Bad moment for a (usually) good guy
Gay slur doesn't make Joakim Noah a bigot, but he clearly still has growing up to do
MIAMI -- Someday, presumably, Joakim Noah will be a wise old man, his ponytail streaked with gray, perhaps some grandkids gathered around him, and he'll tell them about all the life lessons he has learned.
He will tell them how he learned the hard way. And no one who remembers will argue.
Like the Chicago Bulls team assembled around him -- and, frankly, almost everyone else -- Noah needs life experiences to shape him. There is no adequate substitute for the kind of education that comes from simply going through stuff. You can only hope to survive the worst and somehow come out the other side the better for it.
Some people, however, seem determined to make their process more difficult. So while the Bulls are trying to sidestep the inevitable obstacles in their path to greatness, Noah tripped over a pebble Sunday night and came down hard.
He apologized again Monday for his anti-gay slur directed at a fan who he and teammates said was repeatedly hurling insults towards Noah during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat on Sunday night. The Chicago Tribune reported that Noah was responding to the fan's vulgar comments about his mother.
On Monday afternoon, the league responded with a $50,000 fine. Noah called himself "an open-minded guy" and said he lost his cool.
We can certainly believe both. The jig was up on the former with the seersucker suit. And as for the latter, there is no evidence to support the notion that Noah put any more thought into his comment than one would in shouting a nasty word upon burning his hand on a stove.
Furthermore, it continues to stink that some fans believe the price of a ticket buys them the right to be abusive morons.
"There are times when a fan like that ... honestly, I felt like jumping in the crowd," said Luol Deng, ever the supportive teammate. "We're human. The camera is not on that fan at all. I know Jo apologized and everything. People got to see it the other way, too."
That said, it's disappointing that Noah's maturation, seemingly an endless process early in his career, is still bumping along at age 26 and in his fourth season in the league.
He is still unnecessarily contemptuous at times in dealing with the media while the younger Derrick Rose, for example, is unfailingly patient and understanding of the give-and-take. And while Noah's role as energy provider is as clear as anyone's on the team, he is still given to disappearing too often, both physically and mentally.
In Game 3, Noah picked up his first foul six seconds into the game, his second halfway through the first quarter, and he hurt the Bulls further with 0-of-4 shooting, a single made free throw, five rebounds and two turnovers to go along with six assists and two blocked shots.
Asked how he defined the rather vague concept of "bringing energy," Noah responded, "Just doing whatever it takes to affect the game."
Now his greatest fear appears to be that a mindless slip in the heat of the battle will affect his teammates as the series progresses.
"That's what's disappointing about the whole thing," Noah said. "I don't want to be a distraction to the team."
Unfortunately, the gay slur story is likely to stick around beyond the one-day news cycle -- on websites and TV and radio talk shows and with advocacy groups that have the right intentions but only add to the disproportionate attention the incident deserves.
If the word itself perpetuates a prejudice, it is just as wrong to make a sweeping judgment of a man because of a playground insult that, however discriminating and insulting, was followed quickly with a seemingly sincere apology.
"Jo is Jo and it's his passion that makes him special," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He's an emotional guy, but I'd rather he stay under control with just passion. You guys have been around him. You know he's a great guy, and if he made a mistake, I'm sure he'll apologize for it and learn from it."
It was interesting and telling that Noah said he "did not want to hurt anyone's feelings," his words suggesting that his heart is in the right place.
"What I said wasn't right," he said. "I don't want to disrespect anybody. That's not what I'm about."
So the learning continues with the assumption that, one day, it will pay off.
Talking about his team, Thibodeau could have been speaking about Noah when he said, "Experience is a great teacher so I think the more we go through different things, the better prepared you are as long as we're learning and moving forward."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.