With Joakim Noah, the defense never rests


Apr 22

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Love is what truly makes Joakim Noah who he is.

Love of his family, who was there Monday when Noah received the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, love of his teammates, whom he credited for his success, love of the fans, who thrill to his passion, and love of the game, a love that is on display every moment Noah is on the basketball court, a lifelong flame that has rarely flickered.

Ever wonder why Noah looks into the stands after a big play or big moment on the basketball court? His father, Yannick, understands, because it is the true meaning of sport displayed by people like Jo, like Yannick did when he was a French Open champion, a higher calling that really symbolizes what sports should be about. They understand; Jo’s teaching all of us.

Love of his family, who was there Monday when Noah received the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, love of his teammates, whom he credited for his success, love of the fans, who thrill to his passion, and love of the game, a love that is on display every moment Noah is on the basketball court, a life long flame that has rarely flickered.

Love of his family, who was there Monday when Noah received the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, love of his teammates, whom he credited for his success, love of the fans, who thrill to his passion, and love of the game, a love that is on display every moment Noah is on the basketball court, a life long flame that has rarely flickered.

“It’s about sharing,” said Yannick, who attended the award press conference at the Lincolnshire Marriott with Noah’s mother, siblings and friends. “When you see him score a goal, the first thing he does is look at the people. You play for the people; you play to make them happy. Their joy is your joy. You can do great things at practice by yourself, but it’s not the same as when you can share it.

“He gets excited because he knows he makes people happy,” Yannick explained. “That’s his energy, people. He loves people he doesn’t know, his fans. That’s the people he’s playing for.

“I was excited when I played,” said Yannick. “I was lucky to win the French because it was at home; it made a lot of people happy. That is the best reward ever, to make people happy. I know that’s what matters for him. Firsts of all family and teammates, make them happy. That’s what makes him happy. That’s a great thing to have when you are in a team sport, isn’t it?”

It really is Noah’s secret that escapes so many of us in the material pursuit of big time sports.

You can love the game; but it doesn’t always resonate if you don’t love mankind and try to make it better.

Noah won a car with the award and was thrilled he could donate it to his foundation.

Too often we in the United States get lost in the race for riches and rewards and forget the meaning of where love in your heart can take a person. It’s perhaps why the Founders of the United States loved France and the French people so much. Benjamin Franklin wouldn’t come home to his family for years. Thomas Jefferson missed the Constitutional Convention because he stayed in Paris. There would have been no United States in the Revolutionary War without the help of the French. They’ve always been something of a mystery to Americans, who can’t always understand the passions for food, the kissing, the parties, the art. The greatest American writers journeyed there for the inspiration.

Though it probably is mostly inherited.

Joakim dressed for the occasion Monday, which meant for him a collared shirt, dark slacks, sneakers and hair tied neatly in a bun.

Joakim addressed his family, smiling when he called his young sisters “beautiful little hippies,” and thanking his parents, whom he noted divorced when he was young.

“Dad,” Joakim began, “I just want to tell you you’ve always been there for me. I appreciate you so much. All the work ethic comes from you. Mom, seriously, I don’t even know what to say. Every day, I’m sorry for all the hard times I put you through. A single mom in New York City is not easy. But I know you’re proud.”

Joakim called Defensive Player a team award and singled out Kirk Hinrich, “the old man picking up full court,” Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy, the latter when he got 10 stitches at halftime against the Rockets in March and came back to take a charge immediately after halftime.

“Those are things I’ll never forget,” Noah said. “Keep fighting; never let up. I’m so proud. It’s bigger than awards. It’s something I’ll never forget throughout all the adversity we’ve gone through, being in this position getting this award.”

Joakim, whose passion has been known to run over in practice and in games, told a cute story about a particularly tough workout with coach Tom Thibodeau. “I told him, ‘You know, Thibs, if we weren’t winning, I would really, really hate you,” Noah said with a laugh. “He said, ‘Trust me, Jo. I feel the same way about you.’ I’m thankful we’ve won more than we lost.” But Noah did say without Thibodeau’s defensive system of play and demands he never would have reached these heights.

Joakim, trying to retain his emotions, then thanked his late basketball mentor, Tyrone Green, who died last week at 63.

“This award goes to somebody who I’ll never forget, somebody who just passed and meant so much to me, who believed in me,” said Joakim. “Mr. Green, I love you. I appreciate you. And I know you’re smiling down right now really proud. This award goes to you. Thank you. I know I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for him. It’s hard to talk about because there’s so much going on right now. But that was my guy. And I love him.”

Noah then peered back at the award, a bronzed man in a squatting position.

