NOW THAT THE BULLS HAVE LOST THEIR POINT GUARD (AGAIN) AND JETTISONED THEIR TOP SCORER, THE TEAM'S OFFENSE IS CONDUCTED BY A GANGLY CENTER KNOWN BETTER FOR HIS REBOUNDING AND DEFENSE. THE RESULT? A VIRTUOSO TOP FIVE MVP PERFORMANCE THAT HAS THE TEAM PEAKING AS THE PLAYOFFS BEGIN. THE STAGE IS ALL YOURS, JOAKIM NOAH
IN A rehearsal room on the fifth floor of the Civic Opera House in downtown Chicago, seven children sit in a row of green chairs, reading sheet music. They look like regular elementary school kids, most ranging in age from five to 12, wearing sneakers and talking hoops. Then they open their mouths. These are the honey-voiced prodigies, plus their understudies, cast as the Von Trapp offspring in Lyric Opera's upcoming production of The Sound of Music. Two and a half weeks remain until opening night, 2½ weeks to master every number. Their dulcet tones seep through the 85-year-old walls, to the delight of their conductor, their pianist and the 6'11" center for the Bulls, who happens to be slipping on his uniform in the dressing room next door.
Joakim Noah hears their soothing lilt, and though he is due onstage for a photo shoot, the cameras will have to wait. Noah follows the music. He ducks into the rehearsal room, decked out in his road reds, and the kids gasp and giggle. Even prodigies apparently get breaks to watch basketball. "Can you sing a little something for me?" Noah asks, and the giddy ensemble breaks into "Do-Re-Mi." Noah reacts as if Julie Andrews herself has joined the chorus. He listens to the high-pitched voices, enhancing one another, blending into melody. He nods knowingly. "Now, that's teamwork," he says. Instead of a polite theater clap, he erupts into raucous applause, waving his arms and bellowing a few operatic notes of his own. Worried that he has startled the children, he thanks them and wishes them good luck. The Sound of Music opens on April 25, six days after the NBA playoffs, so his showtime will coincide with theirs.
Noah is reluctant to pose here, in a gilded hall with three balconies and more than 3,500 seats, because he too is part of a larger cast. Even though he has grown up in the spotlight of American sports, he was always able to share it, first with his French Open--champion father, then with his precocious Florida classmates, more recently with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. Now, though, he is the bearded face of the Bulls—gap in the teeth, bun on the head—and without him they'd be counting Ping-Pong balls alongside the Bucks. He glances down at the orchestra pit. "Why don't those guys get love?" he wonders. He might as well be talking about unsung teammates Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. He fiddles with his lone piece of jewelry, a skinny bracelet made of green, yellow, red and black thread. "My colors," he explains, "from a little hippie girl I met along the way." The twinkle in his eye tells there has been more than one.
Noah stands apart from the NBA's bedazzled superstar set. You won't see him at Fashion Week. You may, however, catch him at a backwater beach off a dirt road, slugging a Corona with one of those hippie girls. Noah is a towering paradox, intensely laid-back, ferociously chill. He brings such windmill energy to the court that he sometimes resembles one of those massive inflatable figures mounted outside superstores, elastic body contorting wildly in the sky. Then he retreats to his estate in the suburbs with the hammock and Swedish sauna. "Have a glass of red wine," he says, "burn a couple candles, put on some Erykah Badu." He belongs in this opera house for the simple reason that he is the rare pro athlete who might come back.
"Music is tied to everything for me," he says. He relates to old reggae—think Bob Marley and Barrington Levy—because it contains a familiar duality. "People think reggae is such happy music, but really listen to the lyrics," Noah urges. "It's about empowerment. It's about uniting people. It gives me strength on the floor." A pregame sample of young Bob, with an N.O.-Xplode energy drink, is enough to propel him through the United Center roof.
