Gratitude. It was the primary energy exuding off a reinvigorated, sweat-slick Joakim Noah as he stood for a weekend Zoom call with reporters after his second bubble practice as a Los Angeles Clipper.
Gratitude to be working during a time when he said “there’s not a lot of hope.” Gratitude for the opportunity to again inspire, playing the game he loves. Gratitude for his basketball career breathing another life. Gratitude for the opportunity to compete for a championship with the team that, just under three weeks away from the restart, owns the third-best record (44-20) and title odds in the league.
“I feel really blessed to be in this situation. In September, I had a freak accident and cut my achilles,” Noah said, referencing an incident in which he sliced his achilles — crucially, not rupturing it — while carrying a steel ice tub, which required six-plus months of rehab. “And you know I told myself that's just not how I wanted to end my career. So the day after the surgery I was in the gym working out, with the hope of making this team.”
When the league paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Noah was less than a cup of coffee into a 10-day contract with the Clips, a product of hard work to get back in playing condition after the injury. That pact hung in limbo during the hiatus, which he said he spent hunkered down with family and training with longtime friend Laird Hamilton.
Then, upon the opening of the transaction window in the last week of June, the Clippers converted that 10-day deal into one that runs not only through the end of the 2019-20 campaign, but 2020-21, as well, per The Athletic’s Jovan Buha. Before Noah’s aforementioned achilles injury, the team had him in for a workout in September, but the accident forced him out of consideration for a roster spot — for a time. Noah’s focus never wavered.
“I knew that if I didn't keep training, and if I got a call from the Clippers and I wasn't ready, I knew I would have the regrets for the rest of my life,” Noah said. “So I kept training, and to be in this position right now, I feel very fortunate to be in this position. Being with God, great players, being in a position to win a championship. It's not something that I take for granted.”
Indeed, Noah’s never been one to take anything for granted. His nine-year tenure with the Bulls was defined by his relentless motor on the floor and relentless leadership off it — by both words and example. Currently slotted as the Clippers’ third-string center behind starter Ivica Zubac and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrell, his voice may be the most valuable asset he brings to the team, which, while uber-talented, is headlined by two stars with gentle, if not reserved, leadership styles in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Jo brings the fire.
“He looks great,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “I don't know if this stoppage has helped any single player more than him, because he was not healthy when we signed him, and now he is. And so, you know, I think he's gonna help us on the floor, but even if he doesn't, he's just gonna help us with his presence, and his voice. I think he'll be invaluable for Zu(bac).”
To Rivers’ point, his defensive prowess could come in handy on the court, as well. Though an exact role for Noah hasn’t been publicly prescribed as of yet, outside of Zubac and Harrell, the Clips are bereft of much in the way of traditional bigs; they typically staff their frontcourt with one of those two and a blend of Marcus Morris, Patrick Patterson, JaMychal Green and Leonard. Potentially up against a murderer's row of frontcourt towers in the Western Conference — from Anthony Davis to Nikola Jokic to Rudy Gobert and beyond — you could do worse than a former Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-NBA center as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.
Yes, those days are long behind Noah. But the last time we saw him on the floor, he more than proved he has something left in the tank, averaging 7.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 “stocks” in just 16.5 minutes per contest across 42 games for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2018-19. The heart, hustle and muscle that endeared him to Chicago lives.
More than half a year of rehabbing that achilles distances us from even that player. But Noah’s made it this far. Who’s willing to count him out now?
“I'm a guy who's been through a lot in this league. I've been on the outside looking in a couple times, as well,” Noah said. “So I think that just being here is just, especially for the younger guys, is just not taking these opportunities for granted.
“I just feel like now it's just working hard every day, competing and whatever my role is on the team is just, you know, being a positive piece.”