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Inside Look: The intriguing life of Joakim Noah

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Inside Look: The intriguing life of Joakim Noah

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011
3:19 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

PORTLANDId be lying if I said that when I first watched Joakim Noah play basketball, I thought hed develop into a top-five NBA center for a championship contender. In fact, I wasnt sure Noahthe son of former tennis star and current rock star Yannick Noah; he was also more famous for being a ball boy at the vaunted ABCD Camp for high school All-Americans before he was finally selected to play in the event before his 12th-grade yearcould play college basketball for a major program. I wasnt alone in my opinions.

Not a lot of people believed in Jo when he was playing. Nobody thought hed be a good player, recalled Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney, who recruited Noah when he was an assistant coach at Villanova, his alma mater. When, Id say, Hey, Im going to see Joakim Noah play at LawrencevillePeople would say, That kid? Hes just all right.

In terms of skills, that was a correct assessment. A gangly, uncoordinated high school prospect, Noah was far from a blue-chipper during his prep days. He still played with his trademark energy and enthusiasm, but he wasnt close to a finished product.

When I first observed Noah in AAU competition, I did think he could be a productive college playerat the right level, most likely in the Atlantic-10 Conference or a lower-level Big East program. A summer later, he continued to grow on me and I was sold after seeing him outwork higher-ranked and more skilled players. By this time, he was considered an upper-echelon recruit, though still not a star.

He would have changed our program if he had gone to Villanova because he has all of the characteristics that you want in a big man, Pinckney told CSNChicago.com. The thing that stood out to me about him was communication on the court. He was yelling, screaming, Watch the screen! I got your man!

I had never seen a big guy play with this much energy in a long time, he continued, thinking back to a specific tournament in New Jersey in which Noah participated. You could hear him in the gym all the way in the upstairs portion where I and the other coaches were watching, and there were three games going on all at once. This dude was all over the place.

Noah eventually signed with the University of Florida and while he didnt immediately stand out as a freshmanplaying behind then-senior and fellow future pro David Leethere were signs he was only scratching the surface of his talents.

Florida head coach Billy Donovan allowed him to use his full skill set, noted Pinckney, a long-time NBA veteran and former college national champion. I always felt that because of the position and having played the position, big guys develop late. I knew he was going to be good; I didnt know hed be a first-round pick or lottery guy.

In his freshman year, we played them in the NCAA Tournament and he was only in for a little bit, and probably didnt play as well as he could have, but still was very active and impacted the game, continued Pinckney, whose Villanova team beat Florida that season. The next year when we played them, when we were watching the film the night before, it was frightening. We were saying to each other, How are we going to score?

We couldnt get a shot off. Randy Foye and Allan Ray, all these guys that got drafted and went to the NBAwere talking about guards, who routinely get to the basket, blow past big men and score at the rimthey couldnt even drive past him, let alone finish.

Noah, of course, would go on to lead his Gators squad to the national championship as a sophomore and again as a junior before declaring for the NBA Draft and being selected by the Bulls. His rookie season, however, didnt go so smoothly, as the pro level wasnt as easy for him to conquer as the college game.

I think the jury was out that first year. I think on top of all the struggles he had on the court, he had injuries, too, said Pinckney, who was by then coaching with the Minnesota Timberwolves. His shot became the focus of talk about his game, instead of his shot-blocking and rebounding abilities. Hes overcome all of that to become a pretty good shooter from the perimeter, a very good free-throw shooter and an elite-level offensive rebounder. From the first season to the second season, he made huge strides.

Instead of whispers he was overrated, a malcontent and a potential bust, Noah became a Chicago fan favorite in his second campaign, capped by his pivotal role in the now-legendary Bulls-Celtics epic seven-game first-round playoff series. Last season, he further emerged, becoming one of the leagues premier rebounders, a defensive force, a much-improved offensive player and again, a postseason lightning rod with his controversial commentsnever a shrinking violet, his charisma makes him loved in the Windy City and hated elsewhereabout the city of Cleveland (his early-season dust-up with former Cavaliers superstar LeBron James didnt help matters there).