His exuberance was inherited, he believes, passed down from a grandfather named Zacharie Noah who played professional soccer in Cameroon when he wasn't working at a factory. "The only black man on his team," Joakim says. "A defensive sweeper, a go-getter, a beast." Zacharie's son, Yannick, took the same qualities to the clay. "Didn't have a great forehand or big backhand," Noah says. "Serve and volley, chip and charge, slice and go to the net, an aggressive style, a wild man." Joakim is the hardwood equivalent. "Basketball is the only thing I can really concentrate on," he continues. "Otherwise my ADD kicks in really fast. In school, on every report card, the teacher would write, 'Dreamer; mind is always somewhere else.' I got kicked out of preschool because the teacher said I was dreaming too much. My mom actually thought that was pretty cool."
Noah's passion is as celebrated as Tim Duncan's footwork and Chris Paul's vision, but equally reductive. Depicting him purely as a 29-year-old "hustle guy" does him no justice. It took more than chase-down blocks and primal roars to become the best playmaking center in three decades—a floor general and rim protector all at once—whose versatility prompts one NBA assistant coach to remark, "I haven't seen anything like him since Bill Walton in '77."
Yes, Noah still treats every trip downcourt like a 30-yard suicide and every loose ball like a treasured African artifact. Blue-collar defense—hard shows and crisp rotations—used to define him. But there is increased artistry to what he does, turning rebounds into rollicking fast breaks and passing from the high post as if he's picking out slot receivers at Soldier Field. There is music. He can't pretend to be just a grinder anymore. Like it or not, he's a performer.
Noah agrees to pose for the pictures. He turns his attention to the words. "Make it weird," he says.
THIRTEEN DAYS before the playoffs, Uki and Miles went into the forest. To know Uki, you must call a surfer in Alaska before he catches a seaplane to the Tordrillo Mountains, where he will land on a frozen lake and snowboard across a range that is still volcanic. "My daughters started calling him Uki because he looks like a eucalyptus tree," says Laird Hamilton, the most acclaimed big-wave surfer ever, a slayer of 60-foot swells. Noah met Hamilton in Los Angeles, where most unpredictable unions involving famous people are forged, after the Bulls lost to the Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. "I was really down," Noah recalls, "and I was partying a lot. The first thing Laird ever asked me was, 'How is the balance in your life?' I was like, 'Well, I'm going to Vegas tomorrow!' He told me, 'If you're going to Vegas, that's cool, but do you have a trip afterward where you'll spend some time in nature?' I thought that was an interesting question."
Now the two train every off-season in the pool at Hamilton's Malibu home and on his private beach. They even surf together, with mixed results. But they work as much on the mind as the body. "I tell Uki, 'The more time you spend in these big buildings with all these people yelling your name, the more time you need go into the forest and be alone,' " Hamilton says. " 'You have to seek out solitude and your connection with the planet. Otherwise there's an imbalance, and the teeter-totter will tip.' " Noah understood. When he was a boy, his dad jogged in the woods near Paris, and Joakim rode his bike next to him. In high school they ran through Central Park at sunrise.
Noah searched for new sanctuaries. During the season, after games are over and the crowds are gone, he'll occasionally walk to the top row of the arena and sink into the cheap seats. Even his halftime interviews resemble fireside chats, Noah lounging in a folding chair as the sideline reporter gathers her bearings. Summer travels take him to France, Sweden and Cameroon. He sits in the sand on Baldwin Beach in Hawaii and buys street art from a vendor named Rico on the Venice boardwalk in L.A. But sometimes he really does need a forest, which is how he wound up in the preserve near his house on an April Sunday with his sequoyah shepherd, Miles.
"This is my favorite time of year," Noah says. "I look at the leaves. Listen to the birds tweeting. Think about the playoffs. I think about it more than I should. I visualize who we're going to play against, what it's going to be like, how it's going to feel.... The fun part is about to start. It's not assured that we're going to win. It's not assured that we're going to get out of the first round. But we're going to compete our ass off. We aren't scared of anybody." No one can go from bird-watching to trash-talking as quickly.
