Where Is Joakim Noah Going? Where Has He Been?

It’s easy to mock Joakim Noah and hard as hell to beat him.

Joakim Noah, the Chicago Bulls’ All-Star center and certified eccentric, has just finished a grueling team workout. Drenched in sweat, knees swaddled in ice packs, the 29-year-old vet—he of the Sideshow Bob hairdo, wild on-court gesticulations, and alternative medical treatment methods (rooster plus battery-aided electric shock therapy)—looks like nothing more than what he is: an elite professional athlete putting in the work for the upcoming season.

You’d never know he’s coming off one of the most striking campaigns in recent NBA history. In November 2013, Derrick Rose, the team’s point guard and 2011’s NBA Most Valuable Player, tore up a knee, losing his second straight season to injury. Just like that, Chicago’s would-be title run turned into a throwaway, with the remaining Bulls simply trying to keep things respectable as they awaited Rose’s return. Instead, Noah stepped up, becoming a 6’11” ball handler with a twisting, broken-down embarrassment of a jumper—Noah once joked it was so bad that it demoralized other teams when it went in. It was something the league hadn’t seen since the glory days of Bill Walton and his Carrot Top ’fro and Grateful Dead fixation. 

Along with being named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, Noah became the heart of a rebuilt offense, recording four triple doubles and nearly 80 touches a game, more than his way flashier, All-Star counterparts LeBron James, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook. He also became just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 12 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists per game (the others: Walton, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell). That’s pretty heavy company for a guy described by teammate Taj Gibson with a single phrase, one that for better and worse has followed Noah around his whole life: “He’s a weirdo.” Derrick Rose says the same thing, albeit with a caveat. “We love to be around him,” he adds, “and it’s much more than basketball with me and him. He’s a caring guy, and I love him to death.”

Noah isn’t weird, not really: not when you think about his background (Sweden, France, New York) and how he was raised (Mom, Cecilia Rodhe, a former Miss Sweden; Dad, Yannick Noah, a Grand Slam–winning French tennis player turned middle-aged Europop star). When you look at it that way, you realize he’s just different. Talk to anyone who knows him, from his coaches to his teammates, and they all say the same thing: Noah has the drive that all big-time athletes possess. “He’s a character,” concedes Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls’ shout-y, Do Things the Right Way coach. “But you know how important winning is to him.”

Back to that upbringing. every NBA player has an origin story, usually with some setback he had to overcome, often poverty or a broken home, or sadly, both; those challenges strengthened him, helped him develop the laser-like focus needed to play a kid’s game at the highest level. Noah doesn’t have that kind of story. He grew up wealthy, in Paris and Manhattan, around celebrities and models. He attended a leafy private prep school more like Harvard or Princeton than the inner-city public schools that produced most of his peers. So you’ll have to forgive the dudes around the league who just don’t get him: They come from different worlds. In his rookie season, Noah’s teammates unanimously voted to suspend him for two games after disagreements over his attitude—they didn’t like his habit of criticizing their work ethic to the media—and an altercation with an assistant coach. College teammate Al Horford, now a star power forward with the Atlanta Hawks, came to Noah’s defense, calling him “very emotional” and “very competitive,” while adding, “I think people will figure him out as time goes on.”

Figuring Noah out has always been tough. Born in New York City, he moved to Paris at three. When he was 13, his parents divorced, and he returned to the U.S. with his sister and mother, who rented an apartment in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, in part, at least, to toughen him up. Noah, as usual, took that idea one step further. Picture the gangly six-footer at Harlem’s famed Rucker Park, trying to get next in a place where being good isn’t good enough: You’d best be ready to talk trash, too. “Guys made fun of my French accent,” Noah says. “I couldn’t understand the New York slang. I thought everyone was speaking a different language.” The kid fought through it, and eventually people accepted him because he had game. “It really helped me get my confidence up,’’ Noah has noted. “Those are pretty hostile environments. If you can play there, you can play anywhere.”

