Go ahead and hate Noah: He loves that
Joakim Noah's swag is phenomenal. His swag is crazy. His swag is super funky.
These are his words, his truths, because if there's one thing Noah loves to talk about, it's his varieties of swag.
Swag, of course, is Noah's shorthand for swagger, Noah-speak for cool. It could be anything from his seersucker suit on draft night to the way he sneers and belts out a scream after a big play on the court (or a not-so-big play), even if no one is really scared of his scream, because, in truth, he's not very scary at all.
Noah's swag was in full effect when he walked up to Jerry Reinsdorf at practice this past Saturday before the Bulls' series-tying 121-118 victory over the Celtics in Game 4 on Sunday. Noah put one of his oversized mitts on the chairman's back and said, "Whassup, Bossman?" After the casual greeting -- Reinsdorf seemed charmed by it -- Noah promised the Bulls' owner the team would make him proud the next day, which it did.
Noah had 12 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks Sunday, including a ferocious dunk in the deciding second overtime. When things are going well -- when Noah is contributing by tipping the ball around, grabbing rebounds, blocking shots and tomahawking it home -- his swag is a sight to see.
But if you're not a fan of the Florida Gators or the Chicago Bulls or wispy mustaches, you might find the gangly, boisterous Noah and his so-called swag more annoying than Ronnie Woo Woo on Red Bull. You might hate him from his flopping ponytail down to his boat-size Le Coq Sportif high-tops. If you're a Boston Celtics fan, you're probably going to boo him mercilessly Tuesday night.
"Some people like me. Some people really hate me," he said. "It's been like that since I was a little kid. I don't really know what it is, if it's the hair or just the way I am. I just learned to live with it."
When I asked him for reasons fans shouldn't hate him, he said, "I think they should hate me. I really don't understand it, but at the same time, I cherish it. I like the role as the guy opposing fans like to get on."
However "Off the court, I'm not that loud. The way I am on the court and the way I am off the court is that I'm two completely different people," he said.
The on-court Noah, the impossibly long-limbed, nimble 6-foot-11 center, has the potential to be a game-changer on defense. When he is on the offensive end, though, his vulnerabilities are laid bare. Aside from a few feet around the rim, he's perhaps the sixth option, after his four teammates on the court and maybe Bennie the Bull. But he's the one who gets heckled the most.
"All the time," he said. "It's unbelievable. I'm from New York, so I remember going to the Garden and the people we would hassle would be Reggie Miller, Michael Jordan, the best players. Offensively, I'm just getting mine off tip-ins and keeping the ball active. For some reason, fans in other gyms love to hate me. I like it."
"Fans just seem to not like him," said Celtics center Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who battled Noah while in college at LSU.
Playing in the Southeastern Conference, where being eccentric used to mean not pinning your girlfriend until your senior year, Noah understandably took a lot of heat on the road. It didn't help that his Florida team was really good, a high-scoring outfit that rivaled its football team in popularity.
With his antics, Ichabod Crane-on-stilts physique and Sideshow Bob kinky curls, Noah earned the enmity of SEC faithful in gyms from Baton Rouge to Lexington.
(Noah's unique looks have brought him some unwanted attention. He admitted during the NCAA finals in 2006 that UCLA cheerleaders were dogging him, noting sadly at the time, "I mean, it hurts when you have beautiful girls out there just telling you how ugly you are and stuff.")
He got his revenge on detractors by winning, and being a winner has allowed Noah to rage all he wants.
"My favorite story: We were playing [Rajon] Rondo at Rupp Arena in Kentucky," Noah said. "We were up 20 with like three minutes left. We had just made a run. When you go into Rupp, you feel like it's you against the world. Tubby [Smith] calls a timeout, and I'm talking trash, like, 'It's quiet as hell in here, quiet as hell.' And I'm getting hype, and I remember some 60-year-old woman, she screams, 'Noah, show some f---ing class!'"
Noah shakes his head when he tells the story. He gets the irony.
If you talk to Noah, and not just shout obscenities at him, you will find he is smart, funny and genuine in a profession (pro sports) that too often is full of the paranoid, boorish and self-involved.
I agree with his belief that there probably is not a person in the world who had a better time in college than he did. And I liked the garish getup he wore on draft night, although I took it as a goof, a jab at the prepackaged pretentiousness of professional sports. He just thought it looked "super funky."
I'll admit to being a hater, too. Sometimes I watch him play and think he looks like a neophyte soccer player chasing after the ball. There were times last season when I wondered whether he was cut out for the NBA game at all.
And like most haters, I wondered why he often acted like such a goof (with the yelling and chest-pounding routines on the court and the overeager cheeseball routines off it) when, given his bloodline (Yannick Noah, the uber-cool tennis star/reggae sensation, and a former Miss Sweden), he should be the smoothest guy in any room.
He explains that his larger-than-life personality probably stems from being the too-tall, too-French son of a peripatetic, famous father and an artist mother who raised him during his formative years in New York City.
The move to New York turned out to be a blessing for the son of the "most famous dude in France." He wasn't cloistered with one race, one class of people. His whole persona works as a magnet to pull people in, which is why he was so beloved on his Gators team. He doesn't have to change his personality for his surroundings.
"Living in New York, I was always different than everybody else," he said. "I cherish that, because of basketball and my upbringing, I can reach out to a lot of people. Sometimes it rubs people the wrong way. I think I'm happy with who I am."
Noah brought his swag from Gainesville to the NBA, and some wondered whether it was valid. The NBA is a man's league, and it's littered with the corpses of "big men on campus" whose games didn't mature. Noah was drafted ninth overall in 2007 as a complementary big man, which can be uncomfortable when the fans expect numbers to go along with the zeroes on your paycheck. Pretty quickly, it was apparent Noah wasn't ready for the NBA.
Early on, he got into it with an assistant coach, looking like just another cocky rookie, and was publicly reprimanded by his veteran teammates. And, oh yeah, the Bulls absolutely stunk in every way possible. They were selfish, uncoachable and the epitome of indulgent, overpaid jocks. This team drove then-coach Scott Skiles mad.
But now, with superstar Derrick Rose running the show and feeding him post passes in the stomach, Noah seems to have matured, realizing the old canard that pro basketball is a game in name only. It's really a business.
"I feel more comfortable," he said. "I feel like I'm better conditioned. I began the year hurt, and it took longer than expected to get back into playing shape and get comfortable with the new system. I feel better now."
"He's a real energy guy," Davis said. "You can't lay off him. You have to make sure you know where he's at, because he's always around the play. He might tip the ball out, and sometimes that determines ballgames."
Last season was Noah's first not making the postseason. Needless to say, the competitor in him is enjoying the playoff experience in 2009.
"This is what it's all about," he said. "Huge crowds, everyone on the floor really wants to win. Everything you do is meaningful. Every screen you set is big. Everything's magnified, and I love it."
Noah admits he "world toured" a bit too much last summer, traveling to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Miami, France and Sweden. Whenever this season ends, he plans to split his time between Chicago and Bradenton, Fla., where he is scheduled to train at the IMG Academy.
The French national team wants him to join the squad for the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament. He isn't sure about that, though. He knows he needs to focus on adding more bulk because, as he's found out, swag takes you only so far.
"You got to take this seriously," he said.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com