“This award is not about me even though I get to go home with that weird looking dude,” Jo said with a laugh. “That’s not even a great defensive stance. This is about team. It’s not about awards. It’s about winning. Winning is what makes me happy.”

It’s the game and there’s a love Joakim displays that is so infectious it’s almost hypnotic. You watch him and the Bulls and you don’t want anyone to snap his fingers.

That Joakim is here perhaps is the biggest mystery.

No one really thought any of this was in Joakim’s future; not his father, an international tennis star; not his mother, a worldwide beauty queen and Miss Sweden; really, not even Jo, says Yannick.

Yannick, the guy with the gap toothed smile resembling Jo who is often seen at Bulls games jumping up and down, admits he still marvels at the ovations for his son, in introductions, the chants of “MVP” when Jo is shooting free throws.

“As a father I’m happy because he is living his dream,” Yannick was saying after Joakim accepted the award. “He dreamt about this. I don’t think he ever believed it would happen; we didn’t really believe. But I know he was pushing.

“He was too skinny,” Yannick said with a laugh, “couldn’t shoot, couldn’t jump, couldn’t do a lot of things. The only thing I knew he had was his drive. That was unbelievable. We would take him to games and he’d play like two minutes and be all excited because he had a rebound. That was amazing. The funny thing is he’s still like that. He’s still excited about playing, about winning, about his teammates. He’s still excited about basketball.”

It seems so simple and so obvious, yet is so rare and special. It’s a pure, honest, committed love; love for the game unencumbered by the distractions of the day.

Yannick laughed when he talked about sitting with Green watching a game when Joakim was 15 or 16. “He told me, ‘I’ll get him there.’ I said, ‘Where are you going to get him? To the next tournament? ABCD camp?’ He said, ‘No, we’re gonna get him to the NBA.’ I never believed even though it was Joakim’s dream. Now, every time he is introduced at the United Center I just can’t believe it.”

Yannick spoke with the wonder in his eyes of a child for his child.

“It was a long road,” he said. “Long years, a lot of work, a lot of pain, a lot of practice, a lot of sweat, a lot of worries. Very tough year (this season). Very tough week. He’s still standing. Very proud because he’s still standing.”

Yannick said he can remember buying the basketball trading cards for Joakim, trying to find the valuable ones with the autographs.

“I used to try to go out and get some cards signed, cost me a fortune,” said Yannick with a smile. “He used to collect these things. I said, ‘What do you do with these cards?’ He had all the cards, knew all the teams, the sixth man, seventh man, had the shirts, the magazines, back in the day the VHS (tapes). When I hear his name (now) mentioned with those names I am shocked. These are the guys of my generation I used to love watching on TV and telling him about. It’s amazing.”

Joakim is the second Bulls player ever after Michael Jordan to win Defensive Player of the Year. Other winners have included Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Gary Payton, Ben Wallace, Kevin Garnett and Alonzo Mourning.

“When I hear his name mentioned in the same sentence with all these players I think it’s a joke somewhere,” said Yannick.

Joakim was an overwhelming winner with 100 of the 125 first place votes. Roy Hibbert was second and DeAndre Jordan third.

“People think what the game is what they see on the court, and it is,” Yannick was saying as he discussed Jo’s first seasons with the Bulls, which were unpleasant for Joakim and which he’s never really discussed. “It’s also what happens in the locker room, the conversations, the energy someone can put out, to be a leader with a group. What happens on the bus after loss. How you bounce back. If I was on a team sport I would want to have Joakim on my team.”

So much for all the analytics. Often there’s more to a game than just the numbers, and Joakim never has been about numbers.

“I remember him being suspended by his own team,” recalled Yannick of the infamous incident from his rookie year when he played just 14 games with injuries. “Who he was I thought it was the most insulting thing I ever heard. I remember his first interview. He said we should have played tougher defense, which was the truth. His coach kind of destroyed him for that (Scott Skiles said he should play before talking).”

Yannick said coming from championships at the U of Florida and his leadership role, Joakim was frustrated being unable to play.

“He wanted to give more,” said Yannick. “Sometimes I felt he wanted to give so much; when I was calling him my first idea was to slow him down. He was playing too much through injuries; he was frustrated he couldn’t show what he could do. This is the first year he can give everything he can (because of good health).

“He played in Florida and all of a sudden he was asked to try to grab rebounds; he did not feel he was playing,” explained Yannick. “It’s a game (and it’s a passion). (Now) he’s touching the ball; not just trying to grab a rebound and get punched. Now he’s playing; he’s happy.”

And we’re the ones smiling. Because all you need is love.

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