Joakim Noah giving back to community
Bulls center hosts camp for kids in New York with mother, former coach
NEW YORK -- It's a few minutes past 4 p.m. on an August Friday, and the excitement is palpable at the Variety Boys & Girls Club in Astoria, Queens.
Several preteens stand in the lobby while a few parents and a photographer look on, waiting for the arrival of the day's special guest. Volunteers scurry back and forth trying to tie up some loose ends as other neighborhood children shuffle in and out of classrooms, some trying to figure out exactly what is going on. Small banners dot the walls announcing the special events that have already started taking place in the building. The old facility on 30th Street has a different kind of energy to it on this day.
It's not every day that an NBA player, one who spent many of his formative years working on his game around the area, comes back to visit. It's also not every day that you see a 7-foot, 260-pound man with a curly ponytail walk around in a red tank top and blue checkered shorts. But then again, you never know exactly what to expect when you see -- and hear -- Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah.
That's why everyone has gathered here today, and that's why they're so excited when the happy-go-lucky big man walks up the steps and strides through the double doors. It seems as though everybody gets a handshake or a hug. He would stand and talk to everybody for a while if he could, but the events are under way and he has to attempt to stay on schedule. It's his foundation's inaugural Stickman Day, after all, and everybody wants a moment of his time. So he heads down the stairs and down the hall with the same confident swagger he displays on the basketball floor.
Noah has control of any room he enters because of his outgoing personality, but this particular room in the far corner is a little different. That's because the arts and crafts room is filled with young girls, as well as two of the most important women in his life -- his mom, Cecilia Rodhe, and his sister, Yelena Noah. Rodhe, an accomplished sculptor and art therapist, has spent the past couple of hours working with the girls, and now it's time to show some of the finished clay sculpture to the man of the hour.
"Hello, ladies," Noah says as he ducks underneath the doorway to enter the classroom.
He high-fives all the girls around the table and gives his mom a hug and a kiss as the students begin to describe their creations. One by one, each girl gives a brief synopsis of her project as Noah listens intently. Each girl gets his undivided attention, but one particular explanation piques his interest a little more. A shy girl with a ponytail finally speaks up and acknowledges her design.
"It's called 'Fear of the Unknown,'" she says before unleashing a stream of consciousness that the basketball star, who is never afraid to express his emotions, can appreciate. "I don't know what's going to happen. I could be happy, I could be sad, I could be angry, I could be bored, I could be riding my bike down the hill for all I know. But I never know what's going to happen next and I'm kind of scared of what's going to happen next because I never know because they're my choices."
"You know what?" Noah interjects. "There's nothing wrong with that, and I think that's really interesting. Never being scared of the unknown because everybody has a different path. You just got to be confident and believe in yourself. Everybody's path is different. You should never be scared of being different. You can't choose it. There's going to be highs, and there's going to be lows. There's going to be happy moments and there's going to be sad moments, but that's something called life."
A smile breaks across Noah's face as the girls nervously laugh around the table.
It's the first of many light moments on the day, but the message he is trying to get across to the little girls in his mom's class is the same message he'll be delivering throughout the day. The same motto he has lived his whole life by, and it's the bedrock of his Noah's Arc Foundation: It's OK to be different. It's OK to not be like everybody else.
If you're wondering how Noah came to be at the Boys & Girls Club in Astoria, Queens, you should get to know the man who is bouncing around the gym in a pink shirt. That man is Tyrone Green, the 60-year-old program director of For the Good of the Neighborhood, a not-for-profit organization that helps kids throughout the city. He's also the man Noah credits with teaching him the finer points of the game.
In many ways, the reason Noah even agreed to launch such an important event at this particular Boys & Girls Club, and the reason his mom is downstairs teaching pottery classes at this quaint neighborhood gathering place outside of Manhattan, is because of Green's influence.
It's the same place Green came to 50 years ago.
"You watch," Green says excitedly before his prize pupil's arrival. "He'll still call me Mr. Green."
The respect and love that Noah has for Green is evident long before the Bulls center sets foot in the gymnasium. It started in the first few months after Noah and his family moved to New York City from France in 1998, and it has grown into the type of student/teacher relationship that any coach or mentor can appreciate. It's a relationship that's so unlikely that even Green has to shake his head and grin as he recalls the memory.
"I'm sitting in Hell's Kitchen one night, and I'm the director of a Police Athletic Center. It's the craziest thing, this lady [a Noah family friend] calls me and says she has a kid that wants to play basketball," he said. "He just moved here from Europe. Didn't say who it was. I said, 'Have him come down.'
