Commentary

The party is just beginning

A bulked-up Noah has learned NBA's life lessons and is ready to put them to use

Originally Published: October 27, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Joakim Noah was talking about teammate Derrick Rose's return from an ankle injury, but he caught the irony immediately.

"I think conditioning is going to take a little time," Noah said. "He's a little bit winded but that's kind of normal. I can tell you a lot about that actually … "

Noah has no problem laughing at himself and, in this case, his well-earned rep for not exactly being a physical specimen. A little distance and perspective will do that to a person, especially one who started out with a sense of humor in the first place.

Three years in, the NBA landscape is starting to clear for the 6-foot-11 free spirit who wore a seersucker suit, bow tie and look of complete innocence to his coming-out party at the 2007 draft. Except no one warned him that it ain't no party for a rookie big man who's breaking into a league with grown men the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard.

Joakim Noah
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesJoakim Noah impressed during the preseason, averaging 10.3 points and 8.5 rebounds.

He had to learn that and a few other things on his own.

"Oh yeah, it was definitely hard for me," he said of that first year. "I wasn't strong enough. As the years go on, you build a routine. You realize what's good and what's bad, your eating habits, time management. I was terrible. It was McDonald's every night."

To understand where Noah appears to be going after his strongest preseason showing is to appreciate how far he had to come. He says now that despite the warnings at rookie orientation after leading his Florida teams to back-to-back NCAA titles his sophomore and junior seasons, it was all a shock -- the schedule, the media attention, the lack of structure.

"You get to the NBA and you're a 20-year-old guy given all this money and you're free and so much is thrown at you," he said. "People want to talk to you, people you're not maybe used to, getting attention in all kinds of ways. It's definitely a different kind of lifestyle, a lifestyle that only NBA players can tell you about."

The biggest shock, perhaps, as it is for so many pro athletes, was dealing with those closest to him.

"People will tell you about it, but it's another thing when it's in your face," he said. "They tell you to say no when it comes to helping out with money because our careers are so short. But it's hard to say no to somebody you love or somebody who was always there with you when you were growing up. Doctors and people like that, they don't experience those things because they start getting the money we get, not when they're 20 years old, but maybe in their 30s or 40s when they're already established and they have their family and routines."

Noah, 24, says that while he came from a privileged upbringing, he was confronted with many of the same challenges as anyone else once he turned pro.

"A lot of my friends are still in college, young and they want to experience what it's like to be with a basketball player or they need this or need that," he said. "One of your friends gets into trouble and everybody expects you to help. When you go out to dinner, you go to a nice restaurant and nobody else has credit cards."

His wake-up call?

"You understand it once you get the call from your financial advisor that 'You're going down the wrong road, man,'" Noah said. "I'm happy I'm learning about all these things early in my career. Nothing is guaranteed."

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJoakim Noah still is a free spirit, but he's admittedly maturing on and off the court.

Not even the benefit of the doubt, still another lesson he learned over his first two years with the Bulls.

"I don't regret anything, I really don't," he said. "I think everything that happened to me happened for a reason. And I think I learned from it. A lot of the things that happened was [because] we were losing and a lot of the things that happened were really blown out of proportion."

Noah was referring to the infamous "altercation" with Ben Wallace, which resulted in a two-game suspension determined by his teammates.

"It was weird to me how I would turn on the TV and people would act like they knew what happened," Noah said. "But there was no media in there. It was just the team. I never knew who said anything but next thing you know it's on ESPN and all these reporters are calling my room telling me about the altercation between me and Ben Wallace. But that never happened. Did it upset me? Yeah, because I never had scrutiny like that with people saying things that weren't true."

To go from that to a position of responsibility on the team this season has not been lost on Noah.

"I think everybody on the team wants that role, wants to be a person that is counted on, and it's exciting," he said. "I accept that."

So much so that he considers himself a burgeoning leader himself.

"When I talk to the rookies, I don't tell them 'Do this, do that,' because I hated that when they did that to me," he said. "But I try to tell them, 'When I was a rookie, this is what happened to me. And now you make your decision but maybe you don't want to go that route.'"

Or maybe you do and somehow you work your way out of it anyway. That part of the story hasn't yet been written for Noah, but he's getting there.

People still want to talk to him about the steal, full-court drive and dunk that fouled out Boston's Paul Pierce late in the Bulls' triple-overtime victory in Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference first-round playoff series.

But more encouraging was when he walked into the Bulls' media day last month noticeably bulked up after stories of his conditioning work this summer. That was further evident in a preseason in which he averaged 10.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

Asked Tuesday how he felt about this year's team, which will open the season at home Thursday night, Noah could have been talking about himself.

"I think we have a lot of potential," he said. "But we'll have to see when there's any kind of adversity, how we deal with it."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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