where your next meal is coming from; not that it’s a goal. Like Lee Trevino used to say about his golf hustling days. Pressure is a $100 match when you have $5 in your pocket. These players, no offense, are not in too many award conversations or much desired by anyone. Except one another.

“People know when you talk about the Chicago Bulls, there’s nobody going out there and giving more than us,” insisted Noah. “Whether win or lose. I’m proud to be a part of that. Going through adversity reveals true character. We’re showing we can play with anybody. We’re not scared of anybody.”

No one can say where it will lead as the Bulls with their limited roster and history of health issues continue to resemble Nik Wallenda teetering just above the churning waters of NBA competition. But the Bulls seem to be able to hold their balance as well.

Of course, that’s the challenge this weekend as before the fun of the All-Star game comes the fun of the French Quarter for the kid known to his New York buddies as Frenchie. A dozen of them are here with Noah, his howling “wolf pack” of buddies. And as we know few enjoy life more than Noah.

“I’ll be on Bourbon Street,” Noah assured everyone.

But you also know he’ll be in his lane when it’s time to be serious. And if hungry and serious has taken them all this far, well, then who knows what are the limits.

“We think we’re the hardest working team in the NBA,” said Noah. “On the court, off the court the way we practice, how we carry ourselves. I’m proud we have an identity. When you play the Chicago Bulls it’s going to be tough. We might not have the talent right now. Our most talented guy is out. But at the end of the day I am proud of our basketball identity.

“Derrick’s voice (also) means so much to this team,” said Noah of another of his teammates who now knows misfortune and about being dismissed. “I see him talk to Jimmy Butler during a game, to Tony Snell. He talks to me all the time. It gives us confidence. He has that much impact on this team. His words go a long way. He’s our star player and a good dude. That’s why it’s so hard to see him go down again. But he’s a warrior. He never lets up. The way he’s working now you know our time will come.”

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