Why We Watch: Joakim Noah, In Pursuit

Joakim Noah was a disaster, right up until the moment he became the best reason to watch the Bulls.
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It is difficult not to notice Joakim Noah, because he is veiny and wild-eyed and loud and reliably unusual in his personal grooming. He wants to be noticed. Which makes it strange, and stranger with every improvement Noah makes, how long it took Chicago fans to see what they had in this awkward-looking, undersized center with the Terminator hands.

Even after winning two championships at the University of Florida, Noah was not an especially inspiring lottery pick; there wasn't some Tim Duncan-ish future there to dream on, and Noah was emphatically not going to fill the long-vacant role of “huge dude who dunks” for the Bulls. It was a little silly, the way that fans fixated on that particular vacancy—there were heated arguments, a year later, on the merits of drafting Michael Beasley instead of Derrick Rose, and no pair of parentheses could hold enough exclamation points to do that debate justice. Bulls fans, like everyone else, wanted Blake Griffin. The crying granny-shot guy with the weird head was not and is not that player.

He was, at the beginning, not much of a player at all. Noah's game seemed to alternate between passing poorly, accepting passes poorly, shooting poorly, and reacting to contact by yowling ferociously and subsequently shooting his free throws poorly. He was, we were told, clearly too small to play center—this was in comparison to Bulls starting center Aaron Gray—and, for all his energy, appeared to have the coordination, balance and footwork of a golden retriever puppy. As the cycle of missed opportunities hummed and spun faster, Noah affected a slump-shouldered resignation. He maybe appeared to be problem-eating. It was not a good time.

The low point of an already low rookie season—on an aimless, playoff-missing team that saw Scott Skiles replaced by soon-to-be-fired interim coach Jim Boylan, in a season referred to by GM John Paxson as “disturbing”—came on a wide-open fast break being run by Kirk Hinrich, with Joakim trailing. Kirk, looking to give this downtrodden rookie a bit of shine, dished a no-look bounce pass for an easy dunk. Joakim missed it completely, did not lay a finger on it. An easy two points careened off of Joakim’s shins. The boos would have been incredible, if anyone was at the game in question; in reality, it was a dull howl muffled by the frigid air of a meat locker. There’s a certain amount of sympathetic embarrassment at work in watching a player who fucked up fall back into the rotation and try to stay in it, but this was nearly unbearable. I recall watching the game, and I remember my eyes watering.

***

The arrival of Derrick Rose helped a lot, of course. There were still fans who hated Noah—those with bitter, photograph memories; those who imagine their centers looking more like centers and less like Joakim Noah—but the improvement was impossible to miss. Noah's “pure center” numbers went up, and he played with new and increasing aggression and purpose, if never quite with anything like grace. Observation bias ensured some push-back on the urge to actually likethe anthropomorphized ponytail prowling the key, but consensus swung. If his hopeless whiffed catch as a rookie crystallized his early hopelessness, his steal-and-dunk-and-1 that fouled Paul Pierce out of this 2009 playoff gamedefined this new, better-loved Noah. Released from that boo-scored prison of himself, Joakim became a mean ball of hustle—albeit one who still made some dubious presentational choices—and demanded, however paradoxically, to be taken seriously. Years later, with or without Rose's precision play on the court, Noah remains the best—or at least the most magnetic and energetic and weird—reason to watch the Bulls.

If this is surprising, and it is a little surprising, it's doubly so that Noah has managed to so thoroughly turn things around while still playing and seeming like himself. If Noah's better than he was during the ugly early stages of his career, he's not appreciably different.His accurate passing—he was always good at that—his Wilhelm scream at the slightest contact at the rim, his oddly flighty no-eye-contact post-game interviews: these are all still him. Here is a dude who will straight up murder a bigger man for an offensive rebound; who has found a relatively decent stroke, despite looking like every time he shoots a basketball it is for the first time ever. The gawky physical awkwardness remains, but it has become endearing, a stylistic signature instead of sour proof of a blown draft pick. There is childlike enthusiasm now where once was just sulky teenage angst; it helps to win, of course, but Chicago fans have also chosen to perceive Noah's Noah-ness differently, and he subsequently performs it more happily. It's a different, happier, sort of relationship, if similarly cyclical.

***

Noah’s Twitter feed is a combination of celebrity charity-work humblebrag, occasional wayward @-replies or vaguely inspirational platitudes, and a constant stream of retweets. Joakim will retweet any mean-spirited insult flung his way, which is by turns annoying and ingenious. His first tweet simply read “General Tso;” it was the only thing on his feed for the first eight days it existed. This trenchant analysis has been retweeted 180 times.

Noah will join teammate (and fellow Why We Watch subject) Luol Deng as an All-Star reserve this year. The announcement spurred a torrent of emotional tweets. Noah thanked every teammate with a twitter handle, the Gators, his mom (for “dealing with my shittiness”), Mobb Deep, Styles P, and underwater training partner/professional surfer Laird Hamilton. Noah signed off, before quickly appending a "shout out to bikram," who is either the controversial yoga guru Bikram Choudhury or someone else. It was just an All-Star berth, of course, and probably not the last of Noah's career. But there was the sense, in that all that goofy gratitude, that Noah had completed another cycle in his career, spun furiously all the way around and then—this being Joakim Noah—taken off in some other direction of his choosing. In search of General Tso's chicken, maybe. In energetic pursuit, definitely.

Illustration by Michael McGrath Jr. of Double Scribble.


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