"Next day this kid comes in, he's about 5-8, that's why I started calling him 'Stickman.' He came into the gym and said, 'I want to play basketball.'"
Green wasn't sure what to think when the scrawny French kid first entered his program.
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"I said, 'Here we go again, another Jordan,' I'm saying to myself," Green said. "Didn't know who Cecilia was, didn't know he was Yannick Noah's son. The lady looked up my name in the Yellow Pages, and that's how Jo and I met. A freak accident."
It was an accident that Noah is convinced helped propel him to the NBA platform he finds himself on today.
From that point on, he lived in Green's gym and literally lived with Green and his wife, Cookie, in the summertime. He spent hour after hour working on his game, and, after some initial trepidation, Green realized he had a star in the making.
"When I used to see him in the gym, everybody would be fooling around," Green said. "He'd be shooting foul shots, and dribbling back and forth, back and forth. 'Am I doing it right, Mr. Green?' Back and forth, back and forth."
Make no mistake, Noah is still close with his father, Yannick. (Noah's parents divorced before Rodhe and the kids moved to New York.) They still talk all the time, and Yannick still attends a handful of Joakim's games every season. Noah thinks the world of his father. It's just that when Rodhe moved her son and daughter to the States, Green became one of the dominant male figures in Joakim's life. When his mother and sister would leave town and head back to Europe and beyond, Noah would spend his time with the Greens in his teenage years. Each man has an immense amount of respect for the other, and that is clear any time they are together, as they are today.
It was a completely different existence from what Noah was used to, but one he learned to love over time.
"I was a kid who grew up in France," Noah said. "I moved from France when I was 13 years old, and I was kind of lost in here in New York City. Didn't speak English very well; I spoke with an accent, I didn't understand when kids would talk to me out here. Mr. Green, he took an interest in me really early, and I think that the message I got from him was if you want to get better, in the summertime, you can't leave in the summertime and go on vacation."
So Noah stayed, missing out on numerous family trips so he and Green could continue to work on his game, and, in the process, expose him to an entirely different part of the world.
"It was tough to leave my family behind in the summertime and stay with Mr. Green and just work on my game," Noah admits. "But if it wasn't for those summers, I don't think I would be here playing in the NBA because I think it made me the player that I am today. I feel like I got my heart and my toughness playing out in the streets out here."
Without Green's tough-love approach, Noah knows he wouldn't have been ready for all the challenges that have come his way -- on and off the floor.
"My father was a tennis player. I grew up in one of the [fanciest] neighborhoods in France, and if it wasn't for Mr. Green, I would have never seen that side of life," Noah said. "Playing in the park, playing in all these street tournaments, playing all around the city helped me become the player that I am today."
Obviously, Green knows firsthand the types of sacrifices that both coach and pupil had to make to accomplish their goal.
"We'd miss the bus every night," Green says with a laugh. "Every night. We'd have to walk from Main Street to my home. It's like a mile and a half; I'd say, 'Jo, man, you're killing me here.' He'd say, 'Come on, Mr. Green,' then I couldn't eat because it was like 12 o'clock at night.
"And I said, 'This kid's going to go to the NBA.' Everybody used to laugh at me, I swear, everybody used to laugh at me." Through all the ups and downs, Green takes pride in the fact that he was able to open Noah's eyes to the world around him.
"Jo always wanted to give back to the kids," he said. "I was walking through Bedford-Stuyvesant one day about 13 years ago, and Jo said to me, 'Why is that man out in the street like this, Mr. Green? The United States is the richest country in the world.' I'll never forget that.
"Jo said if [he] ever made it, he would come back and do something, and he kept his word -- 13 years ago, and he kept his word. He's still doing it. And he didn't have to come back to Queens; he does not live in Queens. He came to Queens, came right into the hood and said, 'I want to do it right out here in the housing projects and help the kids in the inner city.'"
Thirteen years later, Rodhe is thankful for the relationship between Green and her son.
"Mentors are crucial," she said. "Guys, teachers, people that we encounter in our lives. We all have met people that taught us things outside from school, and Tyrone was very important to Joakim. He met him at the right time, when he was 13 years old, and he was certainly a great help to me when I would call up when he was 15 and I wouldn't know what to do anymore.
"What do I do? He said, 'Calm down, you'll be fine.' He was very supportive to me having a raging teenager in the house. Because of the discipline in the sports and the mentorship of Tyrone, I think it really helped shape Joakim in the right direction. Tyrone is a wonderful man, and he has dedicated 30, 40 years of his life to help children. He's for real. This man is somebody who doesn't only talk but he walks the walk. I think that that is a great inspiration. To have that kind of imagery in front of you when you grow up, I think that Tyrone has also helped Joakim become the man that he is today."