Heading into the current Bulls season, Noah inked a long-term contract extension with Chicago, extinguishing rumors hed be dealt for the likes of Carmelo Anthony. Having further strengthened his once-spindly frame and polished his outside shot in the offseasonpreviously a weaknessas well as thriving in new Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus system and briefly leading the league in rebounding, the teams emotional leader appeared to be on his way to his first All-Star appearance before being sidelined in December following surgery on his right thumb.

I think he has all the tools to be a great player. I dont think theres any question he will be, just because there arent many bigs that play with that type of intensity. He just plays so hard, its just a matter of time until everything comes together for him, Pinckneylike Noah, a New Yorkergushed. Barring injury, I dont think theres any question. He just plays so hard. That, to me, alone is his greatest skill.

Youre always trying to get guys to play with energy. You dont have to do that with him.

Traveling with the Bulls on the teams current five-game road trip, Noah can be seen before games, working out with Bulls assistant coach Rick Brunson and occasionally veteran reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, pushing himself through grueling drills before retreating to the opposing arenas weight room.

He works to exhaustion. He tries to take his frustration out in his workouts, observed Pinckney. All that energy he has bottled up inside, he lets it all out.

In some ways, he might still believe hes that kid that so many people doubtedincluding yours truly. Im just glad I changed my mind early.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Thad Young on the challenges of being a father in a racially unjust world

Thad Young on the challenges of being a father in a racially unjust world

Before getting to Jim Boylen’s future, the anticlimactic end to the Bulls’ campaign and the NBA’s unprecedented 22-team play-in format to finish its 2019-20 season, Thad Young had to address the full context at hand for his conference call with reporters.

For Friday marked the 11th day since George Floyd, a black man, died after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine straight minutes. The killing has sparked mass unrest, protests and fervent discourse around racial injustice and police brutality across the globe. The world also continues to grapple with the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered the NBA on March 11, and the rest of the United States (where the virus has killed over 100,000 and counting) soon after.

“I know we’re stuck in unprecedented times where we’re in the house during COVID and then the thing that happened with George Floyd and social injustice,” Young said before fielding questions on the call. “I just want to make sure to let everybody know that I hope everybody is safe and healthy with our families, and make sure we’re holding each and every one of us close and try to get through these tough times…”

Young, 31, is currently bunkered down in his family’s new home in Texas with his wife, Shekinah, and two sons. Parsing through the realities of a racially unjust world with his sons, to hear Young tell is, has been a balancing act.

“When they come up with a question, it’s very hard to answer that question because I don’t want them to have to grow up and fear for their lives or have to grow up and understand that they can’t do the same things that other people are doing,” Young said. “That’s one of the toughest things. You want to give your kid the world. You want to get them to understand that, ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want to do.’ In these times, it’s just not the same. You can’t do everything that somebody else is doing. 

“If I’m going to be specific about it, the black kid can’t do everything that a white kid is doing. Those are things that are very, very tough to talk about. But it’s a harsh reality and we have to talk about them. My kids are still young, six and nine. They understand certain things that are going on, but not entirely everything. 

“For me as a father, that’s probably one of the toughest conversations to ever have with your kids. They all have questions because there’s so much stuff on social media and so much stuff on YouTube, which is what all the kids are watching now. When they see a video pop up with different things that happened… My youngest son, he asked the other day, ‘Why did they kill that man, Daddy?’ It’s hard for me to answer that question because you don’t want to push him into the harsh reality of what it is. But you have to answer those tough questions and you have to have those tough conversations with your kids. It’s definitely hard. What happened is definitely saddening for me but it also scares me to death because I have two young boys.”

Sadder still because the direct onus of those difficult conversations falls on black families far more than their white counterparts. It’s a testament to how ingrained racial biases (at best) and racist practices (at worst) still are, even today.

The hope of Young, Zach LaVine, who spoke on an earlier call, and countless others calling and fighting for change, is that a new dawn is on the horizon. Whether substantive change comes to fruition remains to be seen, but Young emphasized that resolution will come through unity.

“It’s so early right now just to see if there’s going to be change. One of the things that I do see is we have some unity coming,” Young said. “We have some people who are getting together. We have these protests. People are coming out and letting their voices be heard. You have a lot of celebrities and very, very influential people who are following suit. The good thing is we have a lot of people who are speaking up for change and speaking up for freedom and peace. 