Never mind that Rose is out for the season, that Deng was traded or that their leading scorer, point guard D.J. Augustin, has played for four teams in the past two years and was waived by the Raptors four months ago. No one wants to draw the Bulls. "You talk to people in Miami, in Indiana, and they don't want any part of those guys," says an Eastern Conference scout. "They don't quit. They don't rest. Noah won't let them take one play off. Even if you beat them, it's going to be draining and it's going to be painful." There will be scores in the 70s, elbows in the ribs, applause in the face. Welcome to Chicago. "I don't think our style would work everywhere," Noah says. He is riding in the backseat of an SUV on Interstate 94, stockinged feet up on the console, gazing at the graffiti adorning his adopted hometown.
Noah thinks about the kids at the Major Adams Community Center on the west side, where his Noah's Arc Foundation runs after-school art and basketball programs at the center. "I mainly just listen," Noah says. "Kids here are really sad. They have a very tough mentality. Most of them don't smile. What they're seeing in Chicago, as opposed to 18- or 19-year-olds at war, is almost the same thing. I bet they have post-traumatic stress syndrome. I can't relate. I didn't come from that. But I'm trying to do something." He gives time. He gives money. He gives energy. "I think the way our team plays, so hard-nosed, represents our city," Noah says. "Everybody knows by now: We decide not to crumble."
He genuinely believed Chicago was going to win the championship this year. Then Rose tore his right medial meniscus in the 11th game, and a second straight season was lost to knee surgery. "I mourned," Noah says. "I felt like somebody died." The Bulls were 12--18 on New Year's and, upon emerging from their daze, sent Deng to the Cavaliers for draft picks and soon-to-be-released center Andrew Bynum. Noah mourned again. "You make a decision in that moment—you accept your fate or you fight," says Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau. He saw Noah help oust the Nets from the first round last spring despite a case of plantar fasciitis so severe that he could barely walk and some in the front office wanted to shut him down. "Jo doesn't let things fall apart," Thibodeau says. "It's not who he is. He finds a way."
THE NBA'S alltime leading scorer sits in a corner of the Chairman's Lounge, the VIP room at Staples Center, and pantomimes Joakim Noah's jump shot. He is not mocking it. He is extolling it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar cowrote a book about the Harlem Renaissance called On the Shoulders of Giants, which in 2011 was adapted into a documentary about the Harlem Rens, an African-American basketball power in the 1920s and '30s whose emergence paralleled that of the city's jazz scene. Abdul-Jabbar presented a screening in downtown Chicago, and afterward, Noah approached.
Abdul-Jabbar went to UCLA with Arthur Ashe, who discovered Yannick on a goodwill trip to Cameroon. "Arthur notices an 11-year-old boy hitting a ball with a wooden paddle," Joakim recounts. "Hands him his first racket, finds him a boarding school in France, pays for the boarding school, and writes him a note that says, 'See you at Wimbledon.' Six years later the kid is the best junior in France and Arthur invites him to play doubles at Wimbledon. That's how it all began."
Moved by that connection to Noah, Abdul-Jabbar invited him to train. Just like that, Noah had the world's foremost scorer in his corner alongside the top surfer, an eclectic combo that suited him. He met with Abdul-Jabbar two summers ago at the Jackson Center, nickname for the home of L.A. Gear chairman Steven Jackson, who built a replica of the Staples Center court on his Bel Air property. "Joakim didn't have a method offensively," Abdul-Jabbar recalls. "This is what I emphasized to him: If you can find a place on the floor where you make high percentage shots, your whole team will play off you. Ask Byron Scott and Michael Cooper. The defense will come to you, passing lanes will open, and you will get your teammates easy baskets."