And he did, heading to the University of Florida, a Deep South football school that had never seen anyone like him. He was the linchpin of a team that won two national championships, and Noah—fist-pumping, beating his chest, shouting into the stands—became a hero to Gator Nation…and public enemy number one to opposing fans. In one infamous incident at Kentucky, a cheerleader taunted him with her, uh, pom-poms, after he fell to the floor in front of her. Players have always had it rough in rivals’ gyms, but the vitriol Noah inspired was next-level. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Horford observes. “At first we thought it was funny. [But] when it gets to the point where it’s that bad, it’s overwhelming.” 

If it bothered Noah, he didn’t let on. Part of what makes him so compelling is that he doesn’t change: People just get used to him. “The French part of me enjoys life,” he says. “I eat well and drink well. I love my wine. And I love my cheese. The Swedish part, from my mother: I like the simplicity. No drama. Swedish people are very strong, and tough.” The American side? Noah sums it up with this characterization of his hometown. “A seven-foot weirdo with long hair can walk around anonymously in New York. You can’t do that in Sweden or France. There you can feel everybody looking at you all the time.”

Noah wasn’t anonymous at Florida, but he did have fun. Maybe too much fun. He once remarked that the more games he won, the less often he went to class. He doesn’t talk like that now, but he does concede that the “quality of life” in Florida was excellent. “There’s a reason I went back for a second try at a championship rather than going to the NBA in 2006,” he says. Along the way, he also became friends with Tim Tebow, Florida’s All-God quarterback. “He didn’t baptize me, no,” Noah says with a laugh. “But I’d see him a lot. He was a good dude. The only thing I didn’t like was that he was always into getting extra credit in class. When I was partying, he was getting extra credit. I didn’t like that.”

Photo: Getty Images

Among the mementos from his time in Gainesville is one of the Gators’ championship nets. “I honestly don’t remember how I ended up with it, but it’s the real net,” he says. “I don’t know where the one they displayed came from. The worst part is, I just moved, and now I can’t find it!”

To his detriment, Noah kept partying after he entered the NBA. In his rookie year, he was arrested in Florida for possession of marijuana. But he insists he’s now more devoted to lifting weights, slurping down protein-powder shakes, and supporting his Noah’s Arc charity than hitting the nightclubs. Still, he’s no choirboy. Before posing for a recent photo shoot, he needed a bit of liquid courage, he says. A couple of tequila shots did the trick. And while he doesn’t discuss his drug use, the self-proclaimed “Rasta at heart” doesn’t shy away from criticizing the NBA’s policy of suspending players who test positive three times for marijuana, this in a country where the drug has been legalized for medical use in 21 states. “Every player sees the hypocrisy in that,” he says. Not that Noah cares about how others see things. In 2010, a group of NBA stars were invited to the White House to play a presidential pickup game. Most brought their wives or girlfriends. Not Noah. “I brought my mom.” 

The NBA success wasn’t expected. Noah was supposed to be a banger, to rebound and piss off his opponents. “You’d watch him in college,” says coach Thibodeau, “and you’re like, ‘I like him—but I don’t know what I like about him.’ ” (Of his oft-apoplectic coach, Noah says, “He looks like that whether he’s happy or sad, but I’d have him do yoga with me. He could use that. Thibs gets pissed off a lot. But he also calms me down a lot. He knows when to let me vent.”) Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey, in an article he wrote during Noah’s rookie season, vowed that if Noah ever amounted to a “useful” player in the NBA, he’d slather his story in salsa and eat it. Two years later, Morrissey came to the Bulls’ practice facility and did just that. “Tasted like a crow enchilada,” he said.

Noah isn’t thinking about the past, though, not even that last season. There’s too much going on. Rose is back, and the Bulls have just signed former Lakers great Pau Gasol. And of course, everyone is talking about LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Everyone but Noah. “It’s not about them,” he says. “It’s about us being as solid a team as we’ve ever been.” And that means a leading role for a weirdo who may not be so weird after all. 

Photos by tag hi Naderzad