- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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ATLANTA -- After they disposed of the Atlanta Hawks in desultory fashion Friday night, the Bulls got an even bigger treat in their locker room: the presence of Dikembe Mutombo.
The legendary center, and one of the more popular NBA players and certainly one of its best citizens before retiring in 2009, was in full Mutombo glory -- equally jovial and regal.
The 7-foot-2 Mutombo put his former assistant coach Tom Thibodeau in a playful headlock -- if you claim to have never seen Thibodeau smile, you should see him light up around Mutombo -- and moved around the locker room, greeting the Bulls with his familiar bass rumble of a voice.
Meanwhile, Scottie Pippen, the Bulls Hall of Famer who is just one of the guys now, was filling up a plate at the buffet.
While other guys chatted with Mutombo, Joakim Noah was overjoyed to see the Congo native. He stopped an interview in mid-sentence, jumped up from his seat and started speaking French to Mutombo, one of his role models, on and off the court.
Everyone talks about Noah's French background, or his teenage years in New York City and then Florida. His roots, however, are in the African nation of Cameroon. His grandfather Zacharie Noah, a former soccer player, still lives there. So it's not just a position he shares with Mutombo.
"All the African players in the league, we call [Mutombo] Monsieur Ambassadeur," Noah said with pride Saturday. "The guy's building hospitals. What more can you say? Who else is building hospitals? It's cool to see him. I was always a big fan of his, and he opened up a lot of doors to a lot of African players. You gotta show him some love."
Noah has a charity in New York, Noah's Arc Foundation, but he wants to do more on a global scale. Mutombo, for instance, built a $29 million hospital in Congo, raising much of the money himself.
"I'm an African player," Noah said. "I go back to Africa every year. I have a home there. You know my grandfather lives back there in Cameroon. There are obviously things I want to do, and when it comes to giving back and doing things in Africa, being able to network with Dikembe Mutombo, I don't think it gets much better than that."
Mutombo made his bones in his 18-year NBA career as a rebounding and shot-blocking machine. He's 19th all time in rebounds and second in blocked shots. And he had fun. His finger waggle after a block is still stuff of legend. Even Thibodeau was mimicking it in the locker room.
"That's what the original African player does, he blocks shots and he rebounds," Noah said. "Dikembe was kind of the pioneer of that, you know? And [Luol Deng] kind of switched it up a little bit, started shooting jump shots and stuff. African players don't usually shoot jumpers. We do the dirty work."
Noah lived up to that definition in the Bulls' last game. He grabbed 15 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass and blocked five shots -- three in the fourth quarter alone -- in the 99-82 win. He scored only two points, but he also added three assists and no turnovers.
Derrick Rose and his 44 points were the story of the game, of course, just as they should be. Still, it's no stretch to say Noah's anchoring of the defense will be just as important if the Bulls hope to close out the Hawks in the next two games and battle Miami (or Boston) in the Eastern Conference finals.
Rose exceeded his preseason hype. That fact makes it easy to forget this was supposed to be Noah's breakout season, too. He got off to a torrid start with double-doubles in his first six games. He scored in double figures in his first 18 games. Then came a thumb injury that cost him 30 games from mid-December to late February.
Since his return, he's had only six double-doubles as he worked himself back into tip-top shape, though he still averaged 11.7 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. In the playoffs, he's been very consistent rebounding, averaging 11.4 a game, picking up double-digit boards in six of eight games and mostly holding down his college teammate Al Horford.
Noah's "energy" is often described in an obvious, generic way, like saying, "Rose needs to score." And it's not totally accurate. Noah needs to harness his natural zeal so he doesn't muddle up the defense.
"I think the big thing for him, it's not only energy, but I think he has to concentrate," Thibodeau said. "When he concentrates and brings that energy, that gives him a special intensity. He has to do the two things combined. He can't just run around wildly or else he brings the whole defense down. When he's disciplined, he's a great multiple-effort guy. He played a great game, scoring two points."
As media-savvy as they come, Noah tries to brush off compliments or questions about his game, but he seems to be playing close to his potential. Thibodeau, who sometimes works out Noah one-on-one at the end of practices, said he thinks Noah is finally back in the right shape at the right time. He can feel a familiar excitement right now, harkening back to his championship days at Florida.
"I feel really good and it feels great to be competing like this," Noah said. "I feel like I work really hard in the offseason, and it was kind of an up-and-down season for me, with my injury and all that, and just to be in this position and playing at the level we're playing at right now, to be playing for something, that's huge. What more can you ask for?"
No matter what his stat sheet says, Noah will always be known for his appearance and his on-court histrionics, which he describes as "an emotional roller coaster."
Noah still has that scraggly beard, which has filled in pretty nicely, compared to his wispy trash-'stache of yesteryear, and rocks his long hair and, of course, his eclectic taste in clothes, all of which make him unique and confident.
Noah was dressing himself during a midcourt interview after the team's practice Saturday. Already wearing baggy shorts, he added a cerulean, almost see-through tank top and slip-on shoes adorned with a bikini-wearing woman bending over.
Just like every other player, right?
"What you see is what you get with Joakim," Rose said.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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