Noah is uncomfortable with hook shots and cannot score reliably on the block. "You'll never be s--- in the post," former teammate Brad Miller told Noah early in his career, though the message was garbled by a mouthful of chewing tobacco. But now, in his seventh NBA season, Noah has discovered a sweet spot on the left wing, about 16 feet from the basket, where he makes about 45% of his jumpers, according to SportVU. "You have to respect it," says a scout. "You can't just sit back on him anymore." The shot has enabled the method. After Miller so delicately informed Noah of his offensive shortcomings, he provided some tips to compensate. "Play from the elbow," the 7-foot Miller said. "Pass to a cutter, or dribble-handoff, and if they cheat, then fake the dribble-handoff and drive to the basket."
Noah has always been able to handle the ball, dating back to his childhood in New York City, where 21 is the playground game of choice. "If you don't have a handle," he says, "you lose every time." Early in his pro career, though, that talent lay dormant, and for good reason. The Bulls had the most electrifying point guard alive. They didn't need their center taking his touches. Besides, Noah seemed so scatterbrained, Thibodeau could not count on him to remember and run plays. "We came from Boston," says Brian Scalabrine, who played for the Celtics when Thibodeau was an assistant. "Kevin Garnett would lock in like nobody else. When we got to Chicago, we had Jo, and he'd lose concentration after five minutes. We were like, Come on, man."
With Rose rehabbing last season, Thibodeau considered alternative playmakers and reviewed systems that featured passing big men: Rick Adelman's, Phil Jackson's, Pete Carril's. "We stole from everybody," Thibodeau says. He started flashing Noah to the high post, where he could fire a jumper, find a cutter, or hand off and set a screen. Thibodeau often chided him for holding the ball too long, but Noah averaged 4.0 assists, impressive for a center. This season, after Rose was again injured and Deng was unloaded, Thibodeau told Noah, "You're going to have to get better. You're going to have to do more."
Starting on Feb. 6, Chicago won 23 of 31 and Noah handed out 7.4 assists per game, more than the season averages of All-Star point guards Deron Williams and Kyrie Irving. Eight times he has had 10 or more assists, and once he reached 14, the first center to do so in 35 years. His overall assist average, 5.3, is the highest for a center since Vlade Divac a decade ago, and he is the first center to lead his team in assists since David Robinson two decades ago. The Bulls don't make a lot of baskets, ranking 30th in offense, but Noah assists on nearly a quarter of them, per basketball-reference.com. He threads so many sublime passes that Miller recently called to say, "You should throw one behind-the-back."
"Leave me alone, bro," Noah replied.
He still anchors Chicago's back line and looks like the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. But that's regular Jo. The secret to this season, on the court just as off, is balance. Noah is on pace to become only the fifth NBA center with more than 12 points, 11 rebounds and five assists a game. The others are Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. "He's the same person," Scalabrine says, "the kick-back reggae guy. He hasn't lost what makes him special and fun. But he locks in, almost like KG, and gets everybody else to lock in too."
Behind their spiritual center, the Bulls couldn't have tanked if they tried. Noah is making Rose's dimes and taking Deng's J's. He tosses lobs to the 6'9" Gibson and sets teeth-rattling screens for Mike Dunleavy. He lectures rookie Tony Snell on the art of the chest bump, which Snell bungled one night at Dallas, leaving Noah stranded in midair. "Tony is my guy, but I was really pissed," Noah says. "I don't think he was trying to be disrespectful. He just didn't know." There is no bright side to Rose's injury or Deng's departure, except their absence created a void that has made a better leader out of Noah. He shouts incessantly at the sideline for the next play, prompting Thibodeau to relay three at a time. "He can go a little crazy, but we keep him sane," says Gibson. "We tell him, 'Take a minute, relax, breathe.' "
The Thibodeau-Noah marriage is one of the most fascinating in sports, matching a hard-driving game-planner who spends his off days watching two tapes at once with an easygoing beachcomber who savors the spring leaves. "Thibodeau builds machines," says Trail Blazers guard Earl Watson, "and Noah is the engine." They have nothing in common except, of course, the most important thing of all. They both find a way. "We butt heads a lot," Noah admits. "The way I see the game and he sees the game can be totally different. I say Thibs is crazy, and he'll say the same about me. But he'll fight anybody to win, and I will too." Noah may never get Thibodeau up on a surfboard, but he does bring out the coach's holistic side. "He's fighting us, fighting us, fighting us, but this year he's opened up to us a lot more," Noah says. "He'll ask how we're doing, not just physically, but mentally. He'll ask what we're feeling, what we're thinking." The best basketball coach north of the Alamo sounds more balanced also.