Green had Noah ride with him and his family to the funeral when Cookie passed away several years ago.
"I sometimes feel like crying," he says while trying to explain just how proud he is of Noah. "I wish my wife was here to see that, too. I'm so proud of him. My chest is out as big as the Empire State Building. That's how big my chest is."
"He's the son that I never had," he says a few moments later, his voice cracking with emotion. Despite the sadness Green has endured, watching Noah grow from a boy into a man has eased some of the pain. He rarely misses a game on television and still sees the same drive in Noah that he did when they first met.
"I've never seen a kid work so hard in my life," the proud coach says now. "Everybody used to laugh at Jo. At one time, I had him, Charlie Villanueva; we had one of the best teams in the country. The Long Island Panthers, a real big program. We had Lamar Odom, Speedy Claxton [all four players were in the AAU program at the same time on different teams], and they used to laugh at Jo, and I said, 'This is the kid.'
"He motivates kids now. Everybody [says], 'I want to be like Jo.' He's the type of kid that could go in a room and everybody stops and listens to what he says."
Green's proclamation was spot-on throughout the day, especially in the basketball portion of the proceedings. That's because Noah replaced Green and prowled the sideline barking instructions. Noah's foundation clearly isn't just centered around basketball, but it's obvious how passionate the big man is about the game.
From the opening tip of the first game, Noah is bouncing up and down the sideline as though he were watching his own Bulls play, shouting instructions and encouragement. When his team struggles in the opening minutes, he claps and hollers from the side as Green and Noah's mother look on with pride.
"You've got to get out of that corner," Noah bellows when one player gets stuck in no man's land, "like Mr. Green always says."
When another player throws up a shot at the buzzer that bounces around the rim three or four times before finally dropping, Noah races onto the court and picks up the kid as if he's his little brother. The kid has a big smile on his face as his arms and legs dangle in the air.
"Ahhhhhh!!!" Noah screams.
In terms of comedic value, however, nothing on this day tops what happens when one of Noah's players makes a play under the basket near the bench that the NBA big guy is hovering over. Noah, in typical exuberance, walks over near the basket to congratulate the kid and pat him on the backside. A few moments later, one of the referees blows the whistle and Noah, at his own charity event, is given a technical foul for being out of the coach's box.
"I'm really passionate when it comes to this basketball stuff," he says with a laugh a few hours later. "But I think it wasn't well-deserved. I stepped onto the court. This referee really thinks that this is an NBA game. I told him this wasn't the NBA playoffs, we're coaching 12-year-olds. He didn't think that was funny at all. He didn't find it amusing. He gave me a tech."
The episode underscored one of the many reasons Green loves Noah so much. He sees a lot of himself in the 25-year-old. That's why he was so proud of him for standing up to LeBron James in December when the former Cavaliers star started dancing around Quicken Loans Arena during a Cavs blowout. Noah perceived it as showing up the Bulls.
"He's his own man," Green said. "He doesn't lie. He tells it like it is, and that's the best way to be in this world."
But the old coach realizes that there are times when it's better to say nothing at all. "Like I told him a couple months ago, I learned in my older years, keep your mouth quiet sometimes because it gets you in trouble," Green said. "My mother used to always tell me that. You can't say [everything that comes to mind]. You can't do that, but he still does it. So he'll be like me. I hope he learns quicker than I did. It took me 55 years. I just started being cool for the last five years. I keep my mouth [shut]. I listen now. I don't say nothing to nobody. It could hurt you."
Maybe down the line Noah will take Green's advice, but right now he is content to keep living -- and speaking -- the same way he always had. He has a message that he wants to get across to all the kids who are sharing the day with him.
"It's all about not being afraid to be different," he says. "Being able to express yourself. Those are two things that are very important.
"That's the message I give them. It's not good to be a follower. I think New York City and the city of Chicago, they're tough places to grow up. There's a lot of distractions out there in the streets. They're tough places to make it because there's a lot going on. So I think that it's just important to be comfortable with who you are, but not be afraid to express yourself and be different. There's nothing wrong with being different."
As the final game of the day wraps up and all the campers start to file out of the gym, a small group gathers around Noah near the bleachers. Family and friends are ready to go to dinner at a local Greek restaurant, but they are just going to have to wait. Everybody wants an autograph and a picture, and Noah is happy to oblige. The day has been a success, and if Noah has his way, it's the first of many such days that will start to pop up at different locations for many years to come.
Noah is not the type of person who backs away from what he says or believes, so when he says that he wants to continue to help kids and be an influence in their lives, there's no reason to think he won't follow through.
