For Joakim Noah, it’s always been about the people.
It was true during his NBA career. It’s evident in his personal dealings.
And the sentiment was ever so poignant as the Chicago Bulls great addressed reporters on the night the franchise with which he spent nine seasons honored his career and impact at the United Center.
“It's very special to be able to share this with my old teammates and my family and have some closure and just appreciate the great memories,” Noah said. “It's just a great feeling just to see my dad with a smile on his face, my mom with a smile on her face and my kids. My kids didn't get to see me play here (in Chicago), and these were really special times, so I'm just really happy we had a moment like last night.”
Last night — Wednesday — featured a reception with a range of old Bulls fixtures, including Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller, Carlos Boozer and others. Some traveled from far away, like Thabo Sefolosha, who flew in from Switzerland, or Noah’s father Yannick, who jetted from Africa. Some (Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Tom Thibodeau) will occupy the opposing sideline Thursday night.
All left an indelible mark on Noah, and vice versa, regardless of time passed. Noah recalled a conversation with Kirk Hinrich — “Cap,” he still calls him — during the reception, in which he choked up remembering a blown assignment during the 2009 playoffs that resulted in a Ray Allen 3-pointer and a Celtics victory.
“We talked about it yesterday and I swear I had tears in my eyes just talking to him about it,” Noah said. “That's how much I cared about him.”
The sentiment extends to Bulls fans too. Noah attended a game in Michael Reinsdorf’s suite last season, when NBA arenas were empty due to COVID-19, but acknowledged it was important for his night of celebration to come with the United Center rocking.
“The energy of this place brought out a crazy side of me,” he said. “There were times in this building where I didn’t feel my legs when I was running up and down the court. That’s how hype I was, and you can’t replicate those feelings in anything else in life. That kind of adrenaline.
“Even just driving on Ogden (Avenue) right now and making that left (turn onto Madison), I was: ‘Oh my god.’ These feelings, they are hard to describe. I feel like it was really a blessing to be able to have that for [nine] years, was really special. It was strong.”
As revered a presence as he is amongst Bulls fans, Noah’s career never culminated in a championship. And his post-Chicago days presented plenty of adversity as he battled back from multiple severe injuries before eventually hanging it up for good.
Those experiences, though, have only served to make Noah reflective — not regretful.
“I shot every bullet in my gun, and I have no regrets,” he said. “I gave it everything I got.”
Without deep playoff runs to grind towards, Noah says he now deals with a lot less anxiety — and gets a lot more sleep. He fills his days by driving his kids to school, throwing himself into his work with the Noah’s Arc Foundation and NBA Africa, where he is again collaborating with Deng, and getting some much-earned rest and relaxation.
Noah’s foundation work, and recent elevation to team ambassador status with the Bulls, will have him in Chicago more frequently.
“I’m very excited to be back here. I felt we did a lot of good work in Chicago while I was playing here and now I have a lot of time,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about getting healthy or anything like that right now. I have time to be able to focus on the foundation and being an ambassador for the Bulls and sharing my experience and being of help.”
As for his basketball legacy? That, Noah says, is never what he played for. He said he doesn’t think “at all” about the prospect of the Bulls retiring his jersey number (13).
“To have a moment like this, to me is bigger than anything,” Noah said of spending Thursday night surrounded by family and friends.
He has no interest in entering the coaching ranks, even for the Bulls.
“To be a coach you have to be a little bit sick,” Noah cracked. “It’s never something I was attracted to, I was more interested in working with kids and things of that nature.”
He made sure, though, to commend both Billy Donovan and Thibodeau as father figures in his life. Donovan, he said, always emphasized living in the moment. Thibodeau, who he chided is “sick for sure,” impressed the importance of keeping his house in order.
“There are a lot of life lessons in basketball,” Noah said.
For him, it’s always been about the people.
Even if Noah is unconcerned with how he’s remembered, fans will always remember his heart-on-the-sleeve emotion and no-holds-barred playing style.
The games may be over now, but he hopes the true impact he leaves has just begun.
“I’m somebody who had some really good moments in the NBA. I’m also someone who had some really low moments in the NBA,” Noah said. “I’ve been really happy. I’ve been very embarrassed. I felt a lot of emotions in this game. I’m somebody who has a lot of experience. Hopefully I can share that with the younger generation and just be at peace.”