They are heading into the forest, for as long as possible, Jo and Thibs and assorted castoffs you may not realize are still in the league. They won't sink many threes. Barring a surprise return by Rose, they won't score much. They won't deliver many highlights. But they will approach every possession with the bright-eyed dedication of those seven prodigies playing the Von Trapps. "Retaining youthful enthusiasm is an art," Hamilton says. "If you can be like a child in some ways, staying open and curious, you will never stop learning. You will never stop improving. That's something Uki showed me."
Noah's passion is celebrated, but he can't pretend he's just a grinder. He's a performer now.
"We aren't scared of anybody," Noah says. No one can go from bird-watching to trash-talking as quickly.
More realistic title contender: Rockets or Clippers?
CHRIS MANNIX: It's a point guard's league, and the Clippers have the best of the bunch in Chris Paul. But they also have Blake Griffin (above), who this year became so much more than the guy who jumped over the Kia. The 6'10" power forward has developed a dangerous midrange game; he was connecting on 36.5% of his shots from 16-plus feet at week's end, up from 32.6% last season. He was shooting a career-best 71.3% from the line, a strong number for the NBA's most-fouled player. If Griffin can duplicate that success in the playoffs, L.A. will finally have the reliable inside option it has lacked in the Paul era.
ROB MAHONEY: The Clippers, if only because they are a little bit more versatile and slightly healthier than the Rockets. Any playoff team would struggle if two starters were injured, though Houston is at a particular disadvantage in that the hobbled Dwight Howard (ankle) and Patrick Beverley (knee) are pillars of its team defense. That lends added importance to L.A.'s otherwise minor advantages. For one: The Clippers, whose offense is tied with Miami for first in the NBA (109.4 points per 100 possessions through Sunday), are better able to change their playing style, which helps in the playoffs. That's the benefit of having players as flexible as Griffin and Paul. Also, L.A.'s team defense has been sharper in its rotations, especially since the All-Star break.
BEN GOLLIVER: I see L.A. as a more developed and polished contender than Houston. The Clippers are better statistically on both sides of the ball, their All-Star duo has logged more time together, and they've steadily addressed rotation weaknesses by adding veterans Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and Glen Davis. Houston, on the other hand, is only in Year One of the James Harden--Dwight Howard pairing and will have to rely heavily on unproven young talent. If both Paul and Griffin can stay healthy and center DeAndre Jordan continues to play the best basketball of his career, the Clippers just might be able to sneak into the conference finals.
Which East team will crash the conference finals?
CHRIS MANNIX: The Nets. Could Mikhail Prokhorov's $190 million roster (including luxury tax penalties) deliver a championship? After a disastrous start—which featured a season-ending injury to Brook Lopez and coach Jason Kidd's dumping his top assistant, Lawrence Frank—Brooklyn is 34--15 since Jan. 1, the NBA's sixth-best mark over that span. The Nets have been nearly unbeatable at home and are 8--3 in games decided by three points or fewer. Yes, they have the NBA's second-oldest team, but they also have decades of playoff experience and two players, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (above), who believe they can beat anybody. Brooklyn will be dangerous.