"I think I've definitely matured a lot," he says. "I've experienced a lot. At 25 years old, I feel like I've been through a lot, but I have no regrets about anything. I feel like everything has been a learning experience, and I think it's helped me out with my game, and it's helped me out as a person just knowing what's important.
"As an NBA player, a lot is thrown at you at an early age, and that's something that a lot of people don't understand. At the same time, I wouldn't have it any other way. I think that I have a great life, and I feel real privileged, and that's why I feel like it's important to help the kids out."
Noah would be the first to admit that he hasn't always made the right decisions. In 2008, he was charged with possession of marijuana and having an open container of alcohol while back in Gainesville, Fla., where he attended the University of Florida and helped lead the Gators to two national titles. But Noah understands that he has the ability to become a positive influence, and he will try to steer kids away from some of the mistakes he made while he was growing up.
"There's a bigger picture to me," he says. "It's not just about the basketball game, I think that there's definitely more to it.
"I definitely want to emphasize the importance of education, and I think all those things are going to happen as the years go on and [the foundation] gets bigger."
That's music to the ears of some of the people who will benefit the most from Noah's continued involvement.
"Kids come here, city kids, what do they do? They play basketball," said Terry Hughes, the executive director of the Variety Boys & Girls Club in Queens. "So to have an NBA player and a kid who grew up in New York City, a kid who grew up coming to the Boys & Girls Club, to have him come back and see him is unbelievable. It's a positive. The negative is [kids] all think they're all going to be like him and [that] it's easy to be like him. And it's so hard. It's such a long shot to do it, so keeping it all in perspective is something we try hard to do.
"We want the kids to have fun and enjoy it, but we got to make sure we put it in perspective, and we try to make sure when these guys come in here, they talk about those [key points]. You got to go to school, you got to get out of high school, you got to go to college, and some of these kids aren't even thinking about school at all."
Noah and Green are trying to change that.
"These kids can't afford to pay $600 to an organization, so we take care of that by paying [for] their education," Green says of his program. "As long as they have good report cards and do the right thing.
"Our program is different; we don't look for superstars; we look for kids that want to play basketball, and then we make them into superstars, and then they're going to go on and get their education. I always tell kids, 'Don't let the ball use you, you use the ball.' I don't care if none of these kids go to the NBA, I just care if they get a good education and go to college and then come back. I'm getting old now. I'm 60, I can't do it [forever]."
Noah truly wants to help kids -- a revelation that might come as a surprise to people who see only the ranting maniac he becomes at times on the floor.
"I think we all get misunderstood at one point or another," Rodhe explains. "When you have a huge personality like Joakim has, and when people don't see his huge heart and all the aspects of him as a person, they just see a rage on the court, or one moment or one aspect of his intensity, it could be misunderstood. But that's part of life, too; maybe those people who criticize us are our teacher. You never know that. So you should never take it personally, but also try to understand what it is to make people misunderstand you and work on yourself."
Love him or hate him -- and clearly people do one or the other when his name is mentioned -- one thing is clear about Joakim Noah on this particular day in Astoria, Queens: he's growing up. And whether you believe him or not, he really doesn't care.
"It's not something that bothers me too much, and it's not something I think about too much," he says of the public perception that surrounds him. "I think there's nothing wrong with being misunderstood. I'm confident, and I know I'm doing the right things. I'm trying to do as much stuff for the kids, and I think that's something that's important to me.
"But in terms of being misunderstood, I really don't care. As long as I know I'm doing good things from the bottom of my heart, that's all that matters. As long as my family knows who I am, and the people that I love know who I am, they respect what I do, that's all that really matters to me."
For Rodhe and the rest of the people who have ridden life's roller coaster with Noah, the growth on and off the floor is a source of pride.
"I'm going to be like Tom Cruise, I'm going to jump on the sofa," Rodhe says with a laugh, trying to explain it all. "It's a blessing. Of course I'm proud, but it's more than that. It's a blessing. It's almost like a gift that's supposed to happen to bring something else. This whole thing happening here today is part of that continuation. It's like the river, it moves on. When he was 9 and he did something incredible, I was as proud then as I am now.
"It's not because he's an NBA star and it's a whole different kind of environment, I feel the same. And whatever happens in 10-15 years, as long as he's a good person and he keeps evolving, in his consciousness and being a good mensch and wants to be somebody who wants to help others, and being aware of what's going on around him, well, that's what I want as a mother. That's more important than being an NBA player, which of course I'm very proud of, but it's not the end of Joakim Noah; I think it's the beginning."
Nick Friedell covers the Bulls for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.