“We’re bringing more and more people together. One of the biggest things is to continue to do that. Continue to let our voices be heard. Stay together. Stay unified. And also make sure we do what’s right and steer everybody away from doing what’s wrong.”

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Zach LaVine explains decision to vote, thoughts on fight for social justice

Zach LaVine explains decision to vote, thoughts on fight for social justice

At a rally to address social justice issues in Seattle on Thursday, Zach LaVine made both an important plea and a notable admission.

“Go vote,” he said, via a video from Percy Allen of The Seattle Times. “I haven’t been able to go and do that yet, but coming this November I am going to, because I know it’s gonna change something.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, which has sparked global unrest and protests, many have voiced the need for change, unity and concerted action to combat police brutality and injustice. LaVine added to that chorus (and past comments of his own) on a Friday Zoom call with assorted media. 

He also confirmed that he’s never voted before, but made it a point to explain the evolution of his involvement in politics in his comments.

“It (voting) just wasn’t something that I was hip to,” LaVine said. “Obviously, I know that you have the right to vote, but everybody doesn’t have to. With what’s going on, I think it matters a lot more now, at least to me, because I think every single vote counts. Before, I wasn’t educated at all on it. I’m trying to educate myself now more on the politics and what goes on and how things are voted on. So just taking action in my own community and trying to do my part is the reason why I’m moving forward with that.”

LaVine went on to encourage others to educate themselves — as he has and continues to do — on issues that resonate with them and act on them at the ballot box.

“Go out there and not just vote for presidency but things in your own community, as well,” LaVine said. “Because everything that you vote for can make a change and put those people who are in power to hear your voice and help make that change, as well. Educating yourself, making sure that we're all together, because what's going on isn't right.”

Action outside of the electoral process can manifest in different ways for different people. For some, it’s seeking out education on topics once unfamiliar to them. For others, it’s speaking out — whether it be in their own social niches or on social media. For one person, it might mean donating. For another, it might mean protesting. 

Whatever one’s personal preference or capacity, LaVine is imploring any and all allies to the cause to get involved, now more fervently than ever.

“This has been going on for a long time. I think the video cameras shed light on a lot of things, what's been going on with the world and police and different things like that,” LaVine said. “I think now that we're starting to get this platform for all athletes and entertainers to use our platform for good, and I just want to continue to go out there and share that, as well. There's going to have to be some type of movement, and maybe it might not be this generation, it might be the next, but you know, it can't continue to be this way.”

LaVine’s advice for those looking for ways to take action was all-encompassing, and centered on being unabashedly yourself.

“Educate yourself. Be active. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be different either. Go out there and try to make a change even if you have an opinion and you’re the only one in the room talking,” LaVine said. “Don’t be afraid of that, because I think now with what’s going on, everybody has a certain opinion and now that everybody is talking, it’s OK to have that opinion. If something settles down and you’re the only one with an opinion, I think it’s a little bit harder for someone to speak up. So don’t feel scared about that. And go out there and do what’s right for you.”

He also parsed through the complex nature of the protests, which have in some instances featured looting.

“Everybody has a voice right now and we’re bringing attention to it, to where we have to be heard,” LaVine said. “Some of the negatives, obviously there’s a lot of frustration, not just in the black community but a lot of communities, where looting and things are going on. And you have to understand everybody’s situation. 

“For me personally, I don’t like looting and stealing, but if that’s a way for people to get their frustration out, that’s how it has to be. But it’s not being portrayed that way. It’s being portrayed as the black community is looting when that’s just the way of frustration and getting things out. And the black community isn’t the only one looting. The TV has their own narrative and they’re going to share their own narrative so we’ve got to be careful about that.”

The Bulls, according to LaVine, recently assembled on a Zoom call to talk through their emotions in the wake of the events of the past few weeks, organized by Arturas Karnisovas. LaVine called it a “safe space,” and pledged continued action moving forward.

“Not everybody has somebody to talk to or they feel afraid to talk, so, a safe space to talk and I think moving forward we're obviously going to do something,” LaVine said. “I think the league's going to do something. But I think that's going to come at a time when we can get together and actually sit down and think of something that's powerful.”

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