ROB MAHONEY: The Bulls. The NBA's best defensive team gets the edge over the Pacers, who have looked vulnerable for months. Though Chicago struggles to score, ranking last in points (93.6 per game through Sunday), so does Indiana (96.7). That would seem to put both teams on an even footing in a seven-game series, but it's not wise to bet against the Bulls in that situation. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau can give his most important players big minutes without sacrificing on the defensive end.
BEN GOLLIVER: The Bulls. A career year from fringe MVP candidate Joakim Noah, not to mention that lock-down D, make them a good pick, but it's hard to get too excited about their prospects as a contender with an impotent offense and Derrick Rose out injured. New commissioner Adam Silver should seriously consider reseeding the 16 playoff teams by record, regardless of geography, so that the stronger West field could have a chance at placing three teams in the championship semifinals. Can you imagine the Spurs and the Heat battling in one matchup, with the Thunder and the Clippers facing off in the other? That would be infinitely more pleasurable than a final four involving any of the East's second-tier teams.
Who will be the breakout player of the playoffs?
CHRIS MANNIX: Jimmy Butler of the Bulls. The credit for Chicago's stunning second-half surge can be divided many different ways, but a good portion of it has to go to Butler, the third-year swingman who has filled the Luol Deng--sized void in the Bulls' lineup. Butler, 24, has become coach Tom Thibodeau's workhorse, leading the team in minutes (38.5 per game at week's end) and defending each opponents' top perimeter player. The extra work has taken its toll on Butler's shooting percentages (28.1% from three and a career-low 39.3% from the floor), but a TV-friendly playoff schedule (read: multiple days off between games) should keep Butler fresh and enable him to be more effective on offense.
ROB MAHONEY: Wizards point guard John Wall (above) has an opportunity to really surprise casual fans. Those who haven't been tracking Washington closely this season don't yet appreciate how skilled a playmaker Wall has become. He's not just an athlete who happens to play the point but also an emerging star with a real grasp of the nuances of how to distribute the ball. After four seasons in the league, this is Wall's time. He'll make his playoff debut bearing a lot of responsibility for Washington's success, and the fact that his Wizards could challenge the Pacers or Heat in the first round will attract an even bigger spotlight.
BEN GOLLIVER: James Harden of the Rockets. Already a two-time All-Star at 24, Harden begins his quest for superstardom now. The league's fifth-leading scorer (25.5 points per game) boasts Stephen Curry--like potential, as he has poured in 35 or more points 12 times this season. Houston should enjoy home-court advantage in the first round, and big numbers in a series victory would help erase the memories of Harden's poor performance in the 2012 Finals for the Thunder against the Heat. Kobe Bryant has been sidelined for most of the year and Dwyane Wade is slowed by nagging injuries, leaving the door open for Harden to make his case as the NBA's best two guard.
For complete NBA postseason coverage—including playoff predictions and end of season grades by Ben Golliver—go to SI.com/nba
Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG For Sports Illustrated
NOAH'S MARK Chicago's big man has done most of his damage a few miles from the Civic Opera House, leading the Bulls to an 18--7 record at the United Center since the New Year.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SI (HEADS, 2)
NOAH K. MURRAY/USA TODAY SPORTS (HEAD)
ROBERT BECK/SI (SHOOTING)
TAKING OFFENSE Since Deng was traded, Noah has been shooting—and scoring—more, with 13.8 points on 10.7 attempts per game.
MIKE DINOVO/USA TODAY SPORTS (NOAH DIVING)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GRIFFIN)
SIMON BRUTY/SI (PIERCE)
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SI (HEAD)
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SI (PASSING)
GAME FACES Noah is always expressive on the court, whether he's finding an open teammate from the high post or making another big man's life miserable.
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (DEFENSE)
[See caption above]
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (HEADS, 2)
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SI (HEADS, 2)
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (HEAD)
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (REBOUNDING)
HE'S A HANDFUL Containing Noah on the glass is a two-man job; he's sixth in the league in rebounding, at 11.2 per game.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED